Afghanistan women’s cricket team seeks recognition

Jul 6, 2024
A plinth with a cricket ball and bat resting on a Afghanistan draped flag - 3D render

Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan almost three years ago, women’s sport has been cast into darkness there.

Afghani women are not allowed to play any sport, and those who were contracted by the Afghanistan Cricket Board in 2020 are no longer recognised at home – or indeed internationally, because the International Cricket Council seeks to maintain cordial relations with all the governments of the countries to which the national cricket boards belong. Most of the Afghani women’s team (more than 20 players all told) escaped their country as the Taliban took over, but they have been scattered between Canada, the UK and Australia. Most are in Australia, where the critical mass still remains for them to play in local competitions. That is nowhere else the case.

On 2 July, the website Cricinfo reported that 17 of the formerly contracted players have written to the International Cricket Council, seeking support to play as a ‘refugee’ team with administration to be provided by the East Asian Cricket office. This would allow them to retain cohesion and identity. It would, they say, help them to develop talent and perhaps provide a pathway for them to compete in international cricket. The ICC’s response will be interesting: the organisation seeks to maintain contact with Afghanistan and being seen to be helping Afghani women cricketers might be problematic because it will put the ICC at loggerheads with the Taliban. There are difficult issues for the ICC to confront: maintaining relations with Afghanistan while supporting the exiled women in Australia will require a delicate balancing act.

This contact will be vital to the continuing growth and success of the men’s team which recently excelled itself by reaching the semi-finals of the ICC’s T20 World Cup in the USA and the Caribbean. But supporting the exiled, fragmented women’s team will test the ICC’s relationship with Afghanistan. Presumably, the Taliban will object to any help being given to a women’s team operating outside its control and which it has in effect sought to destroy.

That said, the Taliban has shown signs of wanting to be admitted to the international community, in part to improve their chances of gaining access to Afghani funds frozen in the USA. They also need international support to wean their country off opium farming, and they might need to make concessions in order to gain bargaining power in negotiations. All this is currently being tested in a UN-sponsored meeting in Qatar which the Taliban is attending – a rare thing in recent times and a sign that they recognise that it is in their interests to be involved in international discussions. The questions are what (if anything) they will concede and whether any concessions they make will involve the Afghanistan women’s cricket team.

A member of the exiled women’s team in Australia, Tooba Khan Sarwari, a medium-fast bowler, has provided some insights to this author on the players’ lives here. The players are split between Melbourne and Canberra. Some are at university, and some are working. Tooba has a part-time job coaching cricket at a Canberra school and is studying International Relations and Politics at university while continuing to hone her cricketing skills. Some of her team-mates send remittances home to families in Afghanistan where unemployment is high and poverty rife: Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Several of the women are playing in local competitions in Melbourne and Canberra: Tooba plays for two Canberra clubs. They are not able to enjoy ‘normal’ lives. It would be surprising if they were not experiencing homesickness: they have not seen their families for three years. Their futures in life and in cricket are far from clear. They escaped their homeland in difficult, even dangerous circumstances as the Taliban took over, and returning home would be risky for them. But they have shown much resolve and have attempted to gain the support of the ICC in an effort to retain their dream of playing international cricket. At the moment there is no certainty that this goal will be achieved.

The situation of the Afghani women’s cricketers recalls the international sporting boycott against South African teams between the early 1970s and the early 1990s. That boycott was supported by most of apartheid South Africa’s traditional sporting rivals especially in rugby and cricket, though ‘rebel’ tours of the republic partly circumvented it. Importantly, the organisations representing the black majority in South Africa ꟷ notably the African National Congress ꟷ generally supported the isolating of South Africa while its teams were selected on racial grounds. Eventually South Africa was forced, partly because of the boycotts and partly because of economic sanctions, to abandon apartheid for democracy, and mixed-race South African sporting teams were quickly admitted to international competition.

To date, Cricket Australia has avoided playing men’s matches against Afghanistan on bi-lateral tours, and a test against the Afghanistan men in Australia in 2022 was aborted because of Australian federal government pressure. New Zealand, however, is scheduled to play Afghanistan in a men’s test match in September, probably in India. Clearly, New Zealand and Australia are not on the same page here. Cricket Australia, it seems, is waiting for the Taliban to make some sort of concession on women’s cricket before engaging. The ICC may do likewise, which would be unfortunate.

Apart from the Taliban, there is no known opposition in Afghanistan to women playing cricket. Thus there should be no reason for Australia to boycott Afghanistan’s male cricket teams. Nothing is gained by that approach. Things are not the same as they were in the South Africa of decades ago. It should be possible to support women’s cricket without abandoning men’s: the men of Afghanistan are not at fault, the Taliban government is!

Cricket, beginning with the ICC, needs to find a way to support Afghanistan’s women’s cricket, initially outside Afghanistan itself in the case of the exiled players. This needs to happen soon, because the legitimacy of the group of formerly contracted players of the women’s cricket team is being eroded with the passage of time. Cricket needs also to show its opposition to the Taliban’s strictures as far as women’s cricketing participation inside the country is concerned, but boycotting matches against the Afghanistan men’s team will not help.

The members of the Afghanistan women’s cricket team are shining a light that is illuminating the darkness which descended three years ago on the women of their country. They should be supported by Australia and by the cricketing world.

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