Ban? No ban? Afghan cricket chief offers hope to women athletes

Al Jazeera speaks to Afghanistan’s cricket chief on the future of female athletes in the country after the Taliban takeover.

While the Taliban has spoken of inclusivity in the government, a moderate attitude towards women and a promise to continue sporting activities, current and former players remain sceptical and unsure of what the future may hold. [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

Sport in Afghanistan faced an uncertain future following the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August this year.

Hundreds of athletes, especially female athletes, went into hiding or were evacuated from the country for fear of reprisal or being shunned by the new Taliban government.

Those outside the country feared the worst, having seen a complete ban on women’s sport when the armed group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 until the US-led invasion in 2001.

A high-ranking Taliban official was recently quoted as saying that women will be banned from sport in the country (although officials later claimed the statement was not translated accurately from Pushto).

However, while the Taliban has spoken of inclusivity in the government, a moderate attitude towards women and a promise to continue sporting activities, current and former players remain sceptical and unsure of what the future may hold.

Some women have said they are fighting a losing battle to remain visible under the Taliban.

Al Jazeera spoke to the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s recently appointed Chairman Azizullah Fazli on the security situation, preparations for the World Cup and the future of women’s cricket in the country.

Al Jazeera: There have been a lot of concerns around the future of women’s sport, female athletes and the women’s cricket team. Has there been any directive from the Taliban government on what may happen?

Azizullah Fazli: We have spoken to the top Taliban government officials and their stance is that there is officially no ban on women’s sport, especially women’s cricket. They have no problem with women taking part in sport. We’ve not been asked to stop women from playing cricket. We’ve had a women’s team for 18 years, although it wasn’t a major team, we’re not on that level yet.

But what we need to keep in mind is our religion and culture. If women adhere to that [attire] there is no problem in them taking part in sporting activities. Islam doesn’t allow women to wear shorts like the other teams do while playing football especially. That’s something we need to keep in mind.

A Taliban official also recently said sport and politics will be kept separate and those who understand the game and are technically well-versed will be appointed into relevant positions. The government has told us it will support us in any way needed.

Afghanistan Cricket Board Chairman Azizullah Fazli [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: The last couple of months have seen drastic changes in the political landscape in the country. How has sport been affected, especially preparations for the cricket T20 World Cup?

Fazli: In sport, we’ve had no problems. We have been training and playing matches in the last two months, even after the Taliban government took over. They said they support cricket and are fully behind the development of the game. I’m a former cricketer and been involved with the cricket board for almost 15 years. I was chairman in 2018-2019 and when I was recently brought back, they assured me that there will be no political interference in cricket and sport.

Al Jazeera: But has the situation and the fall of the previous government changed anything?

Fazli: The situation in Afghanistan is great. There is peace, no fighting apart from isolated instances [such as a recent Kunduz attack where more than 50 people died in a mosque bomb attack]. These isolated instances happen all over the world. In the months prior to the Taliban takeover, we had hundreds killed daily. Now there is no war, no fighting. The security situation is great and the future is bright from Afghanistan cricket.

Al Jazeera: The International Cricket Council (ICC) said it will review the situation in Afghanistan at a meeting soon. There are also prospects of expulsion for not having a women’s team as required by the ICC for all member states.

Fazli: When Afghanistan attained ICC’s full member status in 2017, the criteria we were given did not have anything on expulsion if we do not have a women’s team. At that time, there was fighting across the country, players lived far away from Kabul and we told them how it was very difficult for us to have a women’s team. The ICC told us OK, we can work on the development and then look at having the women’s team. That criteria doesn’t apply to us. We do want to have the team, of course. People are talking about the situation in Afghanistan in general. That’s the political situation related to the government, not cricket.

Al Jazeera: You mentioned that you’ve been appointed for three years. You’ve been in this position before. What is your vision and what do you want to see Afghanistan cricket achieve in your tenure?

Fazli: I’m a former cricketer, I understand the sport well and that’s why I’ve been re-appointed. For starters, we need two to three international-standard grounds. We need to improve our relations with full member states, and we need sponsors. We didn’t have a sponsor for two years. Now we have one for the World Cup but I’m trying to get another big company involved.

In these three years, I want to make a strategy for the next five years – including development of domestic cricket and relations with other countries. We also want to support associate members, especially in our region. I have almost 20 years of experience in cricket and I know what’s needed where.

My message to the world of sport is to use sport for peace. For decades, Afghanistan was at war and then this amazing bunch of players emerged that rocked the world of cricket. That was great for cricket and for sport. Now, there are more hopes from the team, the country. As the security situation improves in Afghanistan, so will the cricket.

Al Jazeera: You spoke about relations with neighbours and member states. Relations between the Afghanistan and Pakistan boards were patchy in the past. Where do things stand now?

Fazli: Sports work towards peace. It’s best to have good relations with your neighbours to achieve that. Ramiz Raja [Pakistan’s new cricket chief and former cricketer] is a good friend, and we’re talking. We’re also in talks with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They all supported us when we weren’t a full member state. Pakistan is a neighbour, a brotherly Muslim nation. I’m happy if we get their support and they are happy if they get our support. That’s how it works.

There are so many Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Even I played in Karachi. It’s good for them. It was the political relationship between the two countries that wasn’t great in the recent past but we’ve had our players in the Pakistan Super League too and now the situation is really good between us.

The Afghanistan cricket team training in Qatar ahead of the T20 World Cup [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera