Head of Afghan women’s football shares hopes for women, peace in Afghanistan

by Yuji Yamamoto, Staff Writer

Football (soccer) teams for women have been formed in Afghanistan, a country that has suffered from ongoing civil war and borne the brunt of U.S. military intervention. However, deteriorating security conditions, as well as prejudice and discrimination against women in a male-dominated society, are major barriers to the national women’s football team as they seek to improve their performance. Despite these difficulties, the passion and diligence shown by the players under such trying circumstances have inspired other Afghans in their quest for greater liberty. The Chugoku Shimbun discussed the challenges and hopes of women’s football in Afghanistan with Zohra Mehri, 28, the head of the Women’s Committee of the Afghanistan Football Federation, who took part in a training program in Hiroshima with the Afghanistan National Women’s Football Team at the invitation of the Hiroshima Office of UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research).

What problems does the national women’s football team currently face?
The first problem is the lack of female players, coaches, and referees. Because security in Afghanistan is poor, parents and families don’t permit their children to go out, let alone play sports. This is especially true when it comes to girls and women, and it’s very difficult for them to take part in athletics. Under the Taliban regime, even playing sports was prohibited. Recently, children playing volleyball were killed by the Taliban.

Although the situation has gradually improved, there’s still the deeply-rooted problem in Afghan society where women who enjoy playing football are unable to practice enough, or meet regularly to train, because martial law prevents them from leaving their homes.

The women’s football teams in Afghanistan also lack female instructors. The football federation is looking for instructors who can further motivate the players and provide professional coaching to develop their skills. The lack of supporters and sponsors is another problem.

What kind of work does the football federation do?
Among the 34 larger cities in Afghanistan, eight of them, including the nation’s capital Kabul, have football teams. In four of these eight cities, we hold annual football tournaments. We are now working to develop women’s football in other cities, too. However, it isn’t easy because of the lack of security. My responsibilities, as committee head, involve organizing training sessions to develop players and planning our overseas travels and football matches.

Why did you take on your role as head of the Women’s Committee of the Afghanistan Football Federation?
I’d like to help create a society where women are able to try anything. And in Afghanistan, only football brings a smile to people’s faces, so football is a “symbol of happiness and peace.” Before taking my current position, I worked for an international organization which seeks to improve the status of women. So when I saw the opening for this position, I applied for it. Because I had been on a women’s football team, I already was familiar with the sport. Now, while doing desk work, I’m able to create good communication with the players, and so the job is very satisfying. We also work together well with the staff of the football federation.

What have been your impressions of the training program in Hiroshima, the A-bombed city?
I hope that the same kind of support and assistance we received here in Hiroshima can continue in the future. If so, it would strengthen the players’ motivation and enable them to improve their skills. I’m very surprised to see how Hiroshima, which was destroyed by the atomic bombing 70 years ago, has been restored to the city that stands today. I hope that my country will follow in the footsteps of Hiroshima, which has been doing so much to promote peace, so that peace will be realized in Afghanistan, too.

Finally, I’d like to express my deep appreciation to UNITAR, the people of this beautiful and cultural city who have looked after us with such kindness and warm hospitality, and the people who worked hard to make our training time a success.

(Originally published on September 28, 2015)