With Taliban Abolishing Women’s Rights In Afghanistan, A Lucky Few Play Soccer In Australia

MELBOURNE — Eight months after fleeing Kabul as the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, Farida trains at a suburban Melbourne pitch, dreaming of one day playing soccer for her country while lamenting the fate of fellow women players back home.

The 20-year-old striker was one of 77 Afghan athletes, family members and officials evacuated from Afghanistan last year by the Australian government after lobbying by prominent figures in the sporting world.

Some of the evacuees have left Australia and found asylum in other countries, but more than 30 women footballers remain in Melbourne, rebuilding their lives with the support of one of the country's top professional clubs.

"We're in a secure place and everyone is really nice," Kabul native Farida told Reuters at training with her Afghan teammates on Wednesday. "But in Afghanistan, after the Taliban took control, everything has been turned upside down."

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Girls and women's sport has been crushed by the Taliban government's hardline policies.

Men have continued to play sport at community and elite level in the country but women are effectively confined to their homes by a mixture of regulation and intimidation.

The Taliban last week banned women from appearing in public with faces uncovered, having already ordered limits on their movement without a male chaperone.

The Afghan footballers in Melbourne enjoy Australia's freedoms and don't hesitate to speak out against the Taliban.

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But Melbourne Victory, who are sponsoring their soccer programme, ask them not to share their surnames for fear of potential reprisals to families back home.

"There are no women's rights in Afghanistan," said Farida, who is studying at a local university and found work at a local telecommunications firm. "Women athletes are stuck in their homes. I get text messages from them saying they want to get out of Afghanistan."

Melbourne Victory, four-times champions in Australia's top-flight A-League, have shown their commitment to the squad by drafting in their successful professional women's coach Jeff Hopkins to train them while providing support staff and physiotherapists.

The players, of varying age and technical ability, are now competing in a local amateur league while often juggling work, study and English lessons.

By offering professional training and pathways, Victory hope the squad might one day be able to play some form of international football as a "team in exile".

"We want to make them the best possible team they can be," Victory's Director of Football John Didulica told Reuters. "With that, people will be inspired by their courage, their commitment and their standing up to the ideology of the Taliban as women who are asserting themselves on the sporting field."

Players joked about Australian slang before they started training, and there was plenty of good-natured banter during drills on a foggy night.

Some wore head coverings but most just wore standard soccer kit.

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Players said training was a welcome distraction from homesickness and worries about family. There were limited seats available on the plane that flew them out of Kabul, meaning agonising choices and loved ones left behind.

Farida was separated from family at the airport and lost her suitcase in the confusion.

She has no relatives in Melbourne but lives with one of her team mates.

Fellow striker Shamsia, from Afghanistan's northern province of Baghlan, described herself as "in shock" after arriving in Australia after transit through Dubai.

"Everything was hard for me," the 21-year-old told Reuters. "Then we started football training and I saw the girls two or three times a week, it got easier every time."

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Once training with a national youth squad, Shamsia was on the brink of an international debut in Tajikistan but it was scuppered by the Taliban takeover.

She said her little sister back home was probably a more talented footballer than her but had little hope of playing.

That made representing Afghanistan as a team in Melbourne all the more important.

"We want to show to the world that women of Afghanistan are strong, and that we won't stop," she said.

"We will keep fighting."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Martyn Herman)

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