By Pary Shuaib – From practicing martial arts to climbing soaring mountains, Afghan women are finding creative ways to break barriers in sports, but before we could conquer hilltops, we had to find our way to fields and gyms. This week, I had the chance to speak with a pioneer for women’s soccer in Afghanistan. Shamila Kohestani was one of the first captains of Afghanistan’s National Women’s Football (soccer) Team after the fall of the Taliban regime. Today, she is working with Shirzanan, an organization dedicated to encouraging more women from Muslim-majority countries to join sports.

You are an inspiration to many around the world. What initially inspired you to start playing soccer? 

SK: When I kicked the soccer ball for the first time, I felt as if nothing existed around me that could prevent me from doing what I wanted. It was a sense of empowerment I can’t explain. After I started playing soccer many people tried to discourage me. Some people told me I was not physically strong enough to play, because soccer is seen as a men’s sport in Afghanistan. It made me angry and I used my anger to fuel myself. I wanted to prove people wrong and I was determined to show men that women are powerful and strong.

At any given time you are working on several projects. What keeps you busy these days?

SK: When I left Afghanistan to attend the 2006 Julie Foudy Soccer Leadership Academy (JFSLA), it was a big step. I came from a deeply conservative society where women are encouraged to remain silent, but there I was playing soccer. It was at JFSLA that I first learned that if I worked hard and believed in myself, my potential was endless. I wanted to provide other young Afghan women with the same opportunity. Today, in collaboration with Julie Foudy, an incredible leader and the former captain of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, and Shirzanan, we are inviting six women from six Muslim-majority countries to attend the Julie Foudy Leadership Academy camp in the summer of 2017.

Together, we can train these athletes to become more than soccer superstars. They can become role models and leaders for other women, on and off the field. In addition to instilling leadership skills in these athletes, we will promote cross-cultural understanding among the American soccer players, Muslim athletes from many nations, and within Muslim society.

By enabling young women to attend JFSLA, we are working to advance familiarity with, and greater acceptance of, women playing sports. We hope this will lead to even more women finding their voices and self-confidence.

JFSLA is providing scholarships that include room and board for each of these international athletes. However, we still need to raise funds for their travel costs, including flights, visa fees, and ground transportation. Shirzanan and I need your help to make this happen.

Like you said, Shirzanan’s work is about more than women playing sports. How have you seen soccer change women and girl’s lives in Afghanistan?

SK: Speaking from firsthand experience, sports gave me the opportunity for higher education and to come out of my comfort zone and be free. It also changed the way society treated me. People no longer saw me as weak. The boys from my neighborhood stopped harassing me. They were threatened by my ability to play soccer. I remember hearing them say “don’t mess with her. She is a footballer.”

Soccer empowered me and my teammates. It built our self-confidence and opened doors for us. Today, most of my teammates have gone on to be accomplished women in various fields. Although women’s athletics is relatively young in Afghanistan, there is growing evidence that it can play a key role in creating a safe space for women and change women’s role in society.

What is an accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

SK: My proudest moment in life was receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN in 2006 presented by Ashley Judd. I was honored to show a different face of Afghanistan. I was extremely happy to represent the women of Afghanistan through the power of soccer and show our courage and bravery.

Every day we wake up to a new wave of negative news and as Afghan women, we face a wide range of obstacles in our lives. What keeps you going?

SK: What inspires me is the power of women and girls. Afghan women are brave and hardworking and we want to contribute to our communities. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is still one of the most challenging places for women. Many women still lack basic human rights, like the right to get an education, be free, or participate in sports. Even today, most families don’t support their daughters’ ambitions. Despite all the obstacles, Afghan women are making history on a daily basis. Woman like Fereshteh Forough, Niloofar Rahmani, Roya Mahboob, Sakena Yacoobi and hundreds more keep me going. We have so many brave women working hard to make sure the next generation of girls have freedom and opportunity. It is not hard to be inspired by that.

In your experience, what are ways Afghan women can overcome cultural, gender barriers?

SK: Overcoming gender and cultural barriers is difficult, but definitely possible. We need to find allies and advocates among men and community leaders to emphasize the important role women play at the local and national level. Many men in Afghanistan support gender equality and women’s rights for other women, but they don’t want the same for their own sister, mother and wife because they feel threatened by their female family members gaining power. We need to educate boys from a young age so that they grow up to be allies, not obstacles.

In addition to having male allies, it’s highly critical that we promote and support female role models.

Media plays a key role in helping introduce women who are working in sports, hospitals, and schools or running local businesses and making women’s participation mainstream. Women and girls are more likely to participant in school and sports if they know those opportunities do exist.

You have said your own father has always been supportive of your dreams. Can you speak on the importance of men’s support for equality?

SK: Both my parents were highly supportive of education for my sisters and me. Even during the Taliban my sisters and I were home-schooled and we attended secret underground schools in Kabul. Everything I have achieved in my life is because of my parents’ support. I never had to ask my father for permission to attend school because getting an education was prized in my family. I don’t even remember asking for permission to play soccer, I started playing and my father supported me despite the criticism he received from my relatives and neighbors. I don’t believe I would be where I’m now without my father’s support because in a patriarchal society like Afghanistan, it can be life-saving. This is because my father believed in his daughters.

All men can play that role for their daughters and other women in Afghanistan since it is a male-dominated society and men’s voices carry more weight. To make men allies in this fight, we have to encourage and educate them on how gender-equality is essential for making our societies safer and better.

What gives you hope for the future of Afghanistan?

SK: The only thing that gives me hope for the future of Afghanistan is our new generation. Women have made so much progress over the past decade despite security challenges. That gives me hope. When I see the women’s soccer team competing in the Asia Soccer League I feel hope. When I read about the women’s cycling team breaking gender barriers by biking in the outskirt of Kabul I feel hope. When I see the videos of young women practicing shaolin martial arts in the snow I feel hope.

About the author

Pary Shuaib is a Free Women Writers member with a relentless passion for gender equality. She has a BA in Communication from George Mason University and sometimes does yoga to soothe her soul.

You can follow Free Women Writers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This piece previously ran on Free Women Writers and is republished on Women You Should Know with express permission from its author. Images via Shamila Kohestani.