With the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban taking control of the country, another era of oppression could be upon Afghan women, including female athletes. The Taliban’s return to power on the heels of the Tokyo Olympics, where women were central figures in the country’s participation, is a stark reminder of what the country used to be under their rule—when female athletes of any kind, including Olympians, were not allowed.
That changed after the Taliban were overthrown by a U.S-led invasion in 2001. The year prior, the International Olympic Committee had banned Afghanistan from the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney for the Taliban’s treatment of their female athletes and citizens more broadly. In 2004, the IOC reinstated the country, under new governance, and Afghanistan’s first female Olympians competed in that year’s Summer Games in Athens. Afghanistan has continued to send female athletes to the Olympics, with the recently concluded Tokyo Games painting a clear picture of what Afghan women had been allowed to become in the years since the Taliban first fell.
Sprinter Kimia Yousofi was one of the faces of her country at the Olympics last month, bearing the Afghan flag during the Opening Ceremony, as she also did during her first Olympic appearance in Rio in 2016. In Tokyo, she went on to set a national record—which Afghanistan’s athletics federation told Reuters was “as good as gold” to them.
Yousofi’s trip to Tokyo was preceded by a ceremony with Robina Jalali, a female member of Parliament who also serves as president of the Afghan Athletics Federation and vice president of women and sport for the country’s National Olympic Committee.
As Yousofi competed, the Taliban continued to gain ground in her home country en route to Kabul, the Afghan capital. Jalali knew what that might mean for herself and her star sprinter.
“In this critical situation [when] the Afghanistan peace process is underway and the fate and position of women in the political future is dark and uncertain, the presence of Ms. Kimia and achievement has proved that Afghanistan’s women have continued to fight in every situation and time,” Jalali wrote in a July 30 Facebook post after Yousofi raced in Japan.
Afghanistan’s IOC representative is also a woman. Samira Asghari became the first representative from her country and one of the youngest ever members to join the IOC when she was elected in 2018. She had previously played for the Afghanistan women’s national basketball team and worked for the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee.
What lies ahead for not only Yousofi and her fellow female athletes, but also women in positions like Jalali and Asghari, is even more uncertain now. Born in Kandahar, Yousofi’s family has already fled Afghanistan once, settling as refugees in Iran during the Taliban’s first reign.
“The IOC is monitoring the situation and is in contact with the sport community in Afghanistan,” the IOC said in a statement to Sportico. “At the same time, we have forwarded relevant information to a number of responsible governments. For obvious reasons of security of concerned people, we would not comment further at this stage.”
The Taliban’s takeover comes as the Paralympics are set to start. The Afghanistan Paralympic Committee said its two participating athletes would not make it to Tokyo to compete, as there is no way for them to leave the country. One of those Afghan athletes, Zakia Khudadadi, was set to become Afghanistan’s first female Paralympian. In a video released this week, Khudadadi, who is stuck in Kabul, pleaded for help getting to Tokyo, saying she was “currently imprisoned inside the house. I cannot even go outside around this house with confidence.”
The Taliban who captured the country today have tried to present themselves as a more moderate version of their predecessors, saying they intend to respect women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law and are no longer opposed to women going to school. Taliban representative Enamullah Samangani even encouraged women to join the government, but there is skepticism throughout the country about whether those promises will be upheld and what other freedoms might be taken from women, as no clear policy on women’s rights has been outlined yet. Images of uncovered women and beauty models without headscarves in Kabul being painted over have already started to circulate.