These women were part of the Afghan cricket team - until they were forced to flee the Taliban

After facing many obstacles in their path to playing cricket, these woman were forced to flee as the Taliban took over their country. Now, they fear for the future of women's sport in Afghanistan.

Afghan women's cricket team

A supplied picture of the Afghan women's cricket team. Source: Supplied

When Tuba Sangar was feeling low, she used to close her eyes and imagine.

“I used to dream that I was in a very big stadium and the flag of Afghanistan was on my shoulder, and the national anthem was being played,” the 30-year-old told SBS News.

That dream helped propel Ms Sangar through the ups and downs of her job as Afghanistan's women’s cricket development manager for several years.

It had many downs. The team was virtually non-existent for many years, as the men's team gained international recognition and world status.

Tuba Sangar handing an award to a young cricketer
Source: Supplied

That was until late last year, when 25 players were given contracts to play for the national team. 

It wasn't without hard work, resilience and persistence by Afghan women and their male champions, in the face of cultural constraints. Some peers felt uncomfortable with the concept of women playing sport in public.

Roya Samim, who was among the 25 players awarded a contact by the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), said she faced many obstacles in her path to playing cricket.

"It was really hard for us in the past," she told SBS News, speaking in Dari.

"In the first years when I started to play, people, the public, they were against women playing cricket. Even family - they used to say, 'women don’t have a right to play cricket'.

"We weren't even allowed to take a cricket bat out in public. But slowly, slowly, we started so that people got used to the idea."

But public discomfort is a far cry from what they're facing today: the uncertainty of their rights under a Taliban government. 

Afghan women put cricket dreams on hold after Taliban takeover

Ms Sangar chose not to wait to see what would be in store for her. She felt she had no choice but to flee the country, and left on an evacuation flight for Canada two weeks ago. 

She's not the only one.

Reading the signs as district by district fell to Taliban hands in the weeks prior to the capital Kabul's takeover, Ms Samim left the country with her two sisters, one of whom was also contracted by the ACB.

Roya Samim batting
Source: Supplied

Ms Samim says it wasn't an easy decision. When she heard the Taliban had taken over Herat, where some of her teammates lived, she said they cried to her on the phone.

"'What will happen with us?', they said," she told SBS News of her conversations with her teammates.

"'We can never play cricket again, even we can't go outside,' they said. I can't explain what I felt that day."

The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan appeared to signal the end for women's sport in the country after the deputy head of the group's cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, said women couldn't play sports where they can be "exposed" to the media. 

But in an apparent backtrack, ACB chairman Azizullah Fazli said the organisation had not received any Taliban directive banning women from playing cricket, and there was currently "no restriction" imposed.

"We have not received any instruction [that] women's cricket is facing any challenges," he told SBS Pashto.

"Even before [the Taliban takeover], if Afghan women players played any sport, they have always followed the Islamic dress code." 

Ms Sangar said she wasn't surprised by the Taliban's edict, but was nonetheless heartbroken.

"All the sacrifices, difficulties and work we put in, it amounted to nothing," she said.

"It was like a balloon you give to a child only to see it float away in the air. It's like all our dreams vanished."

Ms Samim says she fears for her teammates and the future of women's sport in Afghanistan. 

Source: Supplied

She has urged Cricket Australia and other countries to help her teammates, including by assisting them train in a third country where they'll be safe.

"Anyone that wants to help them must do it really soon," she said. 

"They deserve to be happy, they deserve to be safe." 

A pro-Taliban protest was held in Kabul over the weekend, after the group announced women would only be allowed to attend university in gender-segregated classes and wearing an outfit which would cover most of their face.

A similar uniform edict would make it extremely difficult for women to play cricket, according to Ms Samim.

"It's not the word of Islam that we have to cover our faces," Ms Samim said, adding that women in the past were able to play with a hijab and loose uniforms.

Mr Fazli has suggested Afghanistan women's players will be able to follow the Islamic dress code that is implemented in countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia. 

The situation continues to impact the country's men's team, with Cricket Australia still poised to cancel November's historic test match between the two nations. 

A Cricket Australia spokesperson has told SBS News they remained in "regular dialogue with our colleagues at the ACB".

The International Cricket Council's board is set to meet next month to discuss the issue.

For her part, Ms Samim still hopes that Afghanistan could soon play against the world's best teams.

"I just imagine one day we will have a big match in the world against a famous country like Australia, Bangladesh or India," she said.

Published 15 September 2021 at 7:35am, updated 15 September 2021 at 10:59am
By Rashida Yosufzai, Adrian Arciuli
Source: SBS News