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Essays

Afghanistan and the Taliban

A love that dare not speak its name

Tuba Sangar
17-May-2022
Hamid Hassan reacts after a close shave, Afghanistan vs New Zealand, T20 World Cup, Group 2, Abu Dhabi, November 7, 2021

Hamid Hassan sparked the author's passion for cricket  •  Getty Images

First came the anonymous phone calls. The Taliban had just arrived in Kabul, despite everyone saying they would not take the city, and the voices at the end of the line told me they knew I worked for the Afghanistan Cricket Board. I had been in the role of development manager since 2014, and it had not always been easy: not all Afghan families want their female members doing such jobs. But now I felt threatened. My father told me to change location to stay safe, so I went to different relatives' homes and switched off my phone. It stayed off, and I changed location many times, before eventually resigning from my job on August 31, and heading for Toronto, Canada.
That was the first reason I left Afghanistan. The second was because I wanted to be able to speak out about the plight of our country's women cricketers. The world should know what has happened to us since the Taliban returned to power last year - and I could not have spoken out if I had remained at home. The Taliban have told the world they have changed since they were last in power. They are saying they will give women equal rights. This is not true.
Twenty years ago, when Afghanistan was full of bomb blasts, suicide attacks and murder, we still had hope that one day it would become a better place. Now, it feels as if there is no hope. When I came to Canada, as part of a scheme for women journalists - I am studying sports journalism - I was full of sadness for the country I left behind. One of the most poignant differences was seeing the children here, busy with their toys. In Afghanistan, parents are worried about how they are going to get their children out of the country.
A lot of our female cricketers are stuck there, too. One or two managed to escape to Canada, and another to the UK. But the rest are in hiding. Even I can't contact them. They have already gone through so much, and now they have had their dream of playing cricket taken away. Like many, I made a lot of sacrifices for Afghanistan cricket. I left university only one year into a master's degree because I wanted to fulfil my dream: that, one day, our women's team would play international cricket. The players made similar sacrifices, which in our country is not easy. If you are an unmarried 20-year-old woman, people say bad things about you. So you have to convince your family that cricket is a career path: first your father, then your brother, then your uncle's family, and so on. You give up a lot, emotionally, financially, educationally. But the dream spurs you on.
And it was all beginning to take shape. Back in 2014, when I started work for the ACB, we spread the word around the country that cricket was a sport for women and girls, as well as men and boys. We visited different provinces, and chose players for the national team. At the end of that year, the ACB chairman changed, and our activities were stopped. But in 2018, we started again, and we had a couple of really good years. Recently, we awarded 25 national contracts to women players, and received help on a development project from UNICEF. We were planning a camp abroad, and chose Oman, because we thought it would be easier to begin in another Muslim country. We were planning to go after the men's T20 World Cup last year. The players were arranging their passports. We were all excited. Then the Taliban came back into our lives, and everything changed.
The whole world knows what the Taliban means. The first thing that comes to mind is that they are against women's rights, and produce reasons why women can't do this or that. In my view, they know nothing about Islam. They are unable to read a line of the Quran, or pray, in the right way. They are not just against women's rights: they are against human rights. They are using a twisted interpretation of Islam against the true version of Islam. But I am not afraid to say I love cricket.
It is a passion that started when I became the biggest fan of Afghanistan's headband-wearing all-rounder, Hamid Hassan. I used to dream of meeting him face to face. Isn't that normal, when you're young, to be attracted to a beautiful man, a hero? I'm a Pashtun, and our people are the biggest cricket lovers in the country. But when I went to other provinces, everyone was talking about the game and Hamid Hassan. When I joined the ACB, I just had to tell him: I'm your greatest fan. After that, I did a lot of courses - umpiring, coaching, scoring. Others were better on the technical side of the game, but I was the only one who understood the administrative issues.
We achieved a lot. It helped that our men's team were making headlines. Guys like Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Zadran were an inspiration. Until then, Afghan girls didn't know much about cricket. But when Rashid started playing in the IPL in 2017, the whole nation went crazy. And when the Afghanistan men's team win a game, people cry tears of joy. Everyone uses Facebook there, and everyone has an opinion on cricket - even on subjects like a change in personnel on the national board. In our country, it is more than a game of bat and ball: it is a game of hope and inspiration.
That is why I had mixed feelings when Australia cancelled the men's Test against Afghanistan in November because the Taliban said women could no longer play cricket. On the one hand, I was happy that others were speaking out on our behalf: I wish more had. On the other hand, Afghanistan's men have done a lot for cricket in our country. They're the reason we developed a women's team. And if the men play no games, people at home will have less cricket to get excited about. If that happens, women's cricket suffers too. If you refuse to play our men's team, then there is no hope the Taliban will suddenly recognise the women's. I would like to see other teams coming together and offering our women the chance to play cricket in their countries. That would be one way of offering us hope. I was disappointed there were so few voices in women's cricket highlighting our plight. I thought they would all speak out on our behalf.
Without cricket, the only headlines Afghanistan can make are negative. Cricket is our way of portraying ourselves in a positive light. The young people in Afghanistan will fight for their country. Sometimes, my friends ask me on Facebook why I left. They think I should have stayed. I tell them it is my choice - but I will not leave my people to their fate. I want to go back, but they might arrest me, or even kill me. One day, if the situation improves, I will return. When I came to Canada, every night I dreamed I was back in my office in Kabul, or playing with the girls at the ground. In whatever way I can, I will help the Afghan people and make them proud, and tell the world they are talented and can do what they want. Please, do not forget us.
Tuba Sangar was talking to Lawrence Booth