“The women are ready (especially the younger generation) and the components
are there to take Afghanistan in a completely different direction. All we need is funding for special projects in education.”
– Khalida Popalzai, Afghani women’s rights activist
Thank you, Khalida, for the opportunity to interview you. It is a true pleasure to speak with a women’s rights revolutionary who is playing a key role in furthering women’s rights in Afghanistan.
You are 29 years old, were born and raised in Afghanistan, but fled the country two years ago due to the increasing threats you were receiving because of your highly successful efforts to bring women’s football to national prominence. Even after the fall of the Taliban, your efforts were revolutionary and you became a prominent women’s rights figure in Afghanistan. So much so, in fact, that you eventually needed to flee the country due to the increasing threats against your life.You are now living as a refugee in Denmark, yet your primary mission in life continues to be the empowerment and the creation of educational opportunities for women in Afghanistan – to “activate” them in your words. But before we get into your life’s mission, and the steps you intend to bring about it’s realization, I would like to begin by asking you to give a summary of how you got to be where you are today.
It all starts with football. I have always been passionate about football. After the Taliban regime fell, I joined a women’s team. Even though my teammates and I were taunted for playing a “man’s sport”, we continued to play on a NATO military base because it was the safest place we could play.In 2004, along with three other women, I started a women’s football club. We approached other women and encouraged those interested to join our club. The concept grew quickly and we needed to establish even more clubs. There are now over 24 clubs with 100’s of active players.In 2007women’s football became a part of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF). I eventually was selected by the AFF to play for Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team, as well as chosen by the AFF to be the head of the Women’s Football Committee.
And with your success both in football and being a vocal advocate for women’s rights, you eventually became a national figurehead. And that is when the problems intensified for you.
When I became very well known in Afghanistan for my efforts in football, I actually became a political figure in the Afghani media. To digress a little, there are now over 20 media channels in Afghanistan, so media is much more prevalent and diverse than it was under that Taliban. Anyway, as I became a bigger and bigger political figure in the media, I took the chance to be even more vocal about my support for women’s rights, or women’s rights through football.Due to football being known as a man’s game, it was a perfect opportunity to show that women can not only play football, but play it well.
But along with being a political figure for women’s rights, the downside was that I soon became a target for the more extremist elements of Afghani society that wanted to keep women suppressed. This is not only the Taliban. It is a wide part of traditional society as well. So it was not long before the death threats came.
I did not let this stop me, but as the death threats grew, I felt more and more alone and isolated. It just became too dangerous, so I left. I was not ready to die for my cause in Afghanistan because I feel that I have more work to do in promoting women’s rights there. I will do whatever it takes to activate our women, but for now, I will need to do it from Denmark.
And do you see reasons to be positive that women’s rights will continue to grow in Afghanistan, that you will someday be able to return?
Yes, absolutely to both questions.
There are a few key factors that make me positive.One of these is that media is promoting a healthier lifestyle. Because the media is informing people how to lead healthier lifestyles, the discussion turns to sports and physical activity, which will naturally increase interest in boys and girls to get out and play.
Another factor is that schools now have subjects covering how physical activities, or sports, lead to better health. Since football is the most popular sport in Afghanistan, it would be natural for people to play football as a way to remain physically active.
Yet another factor would be the younger generation itself, which is growing up much more curious about the outside world. Young people are craving education, are much more in tune with the various media, and want to be physically active. All of these factors are leading the younger generations to demand yet more media, education and sports.
The downside is that as women’s rights increase and women are even more empowered, extremist reactions against women increase as well. Sadly, women are always the primary targets of extremist acts of violence. This has been the case for the last three decades so it is a cultural phenomenon by now. That said,I strongly believe that to counter extremism, we need to focus on women and men’s educational opportunities, as well as facilitating a variety of sport activities for all, especially for football since that is by far the most popular sport in Afghanistan. These will need to be the focus areas for a long, long period of time, simply to engrain a new cultural identity within society itself.
From Denmark, how are you continuing your work to facilitate the increase of women’s rights in Afghanistan?
Several ways. I am working with the Danish organization, Cross Cultural Projects, as a project coordinator for the Afghanistan Project, with special focus on promoting women’s football. I am also working as a project consultant with Hummel International, which is a Danish sports apparel company, dedicated in part to social causes through sport. Hummel actually sponsors equipment for the Afghani women’s national team.I am also working as a volunteer for women who are currently residing in refugee camps in Denmark. Finally, I am still involved in coordinating activities for women’s football in Afghanistan, with specific focus on building international relations.
And now we have come to the part of the interview where you outline your vision and you objectives for the future. You are clearly still involved in many activities in Denmark on behalf of football, as well as women’s issues in Afghanistan. Are you comfortable where you are in Denmark, or do you have a bigger vision for the future of women in Afghanistan?
The most important step at this point is to activate the women of Afghanistan. Or shall I say reactivate the women, because 30 years of war has made women passive. So my vision is to play my part in a nation and culture where women are activated. The women are ready, especially the younger generation, and the components are there to take Afghanistan in a completely different direction. All we need is funding for special projects in education. I want to use this momentum from the younger generation, as well as from the increasing popularity and participation of women in football, to change the cultural identity of women in Afghanistan from one that continues to accept it’s current passive role, to being one that actively leads it’s own destiny.
Do you have any concrete plans to bring your vision to reality?
Absolutely. My next step is to work on projects on the ground in Afghanistan that facilitate the continuing education of women. As I have already said, education is a fundamental part of the development of a new cultural identity. Because of this, I want to focus on education for women. My main goal is to build a library, or a cultural house, where women can meet up, read books, have discussion groups and work on a wide variety of projects in safety. I want to have this in operation within 5 years. This is the first of many I would like to open, but even one will empower women beyond words.
In any case, all the necessary components are already there to make this a reality. This includes a widening network of women volunteers who have a clear vision, as well as the support of local governments. But like I have already said, all we are missing is the funding. In order to get the funding, I am making use of media to promote my vision, which is why I am having this interview with The Oslo Times. I also want to find an NGO I can trust to use funding in the most efficient way possible. I also need help from national governments to see the value in my plan. But I am highly positive this will become a reality. I’m in this for the long term.