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Will Afghanistan Force Female Soccer Players From The Field For Peace With Taliban?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Taliban forced Afghan women behind closed doors. And in the two decades since they lost power, women in that deeply conservative country have made enormous progress. Millions have gone to school. They work outside the home. They're parliamentarians, and they're playing soccer in a national league. It's flourishing, but as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, it faces its biggest challenge yet.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: The crowd in the bleachers are excited.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: Men and boys clump in one bunch of seats, women and girls in another. They're watching the Herat Storm and the Kabul Fortress face off for the championship of the Afghan Women's Soccer League.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: This is conservative Afghanistan. The players sprint across the field in long-sleeved shirts and leggings under their shorts. Black hoodie-style hijabs cover their hair. Adiba Ganji plays for the Kabul Fortress. She's 16. And she told producer Khwaga Ghani that she began playing soccer when she was a kid at school.

ADIBA GANJI: (Through interpreter) My mother and brother were against it. They said it's not appropriate for a girl to play soccer in Afghanistan. But my father supported me. He was a footballer.

HADID: She was studying, too, aiming for medical college. But then...

GANJI: (Through interpreter) My father was injured in a suicide bombing. He went blind and lost his hearing, so I had to drop out of school.

HADID: Her family's fall into poverty caused her mother and brother to have a change of heart. Now they support her ambitions. She's the bright star that might be able to pull the family up or at least secure a future for herself.

GANJI: (Through interpreter) I want to show my mother that I can fulfill her expectations. I really love football, and I wanted to serve my family and my country.

HADID: Ganji's story of tragedy and ambition is very much the story of many Afghans. But for her to even dream of becoming a professional footballer tells you how far Afghan women have come since the days of the Taliban.

HEATHER BARR: 20 years ago, Afghan women and girls were in a place where they weren't allowed to leave the house by themselves. And sometimes they weren't allowed to leave the house at all. And they weren't allowed to go to school, and they weren't allowed to go to work.

HADID: Heather Barr is the co-director of the women's division at Human Rights Watch.

BARR: So the idea that you have teams of girls and young women running around and screaming and jumping and kicking and hollering and hugging each other and crowds of women in the stands cheering them on is - yeah, it's just exhilarating.

HADID: Getting here hasn't been easy for any of these women. Sabria Nawrozi is the captain of the Herat Storm. She joined the soccer league when it began five years ago. She says their neighbors used to harass her mother to make her ditch soccer.

SABRIA NAWROZI: (Through interpreter) They said my sports clothes are immodest. They said, oh, we saw your daughter on TV.

HADID: And that was shameful because men could see her. She's laughing because it's silly, but some of the threats she's faced have been serious.

NAWROZI: (Through interpreter) Militants threatened to open fire on the sports federation. They even threatened suicide bombings if we girls practiced or played there.

HADID: And yet Nawrozi kept playing until the league ran out of money and shut down in 2017. The following year, players from the women's national team accused the federation's president, Keramuddin Karim, of rape and physical abuse. Karim denied the accusations, but FIFA, the world's soccer governing body, banned him for life. Khalida Popalzai was once a program manager for the team. She helped bring attention to the case, and she says the women risked their lives to come forward. She says, following the scandal, the Afghan government felt pressured to restart the league to show the international community that they were taking women's sports seriously.

KHALIDA POPAL: To support and empower women. And thanks to all those amazing heroes and because of their powerful voices, the women in Afghanistan in football is receiving such attention.

HADID: But now they have to clear another hurdle - peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents. These talks began in mid-September, and Taliban officials have said women playing in public is un-Islamic. And the players worry that the male-dominated government negotiating team will cave in to the Taliban's demands to pave the way for a peace deal. Nawrozi, the captain of the Herat team, says her love of soccer is non-negotiable.

NAWROZI: (Through interpreter) What are they going to do, say that we can only play in a burqa? If they harass us, we will go abroad.

HADID: Her team won the championship game in a tense penalty shootout.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HADID: And she hopes it won't be their last win in Afghanistan. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.