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Football and Gender Empowerment: Shamila Kohestani’s Story

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In a war-torn country, football isn’t the first thing on everyone’s mind. For Shamila Kohestani, however, establishing Afghanistan’s Women’s National Soccer Team after the fall of the Taliban was a dream come true.

Up next, we’ll learn more about the challenges that Shamila faced as she navigated a rapidly changing world in an effort to empower women across Afghanistan to get out, get active, and openly enjoy sports on the national stage for the first time in Afghanistan’s history.

In the Beginning

As a child, Shamila always wanted to play sports. A self-identified tomboy, Shamila grew up in a family of seven women and just one brother in a highly conservative society where gender roles are quite strictly defined.

During her childhood, Shamila was always told to “act like a girl,” especially when the Taliban came into power. Under the rule of the Taliban, young girls like Shamila were forbidden from playing sports, going to school, or enjoying many of the freedoms that we generally associate with childhood.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, however, Shamila took full advantage of her new opportunities, especially those that allowed her to go to school and play sports. Eventually, Shamila chose to play football because it involves running, teamwork, and the physical activity she needed to fully express herself in ways not allowed by Afghanistan’s traditional gender roles.

However, despite the fact that Shamila could play football at school, there was no national women’s team for Afghani women to compete for and show their skills on an international stage. Indeed, when Shamila started playing football, there were only a few other girls who also competed, as many schools encouraged girls to play other, less physical sports.

The First Women’s National Team

Soon enough, Shamila realised she needed more of a challenge, so she contacted Afghanistan’s Football Federation to learn more about playing on the women’s team. Shamila’s call was the first time that the Federation had ever been contacted by a woman looking to play football, so they were a bit confused, to say the least.

However, the Federation soon invited Shamila to come to their headquarters to discuss the establishment of a women’s team. When Shamila walked into the Federation for the first time, she found herself in a room full of 25 men having to explain why she thought they needed a women’s team as none of the men had ever even seen a woman play football before.

Eventually, Shamila convinced the Federation that what they need is to provide opportunities for young girls to access football through their schools. So, they set to work by partnering with the Ministry of Education to give young girls the chance to play and develop their skills while still in school. The Federation then worked with the Ministry of Education to establish the first women’s team in Kabul’s high schools in 2007, thus bringing women’s football to the collective consciousness of the Afghani people. Soon enough, Shamila was able to work with the Federation to establish the Afghan Women’s National Football Team in 2007, leading the way as the team’s very first captain.

Empowering Women Through Sport

To Shamila, however, simply creating a national women’s team was just half the battle. In a country as historically conservative as Afghanistan, bucking up against traditional gender roles is no small task.

Especially when it came to introducing the idea of women’s soccer teams in high schools in Kabul, Shamila recognised the need to slowly implement the concept of women’s sports so as not to elicit a strong negative reaction, particularly from more conservative members of society. Indeed, Shamila understood that this sort of change needed to happen somewhat organically in Afghanistan.

As one might imagine, however, being one of the first people to empower women in Afghanistan through football wasn’t always easy. While she was studying in the United States for both high school and university, Shamila was forced to stay away from her home country for a number of years, mostly for safety and security reasons.

Despite these challenges, however, Shamila persevered. As captain of the Afghan Women’s National Football Team, she worked to build a strong foundation for the new squad. Although they weren’t quite ready to play in a lot of high-profile international matches, through Shamila’s efforts, they received a lot of high-quality training from international coaches and organisations that wanted to support their mission.

These days, Shamila no longer plays for the team, but is still leading the way to empower women through sport. Despite the financial support that has been flowing into Afghanistan in recent years, Shamila believes that what the women’s national team really needs is more support at the grassroots level, with more access to the sport for younger girls and better training opportunities at a younger age.

The most recent world cup was immensely empowering for the women’s national team as it has helped solidify the importance of women’s football on the international stage. Despite the success of the most recent world cup, however, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Although some teams, in particular those from the USA and other football powerhouses, excel in international competition, others still suffer from a lack of respect for women’s football.

However, with each passing world cup and every new opportunity, young girls in Afghanistan and around the world gain new role models that can inspire them to challenge social norms to play a sport they love. Moving forward, Shamila thinks the next frontier is equal pay for women’s’ and men’s’ teams - a direct sign of respect for the skills of these top female footballers.

Thanks to Shamila’s efforts, the world women’s football has changed dramatically, and for the better. We can’t wait for the next world cup and to see how women’s empowerment through sport continues to improve the lives of young women and girls as they chase their dreams.

If you’re interested in learning more about Shamila’s story and the challenges she faced when establishing Afghanistan’s National Women’s Football Team, check out her interview on Tough Girl Podcast!


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