Afghan woman found freedom and hope through playing soccer.
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Not only is Zahra Mahmoodi an Afghan soccer player, she is also a natural leader on and off the soccer field. Zahra carries herself with confidence and humility despite winning the Muhammad Ali Award in 2013 and meeting with the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for her courage and dedication to promoting women’s soccer in Afghanistan. Zahra is the former head of the Football Federation Women’s Committee and the first woman in Afghanistan who obtained her coaching license from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
I have known Zahra since 2006, and I knew from the second I met her that she was going to leave her mark on the world. You can feel her positive energy the second she walks into a room. Her love of football is contagious, and she served as captain of the Afghan Women’s National Team from 2010-2013, at which time I had the privilege of being her teammate. She is a fierce competitor on the soccer field, as well as a strong advocate for gender equality. Today Zahra lives in Canada and is working with Right to Play organization. I reached out to her to have a conversation about how our paths have taken us from war-torn Afghanistan to the soccer pitch, where we became allies, teammates, and fellow advocates for all women athletes. While speaking with her, I learned an interesting and fun fact about Zahra. From the ages of 11 to 16, Zahra’s biggest hobby was to write poems about Manchester United and its players. Now we can understand her obsession with the world of soccer.
Zahra was born in Iran to Afghan refugee parents. She enjoyed watching soccer on TV ever since she was a young girl and dreamed of playing soccer one day. However, since Iran is a conservative society, Zahra did not have the opportunity to play soccer. Sometimes she would play with her older brothers inside their yard but because it was not socially acceptable for young girls to play soccer, her parents did not like this. She tried playing soccer at school, but her school principal warned her to stop because girls were not allowed to play what was seen as a man’s sport at school.
Zahra started playing soccer in secret when her father decided to start making soccer balls in order to make a living in Iran. She says that every night “I would stay at the shop to practice soccer after completing my duties of inflating and cleaning the balls.” After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iranian government made it very difficult for Afghan refugees to stay in Iran. Notably, they banned Afghan refugee children from attending school. Therefore, Zahra’s family decided to move back to Afghanistan in 2004 when she was 14 years old.
“Playing soccer gave me hope in life, hope for a bright future, and hope for a day where I would have the right to play soccer without gender restrictions.
”Despite Iran’s cultural similarities with Afghanistan, a shared border, and a common language—Farsi—Afghans were not welcomed and treated horribly as refugees. Afghan children were not allowed to get an education and parents were only offered construction work and undesirable jobs. For Zahra, playing soccer was an escape from this reality. Soccer gave her hope as a refugee living in Iran and it taught her how to tackle difficult life problems.
Once she arrived in Kabul, Zahra started making friends and created a soccer team at her school. Soon after, her school team was invited to participate in the first girls’ soccer tournament in Kabul organized by the Afghan Football Federation where Zahra was selected for the Afghan National Team. Her dream came true and since then she has continued to play soccer regularly. The sport is a major part of her life that she could not imagine living without.
"Playing soccer teaches lots of essential life skills, from teamwork and building confidence to being compassionate towards others." Since the sport was not accessible to women, Zahra chose to play soccer because it was a challenge that she could face head-on. Societal rejection of her efforts gave her more energy and fuel to fight against gender stereotypes. Zahra was captivated by the beautiful game and determined to play no matter the circumstances. “I did not want to give up when society prohibited me from playing soccer just because I was a girl,” said Zahra. For her, fighting for her right to play soccer was a way to enforce gender equality and create access to this sport for all girls.
“My goal was to show the world that Afghan women are not fragile, weak, or victims.”
“Playing for the Afghan Women’s National Team and having the opportunity to become captain of the team was an honor,” says Zahra. She was able to use her platform as a soccer player to represent a different face of her country, a face that was tolerant. She wanted to show a positive image of Afghanistan and believed the world needed to see the strength of Afghan women who were fighting for their rights and freedoms. Zahra says “I was lucky enough to attend AFC’s coaching training and become the first female licensed coach in my country in 2011.” Through coaching soccer, Zahra had the opportunity to help other girls discover their strengths and improve their confidence and teamwork.
"Playing sports can help everyone discover their strengths and build their confidence."
Due to negative stereotypes about women playing sports, it is essential to help young girls and women realize their power and learn that they do not have to be limited by traditional social norms. It is vital that we women challenge the stereotypes hurting women in sports. Historically, soccer has been seen as a men’s sport but by promoting women’s soccer, we challenge the traditional view and provide equal opportunities for everyone regardless of their gender. In this way, everyone will be able to enjoy playing the beautiful game of football and learn essential athletic and social skills.
"We cannot have an equal and prosperous society unless everyone is willing to participate and make this goal a reality."
It is important that both men and women support women’s football. There is still much work to do in levelling the playing field for women, and it will be less challenging if we have more male allies, especially in patriarchal societies where women are seen as second-class. At the beginning, Zahra’s parents and brothers did not support her love for football due to the lack of security in Afghanistan. However, Zahra’s parents did not prevent her from playing soccer as long as it did not impact her grades at school. After she proved that she could manage both school and playing soccer, Zahra’s parents were very proud of her achievements.
Zahra considers herself lucky to have a relatively supportive family in a society that does not generally support women’s sports. That is why she always felt responsible to help girls who did not have the same opportunities as her. “I made it my mission to help more girls be aware of the opportunities available to them and encourage them to play soccer.”
“Playing soccer, fighting for the same goal, and sharing victories and loses made my teammates and I lifelong friends regardless of our background and ethnicities.”
After 30 years of war and poverty, ethnic conflict remains one of the biggest challenges in Afghanistan. Zahra believes soccer is the one sport that brings Afghans together as one team despite their differences. She thinks that playing soccer teaches us that we can accept and respect our differences as humans and still be a team.
For Zahra, it is essential not only to play soccer recreationally but also to compete internationally because it brings awareness about women’s sports on a global scale. It also takes women’s fight for equality to the next level when they can show the world that they can compete and succeed at the international level just like men. It is important that we women athletes find our place on the world stage by showing our abilities and strengths through sports. In this way, we can change the negative mindset people have about women athletes. We have to fight for our respect and dignity just like we have been fighting for everything else.