Choices: Why the Future of Afghan Sports Must Concern the World
Tejusvi Shukla

News coming in from Afghanistan has been mostly unpleasant, rather concerning, for most of the country’s recent past – and most specifically since February this year. Amidst casting its shadow on all aspects of Afghan life – social, political, and economic – while humanitarian assistance and political-security chaos are the top talking points currently, questions surrounding the bleak future of Afghan sports have almost been relegated as low-priority. Desperate attempts of athletes fleeing Kabul, extinguishing hope of women’s participation in any kind of sport, and apprehensions regarding an environment for sports to flourish in general are unfortunate realities facing the troubled nation. If that weren’t enough, possibilities of imposition of a ban on the men’s national cricket team by the International Cricket Council (ICC) [1] has begun exacerbating the aforementioned concerns.

According to official statements, these steps are being considered by the ICC as a symbolic protest against the Taliban’s de facto ban on sports for Afghan women. Although well-intentioned – regardless of what the final decision might be – the repercussions appear way more nuanced than what is explicitly visible. Being among the most popular sport in the country, any event impacting cricket is bound to be felt by other athletes – thereby impacting not only the future of Afghan cricket – but more extensively that of Afghan sports, and Afghanistan as a whole. This includes its profound impact on the Afghan youth that is closely linked to the security situations within the country, and by extension in the region as a whole.

Background

When the Taliban last came to power in 1996, an effective ban on most forms of sports was imposed in Afghanistan. The Ghazi stadium – located in the national capital of Kabul – was turned into a facility used for public executions[2]. After the extremist regime was overthrown by NATO’s military intervention, sports re-emerged – so much so that it went on winning two Olympic bronze medals in 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics for Taekwondo. National team for cricket emerged from the refugee camps of Pakistan in the mid-1990s, developed, and currently figures among ICC’s top ten international teams. Young footballers started playing in the intervening 20 years between 2001 and 2021 won their first international match defeating Qatar in 2012. They further went on to become the founding member of the Central Asian Football Federation in 2015.

While things seemed tilting to the brighter side for sports in Afghanistan, political dynamics in the country changed early this year, and grave uncertainty replaced any glimpses of hope. To begin with, regarding women’s sports, while the official stand remains that they can continue playing given they play within the realms of Islamic law, statements from top Taliban officials have been signalling the other way. Citing violation of the Shariyat (Islamic law), Ahmadullah Wasiq, the deputy head of the Taliban's cultural commission, while speaking of women cricketers, was reported saying, "In cricket, they (women) might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this."[3] Regarding other sports, unlike its previous term, sports have not been banned for men, but anticipations regarding their future have led several athletes to flee the country. This has included especially women, seeking refuge in various Western countries as well as in Qatar and Pakistan. [4] The worst lot constitute the women athletes who have been unable to flee yet, and asked to “erase their past”[5] in order to stay safe from Taliban’s wrath. But, the most traumatising manifestation of this fear came when, in a desperate attempt to leave Kabul, among those who lost their lives while clinging on to a US aircraft was a member of the country’s national youth soccer team – Zaki Anwari.[6]

Amidst this absolute chaos, fear, uncertainty, and trauma, the Afghan men’s national cricket team qualified for this year’s T20 World Cup and its performance in the tournament has offered some ray of hope for a devastated country. Notable that the team registered under the old Afghan flag and national anthem – marking a statement of protest with moist eyes as the they sung the national anthem at the beginning of the tournament. But, as a consequence of the actions of the political regime in the country they represent, a possible ban on their game is being discussed. Under ICC’s official requisites for membership, not having a women’s team calls for not allowing teams to play Test cricket, or at worst, cancellation of the ICC membership. But, this is not the first time such a discussion has emerged. Even during the previous Taliban rule, the International Olympics Committee had banned the Afghan contingent from participation. Taking a similar course this time, such a possibility has started appearing real as the Australian Cricket Board postponed the inaugural men’s Test Match between the two countries scheduled for 27 November 2021 in Hobart, Australia.[7] Given that the women’s T20 World Cup to be held in New Zealand is round the corner, the participation (or no participation) by the women’s Afghan team is expected to be a decisive event.

Incremental Vs Immediate Change

Given this context, dilemmas that face the international community and most specifically the sports fraternity are multi-fold. One, is disallowing the already struggling Afghan athletes opportunities, as a symbolic protest against Taliban’s misogynist policies, helping women’s sports in the country? Two, given the current situation, to what extent is the extraction of Afghan athletes, especially women, a practicable option to be considered? Three, what impact shall the future of sports have in terms of political and security stability of the country – and by extension on the security and stability of the international order? There are no clear answers for any of these questions facing the international community. Here, although, highlighting a couple of nuances helps widen the existing discourse.

It is notable that while sports in the country is still in its nascent stages, stories of women paralympians leading national contingents, a refugee Afghan winning Olympic medals, and several others representing the nation at the international stage comes with a number of significant implications – in terms of the perceptional changes regarding the country both within and outside, thus instilling a sense of self-esteem in young Afghans. Apart from that, what might be of some interest to the international community, on the security front, this sense of self-esteem offers some hope and meaning – thus encouraging newer young athletes, that ultimately paves way to deflection of demographic dividend away from radicalisation and drug-menace that has plagued the country forever. Radicalisation, as one must agree, is a major issue that continues to refuel the extremist factions in a largely conservative society. For, any authority derives its power from the legitimacy accorded to it by its followers. Since this follower-base needs to be renewed through expansion of the acceptability of radical views to the upcoming generations – radicalisation of youth becomes a primary necessity for any extremist ideology to survive. Given that, channelizing youth energy for constructive purposes forms the foundation of any stable society. In Afghanistan, with its struggling economy and a society that responds negatively to any external political/military intervention, facilitation of opportunities in sports by the international community can help initiate the intended reformation. A point worth noticing here is the support that has come in from the Taliban government itself for the Afghan men’s cricket team in the course of the T20 WC, despite the team having dissociated from Taliban’s authority. [8] In fact, a positive sentiment is emerging in terms of developing Afghan cricket by the newly appointed Afghan Cricket Board Chairman himself. Regardless of disagreements on all other fronts, working together with the Taliban, could be an alternative. So far so good, the question goes back to the future of women athletes.

This becomes a tricky issue to deal with. If male athletes are encouraged to play, with a presumed non-interference from the Taliban, it shall generate a positive impact within Afghanistan – in terms of economy, society, as well as international security. But, that shall signal a silent acceptance of the restraining of women from taking up sports. A protest against the same, as is being discussed might make a strong statement – but will that be strong enough to force the Taliban to give up their orthodox understanding of gender roles and allow women to play? Or, shall it ultimately hurt the future of sports in the country as a whole, provided Taliban refuses to bog down under any international pressure, like it did last time?

The question here therefore is to make a choice between an incremental and an immediate change. An incremental change shall hope to gradually create a facilitating environment expecting for a series of changes occurring at micro levels to erupt from within over an extended period of time. This alternative by its very nature would acknowledge that the Taliban are the government in Kabul and are here to stay for the near future. Continuation of providing opportunities to Afghan male athletes, given they dissociate themselves from the Taliban flag; and extraction, training and sponsoring athletes outside Afghanistan shall be crucial, provided incremental change is the chosen course. A significant responsibility will fall on various international and multilateral sports organisations as well as governments of various states in facilitating this change. On the contrary, an immediate change shall challenge the existing Taliban government; build external pressure on it, hoping that the extremist group will trade off its orthodox misogynist views for attaining legitimacy and acceptance from the international community. It aims at a macro-level change with almost an immediate effect.

While both are possible choices that could be made, the implications of both rest on crucial assumptions that shall ultimately decide the course of the Afghan future. If incremental change is the chosen course, will the assumption that the Afghan society shall reform itself from within (provided a facilitating atmosphere is provided) come true? If an immediate change is the chosen alternative, will the assumption that this is a changed Taliban and would be willing to reform itself in order to gain international legitimacy come true? While treating the future of sports in Afghanistan as a priority issue, it is for the international community to make careful choices at this juncture.

Endnotes :

[1]Krishnan, R. (2021, September 10). ICC should immediately meet to discuss Afghan Cricket’s future. Economic Times Blog. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/andwordsisallihave/icc-should-immediately-meet-to-discuss-afghan-crickets-future/

[2]Dorsey, J. M. (2016, October 18). Kabul’s stadium of horrors. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Kabuls-stadium-of-horrors/article13364876.ece

[3]Taliban bans women’s sports in Afghanistan, cites Islamic dress code. (2021, September 9). Business Standard. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/taliban-has-banned-women-s-sports-in-afghanistan-says-report-121090900169_1.html

[4]Al Jazeera. (2021, October 15). Afghan footballers and their families flown to Qatar. Taliban News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/15/afghanistan-footballers-qatar-fifa

[5]Axon, I. (2021, August 18). Former Afghan women’s captain tells players to burn kits, delete photos. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/former-afghan-womens-captain-tells-players-burn-kits-delete-photos-2021-08-18/

[6]A. (2021, August 19). Afghan footballer dies in fall from plane at Kabul airport: Federation. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/football/top-stories/afghan-footballer-dies-in-fall-from-plane-at-kabul-airport-federation/articleshow/85458767.cms

[7]Agence France-Presse. (2021, November 5). Australia Postpone First-Ever Test Match Against Afghanistan. NDTVSports.Com. https://sports.ndtv.com/cricket/australia-postpone-first-ever-afghanistan-cricket-test-match-2599759

[8]Tribune News Service. (2021, October 26). Taliban posts congratulatory tweet for Afghan cricket team after win vs Scotland, but Kabul streets mostly empty or silent. Tribuneindia News Service. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/sports/taliban-posts-congratulatory-tweet-for-afghan-cricket-team-after-win-vs-scotland-but-kabul-streets-mostly-empty-or-silent-329896

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