BARCELONA – A knee injury may have taken feminist activist Khalida Popal (Kabul, 1987) off the playing field but it hasn’t stopped her from her main mission: defending the voices of silenced women all over the world.
The former Afghan soccer player spoke to EFE during the presentation of a report by the FC Barcelona Foundation and UNICEF on the impact of the sport on child development, something that Popal took advantage of to highlight the social strength of football.
Popal knows exactly what she is talking about. In 2007, she had a hand in shaping Afghanistan’s national women’s team, a tough process in “a very restrictive and male-dominated country, and a warzone where women are struggling to have their own basic rights as human beings,” she said.
To put the difficulties into context, she explained one of her own experiences: “When a group of men stood against us and took the ball we were playing football with a damaged that ball they told us we do not have a right to play football and you belong to kitchen,” she said, proud of not having been intimidated.
“That was a time that we stood and took that as a mission that we make history and we will change this mindset and we started like campaigns and what happened we established the first women’s national team and we made history,” the former player said.
“So many women joined and unity became among women, among girls the self-confidence that we gained from football we got purpose in our life,” Popal said on what it meant to create a women’s national team.
The activist does not forget the risk the team’s members are exposed to: “We put our lives at risk, we faced a lot of challenges, a lot of problems as individuals and as a group, all of this, but our mission was bigger,” she recalled.
“Thousands of women, not only in the capital but around Afghanistan, all playing football and that is (a thing) we are happy and proud of, that was worth it,” the Afghan said.
The threats to her life were so serious to the extent that she had to seek refuge in Denmark in 2011.
“I wanted to save my voice and I wanted to be an example for so many women around the world to use the power of football and also to use the power of sport in general,” she said.
Despite going into exile, the pioneer remains connected to her country and is involved in “so many activities supporting and helping projects that help women in terms of healthy lifestyle and sports.”
In Denmark, Popal has launched Girl Power Organisation, an association that aims to use football to facilitate refugee women’s integration into local communities.
“When I ended up in Denmark as a refugee woman, I felt there is a need in the society … to help women in asylum centres and refugee or immigrant communities that they are living in isolated communities where there is no bridge between refugees and citizens of the country.
“So once again I used the power of sports to help women decrease their stress and depression but also to help them to get integrated and be part of the society,” she said of her recent project, which is also based around football.