Former Afghan women’s captain goes on attack

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Shamila Kohestani, the first captain of the Afghanistan women’s national team, has become the latest to speak on allegations that sexual abuse took place at a training camp for the national team in Jordan last year, and at the federation’s headquarters.

Ten days ago, Fifa provisionally suspended Keramuudin Karim, the president of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF), from all football-related activities while investigations are ongoing. It was the first victory for women who claim they were repeatedly ignored by the AFF and the Asian Football Confederation throughout a reporting process littered with what they have described as inadequacies.

Sexual harassment, Kohestani says, “is endemic in Afghan society” and she has no qualms echoing the belief of the head coach of the Afghanistan women’s national team, Kelly Lindsey, that similar abuse is happening at other federations.

“This is definitely happening,” says Kohestani. “At the global level, in a lot of Latin American countries, in Middle Eastern countries, or even second world countries, developing countries. This happens very often. I’m pretty sure it’s been happening for a long time.”

Her former team-mates, though, were the first to break their silence, triggering what should have been a worldwide, collective self-reflection.

Inside the country, however, Karim’s suspension has not been universally welcomed. The responses of many Afghan men have been laced with victim-blaming, some calling to expel the women’s committee from the AFF and disband the women’s national team that was the result of 12 years’ work.

“For them to see a woman running around – they’re like, ‘What are you trying to prove?’ Everyone is saying, ‘If we didn’t have a women’s committee, this would never have happened.’

“Women have to pay the price. We are limiting women’s opportunities just because men misbehave. They’re like, ‘Where in Islam does it say a woman should play soccer?’ Well, where does it say women shouldn’t play soccer? Limiting women to play soccer is not solving the issue of sexual harassment. They need to make the women’s committee completely independent from the men’s federation.”

Some members of the Afghan government, Kohestani says, are now “playing politics”, “only interested in looking for opportunities for themselves”.

“They say, ‘They [the women] want to remove the other person because they want to take over football,’ ” she says. “But it’s not like they’re going to give the position to the women. It’s more focused on things that don’t matter to women.”

Although the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has said that “no kind of disrespect against our boy and girl athletes is acceptable”, Kohestani is uncomfortable with his belief that “the honour of our women is the honour of our country”.

“This happened to women as individuals. It has nothing to do with the honour of anyone. We should focus on the women who are suffering, the women who are victims. 

“We should worry more about them than the honour of the country, the honour of people. Who cares what people think about Afghanistan? Let them think that we have animals in Afghanistan who misbehave, who use women.”

The preoccupation with honour has inspired, Kohestani believes, the current national team players’ defence of the AFF in press conferences. “They are using them as a way to speak for the whole federation: ‘The federation is so clean’.” Are they being pressured? 

“I don’t think they’re pressured. They are saying, ‘It didn’t happen to me – my family will kill me.’ They wanted to protect their honour, who they are, so they can play football. I don’t blame them – they live in a very conservative society – but you can’t say that about other women. They could defend themselves, saying, ‘This didn’t happen to me – it doesn’t happen to everyone.’ But they can’t defend the president or people who have been accused, because they don’t know. 

A Fifa spokesperson said: “Fifa has been fully aware of the situation in Afghanistan and has been working hard to secure the safety of the girls.

“Fifa has been working very discreetly with those involved – given the sensitive nature of the accusations and danger to life posed – since last March to pull together evidence for a formal investigation and have brought in the UN, such is the extent of their concern for the girls still in the country and the need to bring in an organisation that can make political and legal interventions outside of Fifa’s abilities.”

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