Playing sports- a pastime enjoyed by many but forbidden for women: the growing gendered apartheid in Afghanistan

Sofia Lopez Simpson is a second year International Relations student. Her hobbies and interests include playing the guitar and spending hours making spotify playlists.

“I don’t think women will be allowed to play cricket because it is not necessary that women should play cricket,” said Taliban’s cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq. Although hard to believe, this is one of the most recent laws undermining women’s rights, leaving more than 14 million women deprived of exercise, and sportswomen hiding in Afghanistan and fleeing.

After the US announcement to remove their troops from Afghanistan by 9/11, the Taliban have taken over the country, following the fall of Kabul on the 15th of August 2021. Although the group has said to not be radical and, as stated by Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, “our sisters, our men” would maintain the “same rights”, the policies being implemented prove otherwise.

The international community through the United Nations, European Union, and the Human Rights Council have released statements condemning the actions by the Taliban. The EU stated that “upon initial analysis of the names announced, it does not look like the inclusive and representative formation in terms of the rich ethnic and religious diversity of Afghanistan we hoped to see and that the Taliban were promising over the past weeks,”. Thus, this shows the present marginalization of vulnerable societies, especially women in Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan gained equality in 1964, when they helped draft the new constitution that allowed them to vote and work. However since the 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan, this equality has been hindered by the different rulers, leading to continuous oppression. The ongoing repression of women has worsened with the Taliban’s extremist Islamic beliefs, based on Deobandi fundamentalism, which follows the orthodox Islamism that states Sunni Islamic law will bring salvation and militant Islamism, encouraging violence on behalf of Islamism. Consequently, the future of women in the country is unknown with the introduction of new laws, prohibiting women from carrying out basic day to day activities.

This latest announcement from the Taliban undermines women’s rights to play sports, preventing them from being empowered, therefore portraying the overall deterioration of women’s rights and the creation of an apartheid between men and women in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are currently undermining women’s right to exercise, enhancing their existing disempowerment. The Taliban cultural commissioner, Ahmadullah Wasiq, stated in September that women should not be allowed to “play cricket”, proceeding to ban all women from playing sports in Afghanistan. This has led to women receiving threats, and the Afghan national female football team and their families to flee to Pakistan. All of this for carrying out a simple activity exercising. This ban is conflictual for many reasons. Firstly, women are not able to pursue their talents thus undermining their ability to act upon their aspirations and be motivated. Secondly, it excludes women from being patriotic, proudly representing their country in a sport they love, hence this marginalization poses the threat of women becoming invisible in Afghanistan and to the public eye. Thirdly, the action of playing sports, which releases endorphins, according to scholars Dinas, P.C., Koutedakis, Y. & Flouris, A.D can be linked with depression; therefore, playing sports can be crucial to providing a stable mental health to women and for them to be able to cope with the brutal life under the Taliban. Therefore, the ban will have a strong negative impact on women’s mental health, exacerbating their ongoing disempowerment and greatly worsening the apartheid between men and women.

The ban on women playing sports is just another example of the overall increasing oppression of women, building an apartheid between men and women in Afghanistan. The segregation of women in Afghanistan is leading to their disappearance, hence, their underrepresentation will mean all of the advances and battles fought for equality will have been in vain. The Human Rights Council has expressed their concern, and urged the Taliban to respect women’s rights ; this was followed by a statement released by the G7 saying “the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing… human rights; those of women, girls and minorities”. Although these statements show international unrest, it appears that there is little hope for actual action to enhance women’s rights in Afghanistan. Every day the Taliban states new laws preventing women from carrying out basic human activities and being present in their own country. For instance, besides being banned from playing sports, women have also been excluded from the country’s cabinet and cannot be ministers, reversing the 1964 constitution. Women are rapidly being put under a state of apartheid and the decades long fight for women’s rights in the country is being deeply hindered from making progress, rather it is going backwards. This Apatheid has led women to live in fear, and the uncertainty of their future is terrifying advocates for women’s rights and the international community.

Playing sports is seen as a natural human activity and Afghan women are being deprived of it. Even though there are several organizations working towards the empowerment of women, namely, Women for Afghan Women (WAW) or the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the marginalization of women in Afghanistan is leading to strong negative long-term consequences on women’s well-being, both mentally and physically. For instance, after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the main donor states started cutting down funding on Afghanistan programs which are crucial to promote women’s rights. Although it is unclear how these events will unfold, the growing belief of an apartheid between men and women is impeding the fight for women’s rights, and the inability of the international community to act upon these further fuels the apartheid, as women are becoming invisible, and hopeless.

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