Death Threats Forced Them To Pretend To Be Boys Just To Play Soccer...That Didn't Stop Them

It's International Women's Day and Danish sportswear brand Hummel has celebrated it by releasing the new Afghanistan national soccer team kit. The Afghanistan women's team kits feature a built-in hijab allowing female players to follow Islamic custom without having to don a regular scarf, which would often be difficult whilst playing in hot environments. 

Khalida Popal, who was formerly captain of the Afghanistan women's team before retiring due to a knee injury, spoke of the pride that this kit brings. 

"I think the Afghanistan women's team shows the huge potential football has as a unifying force. I like to think that we have given a lot of women in our country fresh hope," said Popal. "I have been involved in the consultation for the design of the shirt pretty much from the outset." 

"I wanted something that reflected the strength of the Afghan character and incorporated the very best of the country's traditions and heritage," Popal continued. "I think this shirt has achieved both." 

Popal knows a lot about strength and character having grown up in Afghanistan during the early 2000's when women's sports were outlawed by the Taliban. She went on to become a founding member of the Afghanistan women's team, and her activism for women's rights eventually forced her to flee to Denmark because of death threats. 

Afghanistan women's team

Khalida Popal: Activist forced to flee Afghanistan because of death threats. Photo: @FOKUSkvinner | Twitter

"I faced so many death threats and warnings that I had to stop my activities for women - otherwise they said they would kill me and my family." Popal said in an interview with People. "I was organizing soccer activities for women and using soccer as a tool to stand for our rights, and I appeared on media to raise awareness about women's equality." 

In 2012, NPR reported that former Olympian Lorrie Fair held a soccer clinic for the team in Kabul, an experience that highlighted how they still struggle. 

"Some pretended to be boys when they were kids so that they could play," said Fair. "Others just kind of got together secretly. There are so many stories. Each person has their individual story. What they do have in common is that they do have a love for the game." 

Being International Women's Day, it is important to recognize that there are still cultures where women have to play soccer in secret or risk punishment, possibly even death. The story of the Afghanistan women's team is far from over, as they still face discrimination just for playing a "men's sport." Their courage in the face of adversity stands as a brilliant example on a day in which we honor the strength of women around the world.

In her interview with People, Khalida Popal put it better than we ever could:

"The uniform launched on International Women's Day for women's empowerment," said Popal. "And the uniform means a lot for the national team of Afghanistan – especially for the women – because they fought to wear it and it says, 'I am a woman and I'm able to play under the flag of my country." 

Follow me on Twitter @J_Hansen_89

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