(Cover photo L to R, going around the table: Salma Hussaini, Hajar Abulfazil, Shahnaz Masumi, Firoza Wahedy, Frozan Tajali, and Tuba Sangar. Credit: Ashli McLean)
It was a rare occasion as representatives from the Louisville Women’s Sports Network (LWSN) met with female athletes and contributors to women’s athletics in Afghanistan for a roundtable discussion on May 26. The two groups were connected through the World Affairs Council of Kentucky & Southern Indiana. The roundtable discussion was held at the program’s office in downtown Louisville.
“You’ve honored us with your presence,” said Billy Reed at the conclusion of the meeting. Long-esteemed writer for Sports Illustrated and former sports editor of The Courier-Journal, Reed currently serves as Executive Editor of the LWSN. “[We] thank you for coming…I wish you all peace and love and safety as you return home. And believe me, you’ve made some friends here. We’ll be following you and wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors.”
The Afghani women were similarly appreciative of the interaction.
“We are also very much delighted to be here,” replied Ms. Salma Hussaini, director for the Women’s Committee of the National Tae Kwon Do Federation. “This was indeed quite an experience… We learned and we shared and we will take something back with us home.”
Hussaini is one of six women from the Afghan sports world who visited, along with two translators. Others included two plalyers of the Afghanistan Women’s National Soccer Team – Ms. Hajar Abulfazil and Ms. Frozan Tajali – developmental manager of women’s cricket on the Afghanistan Cricket Board Ms. Tuba Sangar, and director of Women Economic, Social & Sport Development Organization (WESSDO) Ms. Firoza Wahedy.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Visitors, the trip focused on promoting women’s athletics. The city of Louisville was selected as one of five cities nationwide to host the women for a few days at a time. Among a visit to the Muhammad Ali Center and interacting with local renowned athletes, the LWSN was invited to share in conversation with the women about the role and impact of media in promoting women’s athletics and combating gender inequality in sports.
Representatives from the LWSN described the four products it offers to promote female athletics in the city: the digital platform (www.LouisvilleWomenSports.com); the bi-annual printed publication (Louisville Women’s Sports Network magazine); the annual awards show (Women In Sports Honors); and the mentoring program (Student Athlete Mentoring Program – “STAMP”). In return, the women described the landscape of female athletics in their home country, a country that has been slow to accepting such an establishment.
“Now, people, especially the young generation, have been very enthusiastic about the idea of participating in sports,” said Sangar, “and as part of that, it has created a kind of sense of patriotism among the youth.”
Sangar talked about how the national wins in soccer and cricket against neighboring nations during the South Asian Games has spurred this on.
“And of course, including the women,” added Sangar. “The young girls, they are very much interested in participating in different areas and, as you can see, we are representative of that portion of sports that females are interested.”
When asked what the most popular women’s sport in Afghanistan is, the women strongly stated soccer – of course, also known as “football”. They mentioned that volleyball and basketball are fairly popular, along with Taekwondo and cricket.
The women also shared challenges they face as a nation when it comes to advancing women’s sports. One is the mindset of the general population not being open to the idea of women’s sports and women participating in sports. Another is the fact that there are not enough sports facilities. Most girls only play sports while at school. And thirdly, the women’s sports have no professional coaches and mentors. In fact, Abulfazil and Tajali, although members of the national team, both also coach the sport. Abulfazil is the coach for the Under-17 team; Tajali of the Under-14 team.
Without professional, solely-dedicated coaches, it is tough to find a balance.
But these women are pioneers. They are the first of their kind to be advancing female athletics in their nation like never before. And they are anticipating their actions, along with the progressing sports landscape in general, will continue to open doors for newer generations.
“To portray or depict a general of the sports in Afghanistan, it is moving,” said Sangar. “It is going forward and we are proud of our youth.”
“…The tragedies that have befallen Afghanistan, the political situation,” Reed posed to segway the discussion to address the political unrest of the nation in connection to sport. “I’m sure it’s impacted all of you in one way or another, but has sport been able to help the national morale? Has it given people a diversion, a positive thing, something they can rally around that will take their minds off of the devastation and the other tragedies?”
With the women nodding, Hussaini discussed the first Olympic medal for the country being won by Rohullan Nikpai at the 2008 Games in Beijing, China. Nikpai took home bronze in the men’s Taekwondo, as well as another bronze at the 2012 Games. His accomplishments, they believe, are what brought their nation into the global arena in terms of sports.
“And that was really a rallying point around the sense of patriotism and pride of the country,” Hussaini said. “And after that, it became a kind of momentum for the Afghan youth, for both girls and boys.”
Abulfazil explained how the achievement of the men’s national soccer team winning the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship for the first time in 2013 against defending champs India was also a defining moment. She noted the success following that of the cricket team defeating Zimbabwe in a series of international play from the end of 2015 to early 2016.
“It’s because of these achievements,” said Abulfazil, “now all families, all women want to go to play soccer or play cricket or play sports. Ten years ago, five years ago, my family and other families don’t want to go [in]to sport field, but now mothers and aunts or other families take their girls and bring [them] to the Federation, bring [them] to the Olympics, and [it is] encouraging.”
Building success in those sports of Taekwondo, cricket and soccer has also helped to bring reconciliation, peace and togetherness of people within the nation.
“That was definitely a point when the Afghan people won, I remember tears of joy were running from the cheeks of everybody,” said Sangar on the SAFF Championship. “We were awake that night when we heard the victory of the Afghan team and that was a phenomenal thing for us and for the whole country. That was an experience that people cherish very much.”
As noted, Afghanistan faces its fair share of hardship in having the structures in place to develop female athletes. Reed questioned if there is an established exchange program where the U.S. sends mentors and coaches to Afghanistan to build fields and sports facilities while Afghani ambassadors are sent to America to teach citizens more about less-popular sports such cricket – all in an effort to help development and to better promote harmony and peace among the two nations. Although the visitors are not aware of any known program, translator Mohammad Aziz suggested that such an initiative could happen if American coaches, mentors, and programs take the inititative by requesting it via the U.S. Embassy (located in the city of Kabul) to sponsor it with the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee.
“If you send one, you can train, maybe, 100 athletes,” Aziz added, to which the women nodded in agreement.
On seeing even greater participation and accomplishment in the future Olympic Games for the nation, Hajar added, “We can do. The next generation, I believe them. They can do it.”
The challenges that female athletes have faced in both America and Afghanistan are not too far separated. Yet, sport continues to be a progressive force that changes the playing field for the better. The LWSN’s session with these phenomenal Afghani women is one that will never be forgotten.
“It breaks barriers,” said LWSN senior account executive Sarah Newell on the roundtable discussion. A talented swimmer, Newell is a member of Sacred Heart Academy’s Athletic Hall of Fame. She also swam for the University of Missouri in the 200-meter backstroke. “Meeting with women from a different country, a different background, different life experiences…I could feel the same passion for women’s athletics in that women are looking for the same breakthrough in the U.S. and across the world. It became apparent to me how much sports can empower us in a way not done before.”
“And we knew about some of even the challenges that the American women went through in order to get here,” said Hussaini in closing, “and this was the kind of information that we needed because that will also encourage us, to support us not to give up. Thank you very much for having us here, for the government and the people of the United States of America.”