What a ban on women in sports could mean for Afghanistan’s sporting future

The Taliban’s stance against women taking part in sports would also likely have a knock-on effect on men competing in international events.

Friba Rezayee competed in judo at Athens 2004. (International Judo Federation)
Friba Rezayee competed in judo at Athens 2004. (International Judo Federation)

At the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, Robina Muqim Yaar and Friba Razayee made history. The duo became the first female athletes to represent Afghanistan at an Olympic Games.

Their achievement marked a new era of sport in Afghanistan, a country where women had been banned from practicing sport during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. They paved the way for women to be a part of the Olympic and sporting movement in Afghanistan; a path which may soon be no longer traversable.

When the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August, there were concerns among the international sporting community about the future of female sport in Afghanistan, and the safety of women practicing sport in Afghanistan. Last week the deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, gave the world a glimpse of what may happen to women’s sport in Afghanistan.

In an interview with Australian media outlet SBS, Wasiq said, “I don’t think women will be allowed to play cricket because it is not necessary that women should play cricket. In cricket, they might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this.

“It is the media era, and there will be photos and videos, and then people watch it. Islam and the Islamic Emirate do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sports where they get exposed.”

The ramifications of this statement could already be felt by Afghanistan, as Cricket Australia released a statement in reference to the one-off test match between the men’s teams of Australia and Afghanistan scheduled to begin in late November in Tasmania.

FILE PHOTO: Cricket - ICC Cricket World Cup - Bangladesh v Afghanistan - The Ageas Bowl, Southampton, Britain - June 24, 2019. Afghanistan's Asghar Afghan in action   Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Cricket - ICC Cricket World Cup - Bangladesh v Afghanistan - The Ageas Bowl, Southampton, Britain - June 24, 2019. Afghanistan's Asghar Afghan in action Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley/File Photo

The statement read, “If recent media reports that women’s cricket will not be supported in Afghanistan are substantiated, Cricket Australia would have no alternative but to not host Afghanistan for the proposed test match due to be played in Hobart.”

The potential for Australia to boycott or cancel their test match against Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds harkens back to the sporting boycotts of then apartheid governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. This also introduces another key issue that has emerged from recent events: Afghanistan’s standing and participation within the Olympic movement.

The Olympic Charter lays out ideals called “Fundamental Principles of Olympism.” The fourth Fundamental Principle of Olympism reads as follows, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

These ideals are further backed up by the sixth Fundamental Principle of Olympism, which reads as follows, “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The recent statements made by Wasiq could be seen as a breach of the aforementioned Fundamental Principles of Olympism.

FILE PHOTO: Hanifa Doosti (C), 17,  and other students of the Shaolin Wushu club show their Wushu skills to other students on a hilltop in Kabul, Afghanistan January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Hanifa Doosti (C), 17, and other students of the Shaolin Wushu club show their Wushu skills to other students on a hilltop in Kabul, Afghanistan January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Speaking on the situation in Afghanistan, IOC President Thomas Bach said at a press conference last week, “The IOC has started from this very day of the closing ceremony of the [Tokyo] Games to work closely with other stakeholders to help people from the Olympic community in Afghanistan, who may have become at risk; and there it goes without saying given the circumstances that there was a special focus of course of women and girls in the Olympic community.”

He later made an interesting statement regarding the national Olympic committee (NOC) of Afghanistan as well, saying, “On the institutional side, the existing NOC of Afghanistan remains recognized as the NOC of Afghanistan, and this is according to the Olympic Charter, and the existing statutes. This recognition comprises, of course, also the current NOC officebearers who were democratically elected in April 2019.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's 100m - Preliminary Round - OLS - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 30, 2021. Kimia Yousofi was one of the Olympic flagbearers for Afghanistan. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's 100m - Preliminary Round - OLS - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 30, 2021. Kimia Yousofi was one of the Olympic flagbearers for Afghanistan. REUTERS/Phil Noble

This statement is of interest because of a particular set of rules within the Olympic Charter. Rule 27.3 of the Charter reads, “The NOCs have the exclusive authority for the representation of their respective countries at the Olympic Games and at the regional, continental or world multi-sports competitions patronised by the IOC.”

This is followed by Rule 27.5 which states, “In order to fulfil their mission, the NOCs may cooperate with governmental bodies, with which they shall achieve harmonious relations. However, they shall not associate themselves with any activity which would be in contradiction with the Olympic Charter.”

Rule 27.5 is then further clarified by Rule 27.6 that denotes, “The NOCs must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter.”

Bach’s statement, along with this collection of rules from the Olympic Charter, could imply the direction in which the IOC will go on Afghanistan’s place within the Olympic movement and participation at the Olympic Games.

The IOC could look to deal directly with the existing NOC of Afghanistan rather than restructuring the existing one or creating a new NOC that would work within the framework set out by the Taliban.

Bach did expand on his earlier statement about the NOC of Afghanistan in a response to Around the Rings’ own Ed Hula. Bach explained, “The NOC which is in place right now is the NOC of Afghanistan.”

“Any new developments which we may see will be dealt with according to the rules of the Olympic Charter, and this goes with regard to the requirements of good governance for an NOC, as well as, for the Olympic principles of non-discrimination... and here in this case of course also with regard in particular to women and girls.”

During the previous Taliban regime, the IOC suspended the Afghan NOC in 1999 and Afghanistan were subsequently banned from the Sydney Games in 2000 due to the discrimination against women.

While it remains to be seen if a female sports ban will indeed be put back in place in Afghanistan, it’s clear that the international sports community wishes for Afghani women to be a part of the global sports scene.

This will be a story that continues to develop over the coming months, but one thing is certainly clear; the road paved by Robina Muqim Yaar and Friba Razayee is becoming cracked and strewn with boulders. The current and future generation of Afghani women will have additional obstacles to overcome if they wish to participate in sport.

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