In August, when the astonishing fall of Kabul was practically a fact, the idea of an “inclusive” Taliban, open to women’s participation and notably more moderate compared to two decades ago, began to circulate among Westerners always open to believe in the improbable.
Days later, already in September, the Taliban proved to be their usual selves, although the International Cricket Council (ICC) is putting them on notice: allow women to compete. If they don’t, they very probably will be left out.
Why exactly should the Taliban care about cricket? Because it is one of the most popular sports in the country and because they themselves are passionate about it. The Taliban were born in the madrassas (Islamic schools) of Pakistan, the neighboring country to Afghanistan where cricket is all the rage.
In the years of the brutal regime that ruled Kabul from 1996 to 2001, the National Football Stadium was the scene of frequent executions, and that was the first image that came to mind when Afghanistan was associated with sport. But while that was happening, the Taliban were allowing cricket to be played and having fun with it.
What is going to happen to cricket, Ahmadullah Wasiq, deputy head of the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, which has jurisdiction over the sport, was asked.
Wasiq told Australia’s SBS radio that cricket will “continue without interruption, and [the Afghan team] can play with other international teams”.
The problem lies in what he then added: any sport “should be conducted in a manner that is not ‘un-Islamic’ and against Afghan cultural values.”
That means marginalizing women, who in the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam are confined to household chores and little else.
The problem for the Taliban is that they may not have changed in the last 20 years, but the world and sport have.
The ICC has been patient with Afghanistan, and despite rules stating that you can’t be a full member without a women’s team, the Asian country gained that status in 2017 thanks to an exception decided by the world cricket governing body.
The Afghan federation (ACB) announced in November 2020 that it had recruited 25 women to form its national team, but so far there have been no matches.
That possibility is virtually unfeasible today, Wasiq, who believes it is “unnecessary” for Afghan women to play cricket, made clear.
“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.”
The T20 World Cup will start on October 17 in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and the Afghan flag is the subject of a dispute: if the ACB presents the one that ruled before the Taliban takeover, it is more likely to compete for its national team. If, on the other hand, it presents the new flag, the ICC will be facing an even bigger problem. If they were to abide by their own rules, the conclusion would be simple: no women, no international sporting competition.