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Female athletes left alone in Afghanistan

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Female athletes left alone in Afghanistan

As of: March 7, 2024 11:50 p.m

For the first time, as many women as men are competing at the Olympic Games in Paris. What looks good overall does not apply to all nations – for example in Afghanistan, where female athletes have completely disappeared from the scene.

In the Olympic Charter, which according to the IOC is supposed to have constitutional character, point two states “Mission and Role of the IOC”: “The role of the IOC is to encourage and support women at all levels of sport and in all structures with the perspective of implementing the principle of equality between men and women.”

Gender parity is – admittedly – an extremely high demand. This cannot be achieved simply by having as many men as women taking part in the Olympic Games in Paris. Because that is exactly what gender parity means.

Afghan women disappeared from the scene

On the way to greater equality, however, this is more of a milestone than a big achievement. At least one that gives women more visibility in sport, says Bettina Rulofs, professor of diversity research at the German Sport University in Cologne: “I think this is an important step towards showing more women and a greater presence of women in sport to be able to show outside. But under no circumstances should we just remain with this pure counting of the positions of athletes on the field. We have to do much more.”

What looks good overall on the pitch does not apply to all participating nations. This becomes particularly clear in the example of Afghanistan. Since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, Afghan women have almost completely disappeared from the scene. They also find little space in reporting.

One person who never tires of talking about it is Friba Rezayee. In 2004 she was one of the first women to compete in judo for Afghanistan. A place that she and many other women have fought hard for. Many of them were athletes and human rights activists at the same time. Have formed networks to give women and children access to education – and also to sport.

The hard fight for equality

Even in times of peace, this was not without danger in Afghanistan. Friba Rezayee had to leave the country just a year after she made Olympic history for Afghanistan. The family received death threats – directed at them and one of their sisters, who worked as a presenter for a local TV station.

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“She was murdered in front of our own house. But the death threats continued. Against my family, against me. From fundamentalists, the Taliban. So many other fanatical men,” says Friba Rezayee in an interview with Sportschau. “Wherever my sisters and I went, we were harassed – verbally and physically. They did not stop threatening us. We would have brought shame on society, the family, Islamic values ​​and Afghan culture.”

Despite these dangers, women in Afghanistan have continued to build their networks. Studied, got involved politically and socially. Also with the support of various sports organizations. Female athletes were publicly loud, confident and visible. They wanted to actively shape society.

When the Taliban took power again in August 2021, all of these dreams were dashed. “When the central government collapsed, so did our freedom, values, achievements and dreams. It felt as if Afghanistan was hit by a large meteorite that sent us back 400 years in time,” says Rezayee.

The Taliban immediately banned all sporting activities by women. The sports facilities were closed – including the dojo where Rezayee once trained. Many athletes had to destroy or hide their sports clothing, certificates and medals – evidence of their achievements and a new, freer life.

Training in Germany for the refugee team

Anyone who could tried to get out of the country. Like Lina Rassouli, who fled Kabul to Germany in September 2021 under dramatic circumstances with the help of the International Judo Federation (IJF) and the German Judo Federation (DJB). Before that, she competed worldwide as a judoka. She studied political science and headed the judo club of the SCAWNO organization, which looks after orphans and widowed women.

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Numerous pictures on Rassouli’s private Facebook profile remind us of this time. Girls and young women in judo suits, with and without hijab. Some proudly hold their certificates up to the camera.

Lina Rassouli has been in Germany for two years now. She is happy, she says, but when she thinks about the children she had to leave behind, her heart becomes heavy: “The situation is really bad. I’m happy that I’m here. But deep down in my heart I’m not . My family, my colleagues, my students, all my dreams remained in Kabul.”

Lina Rassouli is training in Germany with the Refugees Team, which is supported by the IOC. She would even have had a place in the Olympic Games. But after an injury she won’t be fit in time. For many top Afghan athletes, the refugee teams are the only opportunity to take part in the Olympic Games. The vast majority of them now live in exile, where in addition to training, they also have to worry about support, the right to stay and their livelihood. They can’t even dream of gender parity in an Afghan team.

“This is sportswashing”

Nevertheless, regardless of this situation for female athletes – as of now – a team from Afghanistan will be competing at the Olympic Games in Paris. At least one woman must also be nominated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee (NOK). In 2020, the IOC adopted the rule that there must be a male and a female flag bearer. It is questionable whether there will be other women on the team.

Even if that were successful, it wouldn’t come close to reflecting the reality of women in Afghanistan, says Friba Rezayee: “That’s sportswashing. That doesn’t show the whole reality in Afghanistan and what happened to women’s rights there, to human rights and rights of female athletes. They deceive the world public. They pretend that everything is okay. They lie to people.”

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Exile NOK not independent of the Taliban

Parts of the Afghan NOK have also been living in exile since 2021. The IOC itself has repeatedly called for the situation in the country to be improved for women. But so far there has been nothing more than a raised finger.

In order to get any athletes to the Olympic Games, the exiled Afghan NOK also has to negotiate with the Taliban, explains Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi, head of the Afghanistan editorial team at Deutsche Welle: “You have to deal with the Taliban, “Simply because they have to cooperate with them when it comes to getting visas and passports for athletes from Afghanistan. The Taliban actually know about everything and everyone who comes into or leaves the country.”

IOC refers to sovereignty of nations

Because of these connections, Friba Rezayee called on the IOC in several letters and also publicly to exclude Afghanistan from participating in the Olympic Games. However, the IOC does not see itself in a position to exert any influence. IOC Director James Macleod was not willing to have a personal conversation about the situation.

“We do our utmost to ensure respect for human rights for the people we have influence on in our area of ​​responsibility,” he said in a statement via the IOC press department. “As a non-governmental organization, the IOC has neither the mandate nor the ability to change the laws of sovereign countries. We cannot resolve human rights issues that fall under the jurisdiction of states.”

But as it is, the celebrated gender parity remains a privilege as a small part of equality. One that particularly benefits athletes in Western and European countries. And one that can be wonderfully marketed on International Women’s Day and distracts from the actual problems behind the sheer numbers.

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