by Jenar Achay
Khalida Popal is no longer considered a “stolen girl” by her country’s new ruler, but an honorary footballer. She was awarded the honor recently for being a national hero during the Taliban’s rule.
In a message by fax to Fox News, the English-speaking Khadijah, now 19, speaks of how she took a hard approach to confrontation with the Taliban when they banned sports in schools and threatened any girl who attended school. She said Afghan National Defense and Security Forces was inspired by her actions and formed a League of Princesses, combining music, fashion and fitness to fight for girls’ education.
“Over 2,000 girls started playing football and formed the League of Princesses. President [Afghanistan’s hardline Islamist President Ashraf Ghani] called us to thank us for the beauty of our League,” she said.
The late president, the late president, the late President…I have not followed up with those…Neesha Ahmed Khan, head of the Afghan Football Federation, during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
Popal received her award Monday as a token of appreciation for her efforts.
“This award is the best gift I have received in my entire life. I was prepared for any challenge, but never thought it would be like this,” she said, recalling that her only gift to avenge her father’s death was to join the Taliban when she was 10 years old.
“It was my father’s birthday on 10 September 2001. We were preparing for a football match. When our house exploded and all of us were inside it, my father’s only gift to me was to join the Taliban,” she said.
“We were not educated at that time. I did not know anything. I was just 12 years old,” Popal added.
“Our daughter’s life was more valuable than the holy Quran,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said during the ceremony.
“We are not doing this to make you icons. We will do this to build you up,” his wife Saira Afzal said during the ceremony.
Anja Kamenetz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a former executive director of the Frankfurt School Center for Global Affairs and a vocal proponent of better education for girls in Afghanistan. She says young women’s soccer in Afghanistan is coming out of the shadows, as more and more girls are finding ways to receive and pay for schooling.
“So, where in Afghanistan is this type of leadership evident, and, in order to get out of that leadership, you have to change the political environment,” Kamenetz says.
While President Ghani acknowledged that girls like Popal are now on the path to reclaiming their nation and have already shown their worth by exhibiting positive leadership, there’s still a long way to go, Kamenetz says.
“It’s really hard for us to sit and celebrate about what the Taliban did to Afghan girls and hear that this would have been just a marginally preferable alternative and there was still this stereotype that Afghanistan was not a place for women and that women were simply property,” she says.
“So, the Taliban was dangerous because they’re much more extreme than the Taliban in other countries and that sets them apart,” Kamenetz adds.
In the 30 years since the fall of the Taliban, there’s been an effort to revamp the education system in Afghanistan and foster greater equality between genders. While girls’ education is improving, there’s been ongoing focus on encouraging the men in society to open their minds, as Kamenetz has witnessed first-hand.
“I’ve talked to people in the Taliban, [and there’s] such a transformation happening in Taliban head-quarters and even in central Taliban councils which is a situation I’ve never seen before,” she says.
But she and others are hesitant to believe the Taliban as a political movement is on its last legs, despite the recent overtures from some of the group’s leaders and spokespeople.
“The Taliban are very, very good at pretending to be people you know, sort of like they’ve evolved in order to maintain their legitimacy,” Kamenetz says.
But if there’s one thing Popal has already done, it’s to prove that she, too, is a fighter.
Click here to see the interview.