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Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Frozan Rasooli’s name.

“I felt free. Free like an eagle.”

For Sediqa Sidiqi, 21, former captain of the Bamiyan Women’s Cycling Team from 2013 to 2018, riding a bicycle meant freedom. Freedom to attend school, which was too far to walk, and freedom to wear what she wanted.

“When I first started cycling to school, I had to wear my brother’s kurta [a collarless shirt] and go so that people would not recognize me,” she said. “My cycling eventually gave me the ability to wear sports gear, instead of having to wear scarves and long dresses, which were the norm in my community.”

Sidiqi wasn’t surprised by the news reports this week that the Taliban announced women will not be allowed to play sports. In an interview with Australian broadcaster SBS, Ahmadullah Wasiq, deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, reportedly said: “It is the media era, and there will be photos and videos, and then people watch it. Islam and the Islamic Emirate [Afghanistan] do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sports where they get exposed.”

The sports ban may not have come as a shock — but it still brought pain, Sidiqi said. While cycling started as a means of getting to school when she started in the eighth grade, it also gave Sidiqi a certain power, she said, and she was able to teach other girls the sport.

“When I first started riding the cycle and training other girls, many men who saw us hit us with stones or even the vegetables in their hands,” she said. “But last year, when I went home, I saw that the girls were much more comfortable on their cycles, and people have started to accept it more. When I won a national-level race in Kabul and came back, my community greeted me with flowers and celebrated my win.” But now, she added, “it will go back to being the way it was 20 years ago.”

For many women athletes, the Taliban banning them from sports means they now feel they have a bounty on their heads. Although the Taliban has promised not to discriminate against women, the last time the Taliban was in power, women were not allowed to get educated, work or leave the house without a male escort. Many worry that amid these restrictions, sports will be a faraway dream.

“Our names and photos are on social media,” said Sidiqi, who left the country to study in India in 2019. “If they find out that we are cyclists, they will kill us.” A few days ago, she said, her father took a photo of her medals and certificates, saying that he planned to burn them all out of fear that the Taliban would find them.

“I worked so hard and had such big dreams; now I have only a picture,” she said.

The photo of Sidiqi's cycling medals. (Courtesy of Sediqa Sidiqi)
The photo of Sidiqi's cycling medals. (Courtesy of Sediqa Sidiqi)

Sidiqi counts herself lucky to be out of the country, but she still knows of women cyclists in Kabul trying to leave the country, she said. “Their lives are in danger,” she added. “We need help in evacuating the girls right now — before it is too late. The uncertainty is so high that we do not know what will happen by tomorrow.”

Wida Zemarai, 34, a former goalkeeper for the Afghan women’s national football team and goalkeeping coach, is also worried. She said she gets messages every day hearing from other women who say their “dreams are being squashed and that they no longer have anything to live for if they cannot play,” she said. “What we built in 20 years is gone in five seconds.”

“They are in a sort of a prison, and all they can do is look out the window,” said Zemarai, who now lives in Sweden. “But they are strong, and they are protesting, saying that they will never allow the Taliban to take control over them.”

Wida Zemarai playing on the national team at the SAFF Championship in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2014. (Mohd Ibrahim)
Wida Zemarai playing on the national team at the SAFF Championship in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2014. (Mohd Ibrahim)

Zemarai left Afghanistan as a young child, when the mujahideen controlled the country. Her father, a government official, faced threats, she said, and her family took refuge in Uzbekistan before moving to Sweden. Meeting supportive coaches in Sweden helped her improve her game and eventually become a national level player, she added. Not only did her family’s encouragement make her feel empowered, she said, but she was able to get licensed as a goalkeeper coach by the UEFA, becoming the first Afghan woman to do so.

Now, as a scout in Europe for Afghan female soccer players, she finds it difficult to convince many to play; some still face resistance from their families, despite living outside of Afghanistan. According to Zemarai, “They are worried about people talking behind their back.”

Mariam Ruhin, 28, another former player for the Afghan women’s national football team, also grew up outside of Afghanistan, in Germany. Growing up around boys encouraged her to sign up to play soccer, she said, and she went on to play on the Afghan national team from 2012 to 2018.

“When I started playing soccer, I felt free, I was happy. I could win together with similar girls, laugh and share a great love. Whenever we won, we could show men that the prejudice against women was unjustified,” she said. The discipline she learned in soccer, she said, “opened many paths” for her life: “Football simply showed me that everything is possible as long as you want it.”

For her, the situation in Afghanistan right now is about ensuring the immediate safety of women athletes who are still in the country. Beyond that, she said, it’s about rebuilding what women had been creating in the last 20 years. “We will have to start from scratch again,” she said.

For Frozan Rasooli, 28, an Afghan national women’s cycling team member, cycling was her mother’s dream. It was a dream her mother was unable to fulfill under Taliban rule, but Rasooli was determined to. When the Taliban was in control the first time around, her family fled to Iran. As a little girl, Rasooli often saw her father riding the bicycle and dreamed of doing so. Upon her return to Afghanistan in 2001, she was determined to ride her bike around her neighborhood, to school and wherever else she wanted. She believed that freedom was a right for not only men but women, too, she said.

Years later, her mother saw news of Afghanistan’s national cycling team, Rasooli said. “That was a lightbulb moment for me,” she said. “I realized that I could fulfill not only my mom’s dream but also my own.”

According to Rasooli, while cycling made her feel physically stronger, it also dramatically affected her mental health. After suffering from depression for two years, cycling helped bring her out of her depressive episode.

Currently living in France, Rasooli knows that she is fortunate to have had the freedoms she had back in Afghanistan. But despite the return of the Taliban, she is hopeful for women there.

“Women ... have had this freedom. They are not just going to sit quietly; they will fight back,” she said. “Just look at the protests across the country. Just because the Taliban says that sports for women are banned doesn’t mean that everyone will sit back and accept it.”

Raameen Shakeeb assisted in translating Dari to English.

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