Exclusive: A Afghan football great gives the Washington Post an exclusive interview

Khalida Popal was the captain of the Afghan women’s football team in the 1970s when it defeated England and France in international tournaments. She has been in exile ever since, speaking out against the…

Exclusive: A Afghan football great gives the Washington Post an exclusive interview

Khalida Popal was the captain of the Afghan women’s football team in the 1970s when it defeated England and France in international tournaments. She has been in exile ever since, speaking out against the Taliban’s extreme approach to women’s rights and now leading the campaign for a viable women’s football league that could revive her country’s national team.

The Washington Post caught up with Popal in Dubai, where she lives with her five children.

Where have you lived since the fall of the Taliban and how have you been able to pursue your cause?

The Taliban has not been all that easy to leave. Since they were taken power in 1996, we have lived and studied outside of Afghanistan. It was not a life of absolute peace. It was still hard to manage schools and many issues concerning our rights.

Then in 2001, because of the U.S. invasion, I came back to Afghanistan and was received with great joy. There were many promises of change, but unfortunately the Taliban continued their reign. A place of sports was like a distraction to their attention from evil. I played soccer, judo and just about every other sport, but I wanted to play football. That’s when the Taliban banned all females from playing.

But there is still hope. Afghanistan is rebuilding and football could be the root of it. They will make room for us in the future. They are listening to us through Twitter and Facebook.

What do you want for women in Afghanistan?

A basic, dignified, safe life for all women, with the same opportunities as men. I don’t want to hear news about women being raped, abducted or killed. That is not how I wanted to be alive.

How did your father feel about women playing football?

I was 11 and my father didn’t want to see women playing football because it was based on sexuality and was the last thing he wanted to see my young girls learn about. That was during the era of Mohammed Daoud (1977-89), but now the attitudes have changed. He is still not convinced, but he understands that things have changed.

Was the idea of playing football first popularized by famous female Afghan athletes?

Yes, all the female Afghan athletes were involved in playing football. They were the ones who made it popular.

What are your hopes for the future of your family, your country and your country’s women’s football league?

I hope to play football for my country, and I hope to win the Asian Cup for Afghanistan in 2022. I also want to play in the United States because there is nothing here for me and my children. The good thing about living in Dubai is that I can go for training and play soccer in the United Arab Emirates without worrying about my safety.

There is an intense soccer rivalry in the United Arab Emirates, particularly in Dubai. Do you wish you could play there?

I am happy that I am playing here in Dubai. My children have an education here. They can pursue their education. They are not afraid because in Afghanistan women cannot do that.

Why do you remain in exile, even if the conditions here are improving?

I wanted to stay away from the bad people, those who take advantage of the people’s suffering to further their own interests.

Why do you support women’s football now?

I am frustrated with the situation of women in this world. We have many weapons and technology available, and we can hardly help ourselves. But you have to help the people who are suffering. It is hard for me to understand why the world would want to help only some of the people of this world but ignore the remaining people. We are all suffering and we are all deserving of your attention.

What if the Taliban returned to power?

When I thought about that I went to jail and thought about my children and my friends and my health. I had to leave the country.

I have chosen the hardest path to start and complete the life of my family in safety. It was easier to leave than to stay.

What do you want people to know about your cause?

I am optimistic that one day there will be a very strong Afghan women’s football league.

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