The former captain of Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team is telling players to burn their uniforms and remove their social media profiles as the Taliban takes over the country.
In an interview with Reuters, Khalida Popal, 34, who lives in Copenhagen, said soccer was a “means of activism to stand for our rights” but she’s advising players to delete evidence of their involvement with the sport to protect themselves.
“All these beautiful, amazing, young girls put their faces and stood strong, very vocal against Taliban. Today, what they are seeing when they look outside, their enemies outside their door. They are so afraid. They are worried, they are scared,” she said.
“Today I’m calling them and telling them take down their names, remove their identities, take down their photos, for their safety… I’m telling them to burn down or get rid of your national team uniform. And that is painful for me for someone as an activist who stood up and did everything possible to achieve and earn that identity as a women’s national team player.”
Popal founded the women’s soccer team in 2007. Her family fled the country in 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul, but she returned after their regime was toppled in 2001, according to the Associated Press.
She told the Associated Press she left again for Denmark in 2016 because she was getting too many death threats for “calling Taliban our enemy” on television.
After two-decades of war in Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly returned to power over the last week following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Taliban fighters took over Kabul, the nation’s capital, on Sunday.
In a statement Monday, President Joe Biden said the mission in Afghanistan was “never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
Popal told the Associated Press women in the country are calling her in tears, asking, “Why not say you would leave like this? At least we could protect ourselves.”
During its previous regime, from 1996-2001, the Taliban banned women from school, leaving the home without a male relative, and working—those who disobeyed were beaten.
In a news conference Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said “there will be no violence against women.” He also said women will not face prejudice, but “Islamic values are our framework.”
How the Taliban interprets the latter comment remains to be seen, but the New York Times reports some girls’ schools and women’s health clinics have already shut down.
“What we are seeing is a country collapsing,” Popal said in her Reuters interview. “All the pride, happiness, to be there, to empower women and men of the country, it was just wasted.”
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