Six years ago, Shamila Kohestani of Afghanistan threw off her burqa and ran as fast as she could to escape a Taliban militiaman who was whipping her because she was not wearing it properly. Today, Kohestani has another reason to run — she’s the captain of Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team.
Shamila Kohestani says she had just begun wearing a burqa when a member of the Taliban saw her and began whipping her for not wearing it properly.
“I was outside, wearing a burqa, but because I had just started to wear it, I did not have enough practice to keep all my body covered,” Kohestani says. “[He] asked me why I had not covered the front part of my body. He beat me. But I threw the burqa off and escaped.”
The determination that Kohestani showed that day at age 14 has never left her. When the Taliban’s rule collapsed in Afghanistan in late 2001, she let no one tell her what to do. She turned to her greatest love, sports, and excelled.
Last month, as captain of the Afghan national women’s soccer team, she traveled with 15 other women players to Islamabad. There, the still relatively new team took the field against other female squads with decades of experience.
Facing off with teams in Pakistan’s national women’s soccer league, the Afghans won three of five games. They advanced to the final round — thrilling their Afghan fans — until going down in defeat against their final rival, a team from Karachi. The score: 1-0.
‘A Name In The World’
“We Afghans are very proud today that our team placed second in this tournament,” says Shafiq Hamidi, an Afghan refugee living in Islamabad who was at the final match. “I always thank God, and I am so proud that now Afghanistan has a name in the world.”
Then, unable to contain his enthusiasm any longer, he shouts, “Long live Afghanistan, long live Afghanistan!”
As the player who scored five of the Afghan team’s 11 goals in the tournament, 20-year-old Kohestani received most of the public’s attention.
“The captain was the star of our team,” says Saboor Walizada, the team’s coach. Since her victory, Kohestani has been lionized by other young Afghan women, who are unaccustomed, to say the least, at seeing national female sports heroes.
That is because, even in the least traditional areas of the country, women are still only grudgingly allowed a place on the sports field. And even there they often can only play if they wear special attire.
That forces even the national women’s soccer team to often play in both long pants and long-sleeved shirts, regardless of the weather. And they frequently add head scarves.
Still, it’s a world away from the Taliban-ruled life female sports enthusiasts once endured. Growing up, they couldn’t even watch soccer games. Watching and playing were the sole preserves of men. At halftime, the game stopped and everyone was expected to pray.
Kohestani, like many girls, fought the Taliban system as best she could. She studied secretly in a house in Kabul, as the Taliban forbade girls to go to school. And she kept her dreams alive.
“I asked myself, how long will I have to stay at home [for school], not go outside and not get [a real] education?” Kohestani recalls. “Then I was convinced that the situation will not remain as it is and maybe one day I will go to school, play soccer, and do whatever I like.”
Kohestani’s first dream — to go to a public school — came true in 2002 shortly after the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led coalition forces. But she had to wait two more years to reach her second one, which was to play soccer full-time.
Getting started meant first getting discovered. And in a country where talent scouts for female stars are far from numerous, the odds were long.
It was Walizada, the coach of the women’s team and a former Afghan national player himself, who found her.
A member of the Afghan Football Federation, Walizada had money from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to promote soccer among women in the country. But to do so, he had to first get access to the closed world of girls schools and family homes.
“I went into their classes, and they were very willing to join a soccer team,” Walizada says. “But to convince their families to let their daughters play soccer was the most difficult part of the job. Not every family I met agreed to let their daughter join my soccer team. Shamila’s family was one of them. So far, some 500 girls have gotten the chance to play soccer in Kabul and the three northern provinces of Parwan, Jawzjan, and Sar-e Pul.”
That’s a beginning Walizada is proud of. And he hopes it will encourage many more girls and their families to reconsider what they can do with sports.
But if it is a good beginning, it also reflects the length of road ahead. “In a soccer game, Shamila is always less than 100 meters away from the goal, and she has a soft, green field under her feet,” says Fatema Hussaini, a law student at Kabul University and a women’s rights activist.
“But in the game of gaining freedom, she and other Afghan women might be 100 years away from the goal,” Hussaini adds, “and the field is full of difficult barriers.”