For a lifetime, they persisted in fear; the fear of obstacles, the fear of suppression, the fear of mistreatment, and the fear of crude and sexist remarks that they endured for pursuing sports. They embraced all abnormalities to triumph and achieve their dreams. For both athletes, the derogatory phrase “What does a girl need with sports?” burned their bodies and bones repeatedly like a festering wound. Both endured numerous hardships behind them, fueled by their love for sports. Throughout their years, they fought against those who stood in the way of their aspirations, overcoming all adversities. Yet, society and people had taken offense at girls in sports, and gradually society and people were getting to acknowledge sports for girls. Both traversed a difficult path and were insulted and ridiculed in the sports arena because of their gender. Despite their minimal successes after years of hard work, they were supposed to surpass domestic competitions and compete with foreign rivals to hang the gold medal around their necks. They spared no effort to raise their country’s flag, but both, having conquered the peaks of success with difficulty, fell and turned the gold medal into a dangling noose that often came close to choking them.
After the onset of Taliban rule and the imposition of increasing restrictions on women, they returned to ground zero, and their years-long struggle vanished overnight. They had been trapped for over a year and a half in a whirlpool of ignorance and fear of the Taliban. They had no hope of staying or leaving. During that time, like criminals unaware of their offenses, they fought in the underground of their homes to keep their dreams alive. But, abandoning the oppressive environment, they leave in the hope of blossoming anew and embark on a journey to the land of exile. In the night, where its darkness dragged both of their lives into ruin, far from the eyes of the current rulers, they leave their homeland and dreams behind.
Khadija Koshan and Mohadisa Alizada are two martial arts kickboxing athletes, both members of the Afghan national women’s sports team. They have been practicing this sport for five years. Shoulder to shoulder, they have competed in numerous national competitions, securing first place among the best athletes in this field. After years of successful efforts, they aspire to participate in international competitions and compete with world champions for victory. However, after the Taliban seized power, they failed to reach a goal they did not recognize day from night to achieve.
They say that in those days and nights when the Taliban took control of the country, they were supposed to go to fight against Turkish fighters. With great difficulty and the passion they had, they trained to defeat their opponents, but the Taliban arrived, and everything was destroyed.
After the Taliban took control, they continued their training for two months. However, after some time, Taliban fighters stormed their sports facility and shut it down. Khadija says, “When the Taliban took over Afghanistan and closed our club, I stopped training girls for a while. After a few weeks, I contacted the Women’s Kickboxing Federation and inquired about women’s training. They said no official order had been issued yet, but you should continue your training. Despite not having a coach, we trained hard because we were supposed to compete with Turkey. However, the Taliban canceled the competition, closed all girls’ clubs, and dismissed the supportive coaches. After that, our hope was completely shattered.”
After the disheartening incident unfolds, female athletes dare not return to the sports field and continue training. However, the Taliban, seizing the opportunity to present themselves as not impeding girls’ sports, selected a few girls involved in various sports, such as gymnastics, karate, and taekwondo. They stage a showcase competition to demonstrate to the global community that girls are still engaged in sports and competitions in Afghanistan. Khadija says, “After they officially banned girls’ sports, I learned that the Olympic Committee had gathered several girls from gymnastics, karate, and taekwondo. They organized an exhibitive competition to show the world that girls are still playing sports and participating in competitions in Afghanistan.” She hopes to use this as leverage to persuade the federation to reopen girls’ sports clubs and hold domestic competitions. The Taliban agreed to this request at the time, but after the competition, they detained those who supported girls’ sports and participated in the event. Khadija, who was a coach for female athletes and staunchly advocated for the reopening of girls’ sports clubs, fears the consequences of being detained by this group. She doesn’t leave her house for a while and tells her students to hide. Mohadisa says, “We received calls from our teachers multiple times, telling us not to leave our homes and to keep our identities hidden. I couldn’t even go to the end of the street. The fear of this group made us permanently homebound, keeping us away from sports.”
Months of confinement and experiencing severe depression led Mohadisa and other female athletes to urge Khadija to train them in secret in the basements of their homes. This is an attempt to encourage the girls to continue their path. However, they find themselves in another deadlock. Khadija says, “Despite the unfavorable conditions, my students insisted a lot, saying that even with superficial training, our hearts would find some peace and hope to stay alive would emerge. For this reason, I agreed, and we trained daily in four different houses until one of my students’ neighbors became aware of this and informed the Taliban. After that day, I was forced to leave the country to save my life.”
After enduring a year and a half of the oppressive rule of the Taliban, Khadija and Mohadisa decided to pursue their dreams elsewhere and embarked on the path of migration. One goes to Iran, and the other to Pakistan—two migrant-unfriendly countries that have imposed the harshest conditions on Afghan migrants after the Taliban took power. Even foreign countries suppress them, subjecting them to various forms of violence and humiliation.
Now, both women navigate a challenging life in the land of exile and are forced to abandon sports. They fight for survival in the toughest conditions but now find themselves trapped in the whirlpool of displacement, lacking peace even in the land of exile. Mohadisa currently leads a precarious life in Pakistan, constantly fearing arrest by the Pakistani military. She has to change her location weekly to avoid expulsion from the country. Khadija, too, undergoes a life of hardship and constraints in Iran.