Roya Samim fled Afghanistan for Canada with her two sisters, two days before the Taliban entered Kabul. All three of them were cricketers with the Afghan women’s team. In essence she is one of the lucky ones: she got out before the Taliban got in. But that doesn’t stop the overwhelming feelings of grief.
“Leaving Afghanistan, it was sad day for me. I just cried,” she says. “I really love everything that I had: my job, my cricket, my teammates, my home town, my relatives. Everything that I have, I leave behind. Even now when I remember this day I will cry.”
When the Taliban were last in power, they forbade women and girls from receiving an education or working and women were not allowed out of the house unless wearing a burqa and in the companionship of a male relative. Sport was out of the question and, though the Taliban have not made a definitive statement about the future of female participation, Samim is not hopeful: “The Taliban are against girls studying, so how do they want a girl’s cricket team?”
She is extremely worried over the fate of her teammates left behind – as far as she knows, she and her sisters are the only ones who got out. “My other teammates who stay in Afghanistan are afraid, they stay in their houses,” she says. “They are sad, they ask people to please help us. Emotionally and physically, they are not good.”
Unlike the 77 young female athletes and members of the Afghan football team and officials, who were evacuated to Australia, helped by the players union Fifpro, and the two Paralympic athletes who were airlifted out of Kabul by the Royal Australian Air Force and taken to Tokyo, Afghanistan’s female cricketers feel abandoned.
“We all emailed the ICC but got no response from them,” says Samim. “Why do they not respond to us, why do they not consider us, even treat us that we don’t exist in the world?
“After the Taliban came into Kabul, we requested that [the ICC] please save all the girls, we are worried for our teammates. The Afghan Cricket Board [ACB] also said nothing, they said just: ‘Wait.’”
The Guardian spoke to the International Cricket Council who said that, as far as they know, they have not received any emails asking for help. It is believed that they are continuing to liaise with the Afghan Board and being guided by them as to what is the best course of action, rather than acting unilaterally.
The ICC will also continue to monitor the situation in terms of the development of the game in Afghanistan and its role in improving the standing of women. The dismantling of the fledgling women’s team could in theory threaten Afghanistan’s full ICC membership.
After years of women’s cricket in Afghanistan developing at a snail’s pace, the situation for female players had just got significantly better. In November, the ACB announced 25 central contracts for female cricketers following a training camp of 40 women conducted, “considering Islamic and traditional Afghan values”.
There were viable plans for a future, and Samim was encouraged by seeing little girls occasionally playing cricket in the streets of Kabul. “In the last year, it was not so difficult for us. We can have possibilities, we can have matches, we can exercise daily. Before that it was difficult, people would not accept us, the ACB said that we must not go out with the cricket equipment.”
“We had a match planned against Oman. We were waiting, ready for it. For six months, we were training, exercising, all the girls become stronger, day by day. We were ready.”
The signs are that the men’s team, which has brought so much joy and hope to the people of Afghanistan, will be able to keep on playing, in the forthcoming T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, and that the domestic T20 competition, the (expanded) Shpageeza Cricket League, will continue as planned in September.
“The Taliban don’t have any issue or problem with [male] cricket,” said Hikmat Hassan, the ACB’s head of media operations. “They have told us that we can continue our work as planned.”
Samim is full of praise for some of her male counterparts like Rashid Khan, who came to visit the women at their academy, and all-rounder Mohammad Nabi. Both have used Twitter to express their sorrow at what is happening in their country. Khan, who spoke in July of his hopes for a future when Afghanistan would be able to play cricket in front of a home crowd, wrote: “Dear World Leaders! My country is in chaos thousands of innocent people, including children and women, get martyred everyday, houses and properties being destructed. Thousand families displaced. Don’t leave us in chaos. Stop killing Afghans and destroying Afghanistan. We want peace.”
Samim, 28, used to teach mathematics in Afghanistan and hopes to continue her studies – a BBA (bachelor of business administration) in Canada. She hopes to continue playing cricket too. But more than anything, she wants to keep the Afghan female cricket team flying.
“Every human being deserves to be happy and in peace, Afghanistan now is no good for human beings, especially for girls, but also for men, I don’t know what will happen. The Taliban says one thing but I think they are breaking their promises.
“I have hope. I never stop hoping that Afghanistan must have a girl’s team. When the Taliban will not accept it, it must happen in some other country and we will play under the flag of Afghanistan. We must play.”