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April 29, 2017

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Hard, steady progress for Afghan women footballers

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a nation where most women remain second-class citizens, many cloaked from head-to-toe in burkas, one group has broken down formidable barriers by forming an Afghanistan women's soccer league.

The standards of the grounds, and the play, may fall short of world class, but the delight at breaking the shackles of the conservative society is clear to see. So too is the determination to become the new face of Afghan women, gaining dignity for themselves and other women in their war-torn country while also improving their image worldwide.

The competitors in the Kabul league do have to make some concessions to the conservative protocols of the society, wearing head scarves and also covering their legs, yet even those accommodations have done little to reduce the disapproval and even ostracism they face for entering what is regarded as a male preserve.

The sport is very popular in Afghanistan, even if it is rare to find more than rudimentary facilities anywhere outside the capital. Even rarer is the sight and sound of women on the pitch.

But at a recent semifinal match of the Kabul Women's Premier League at the Football Federation Stadium, the shouts of encouragement and joy were unmistakably female and were not dampened by the heavy rain, even if the stands were largely empty.

"It is disappointing, but we are grateful to have it," Afghan Club player Nadia Derweshi said of the meager attendance at the league semifinal game which her team won 4-0.

Derweshi started playing soccer eight years ago and is a goalkeeper for the female national team.

Hajar Abulfazl, a 22-year old national team player, says it will take the passing of generations for Afghan society to accept girls and women playing soccer, yet she is optimistic about the future and the progress of her teammates.

"It is very difficult to convince families to accept and let their daughters to join in a (soccer) team," said Abulfazl, who herself doubts and resistance from many when she took up sports but was thankful for the support of her parents.

Abulfazl who is also director of Afghanistan's female soccer committee, says that at least 22 female teams are registered, so far only in Kabul, but in other more conservative rural provinces there was little progress.

The Afghan Football Federation women's committee was established only in 2004. During the early years the committee started by picking soccer fans from local schools and initially it was difficult to find girls and young women who were willing and able to take what was the relatively risky and fraught step of joining an organized league.

When the committee was first established, the only members were seven sports trainers from local schools around Kabul. Now the committee's website says there are nearly 1,000 participants.

Mohammad Yousef Kargar, the coach of Afghanistan's national men's team in two stints up until the start of this year, said the medium-term goal for the women's team is participation in the South Asian Games, though he recognizes the impediments.

"In a conservative country like Afghanistan there are many limitations when it comes about women," Kargar said. "It is not easy to implement all plans or programs.

"Having so many budgeting problems, still we have had great success in Kabul, but unfortunately in many provinces we don't have female (soccer) teams, in a number of provinces we don't have (soccer) grounds for females to improve their skills — they can't go and play (soccer) where men are going there.

"I can say that, with having so many problems, we have had many successes and achievements in the female (soccer) committee, but still there is a long way to go."

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