London (AFP) – Former Afghanistan women’s football captain Khalida Popal fled her country after receiving death threats but it has far from cowed her in fighting the prejudice which confronts women daily, she has told AFP.
The 30-year-old — who has been based in Denmark since 2011 — takes her message round the world and spoke after giving an inspirational talk to the girls of Team England who will compete in the Street Child World Cup in Moscow later this year.
Popal said women could achieve anything, a belief she formed when as a child a group of men refused to give back the football she was playing with, saying girls had no right to take part in sport.
“I say to every woman to stay strong. Together women are capable of so many things,” said Popal, who along with her friends was called a “prostitute” by men in Afghanistan for participating in physical activity.
“Men believe us playing football is against their honour and women should stay in the kitchen and do dishwashing.
“They (women) have to understand their abilties in order to change the situation round the world.”
Popal, who is now programme director of the Afghan national team which is made up of refugees and Afghanistan-based women, uses her hand to illustrate how women can fight back.
“(Women) are like a hand. If we are standing up as an individual, as in one finger, it is not strong enough. If it is two fingers, it is not strong enough,” she said.
“We have to be together like a punch, she said, balling her hand into a fist. “And if anyone stands in our way, to be like a punch in their face.”
– ‘Fight for your dreams’ –
Popal said what she encountered in Afghanistan when she was finance officer of the country’s national football association illustrated the fear men had of women.
“I remember one day one of my colleagues didn’t even want to talk to me as he heard gossip I would take his position,” said Popal.
“I said to him ‘don’t be afraid, if I want any position I want the president’s, not yours, which is not important enough’.”
She said that because of her gender, she often found male employees refusing to accept their pay cheques from her even though their families relied on them as a bread winner.
US President Donald Trump does not escape Popal’s ire given his crude remarks on women — “locker room talk” as he termed it — and his stance on immigrants.
“We used to train in the United States and our first training camp was in California in 2015,” said Popal.
“After the election the new guy came who is really really against women, who is a person who insults women openly in public and people are clapping for him and supporting him.
“He becomes president and makes trouble for not only women but also minority groups who live in the United States.
“We come from outside so we can train elsewhere (they have recently been training in Jordan) but for those minorities and women who live there with different social and cultural backgrounds it is against humanity.”
Popal says she sees herself as a role model for oppressed women, so she has started up her own organisation, Girl Power.
“My goal is to help women through sports, especially refugee women to be part of European society.
“My speech to these amazing women who will play in the Street Child World Cup is telling them my journey and the struggles I faced and to encourage them to stay united and fight for your dreams.”
Her message struck a chord with the girls — who are not living on the streets but are in precarious positions — like Samantha, who trains three times a week with boys at Premier League giants Arsenal.
“I loved her talk all about unity as females,” Samantha told AFP. “It is especially timely as it is 100 years since women became able to vote here (in Britain).”
Popal would be suitably impressed by the ambition of Samantha — who has her Level One coaching badge.
“I want to be goalkeeper coach for England,” Samantha said.
“That might be a bit too far but I am going to keep at it. It’s a challenge but I thrive on challenges.
“I need challenges.”