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Khalida Popal Read by Shamsia Hassani

Khalida Popal is a football player, an activist and a defender at heart. As a committed team leader, Khalida empowers girls through sports and defends her teammates in Afghanistan both on and off the pitch.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Bianca Salinas. It was written by Sara Weiss and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Shamsia Hassani. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producer was Joy Smith. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

The year was 2007. Khalida Popal and her teammates stood shoulder to shoulder on a wide open football pitch in Islamabad, Pakistan. They were wearing their red national team jerseys, representing their home country of Afghanistan for the first time. 

Khalida could hardly believe this was happening. As a hush fell over the stadium and the Afghani national anthem began to play, she felt her throat tighten; tears of joy falling down her cheeks. Khalida’s teammates were crying beside her too. After so many years of training and defending, pleading with the government to recognize their rights, even standing here singing their anthem felt like a victory.

And whatever happened in this game would affect the rights of athletes and women everywhere.

I’m Shamsia Hassani. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us. On this episode, Khalida Popal — football player, activist and defender at heart. 

Khalida was born in 1987 in Kabul, Afghanistan, a bustling city nestled in a valley between tall, snow-capped mountains

At home, Khalida was always on the move, running outside with her brothers and playing football—or soccer as it’s called in the United States. 

Khalida’s mom worked as a physical education teacher, and she loved how much Khalida took to sports. She bought Khalida a football and a pair of cleats and encouraged her to chase after the ball, and her dreams — wherever they might take her.

Then, in 1996, everything changed. An oppressive political and religious group called the Taliban took over Afghanistan. They announced strict new rules for the Afghani people, especially women and girls. Women like Khalida’s mom who worked outside the home, were forbidden from doing so. Girls — including Khalida — weren’t allowed to go to school or to any public events. They weren’t allowed to play sports, and they had to cover their bodies from head to toe. 

Khalida was only in second grade, but she could feel her life screeching to a halt. Stuck inside, her world felt closed-in and hollow. It made no sense that girls and women — half of the population — should be treated like prisoners. 

Soon, there was a civil war in Afghanistan. Surrounded by violence, Khalida and her family feared for their lives. They fled Kabul and tried to start over in the neighboring country of Pakistan. Living as refugees was very difficult, but slowly, they built a new life together, working, playing and going to school. Then, in 2001, Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban. Khalida and her family moved back to their hometown of Kabul with hope and excitement in their hearts.

But it wasn’t the same. Many of the Taliban’s ultraconservative beliefs remained. It was still difficult for women to prove they deserved the same rights as men. When Khalida went out to play with her brothers, the neighbors harassed them, shouting, “Football is not for girls!” or calling Khalida awful names.

Khalida refused to be intimidated. She started traveling to other towns and playing with boys’ clubs. She tied her hair back and wore baggy clothes so people assumed she was a boy too. She loved this sport so much – it was about more than striking or defending. It was the feeling of freedom and strength that she felt as she charged down the wing or defended the keeper. She knew she belonged out there on the pitch.

When she was sixteen, Khalida gathered some classmates at her all-girls high school who also loved football and they found a walled-off courtyard where they could play without being seen. They set up their book bags as goalposts and used an old football they named Magic Ball. 

Khalida and her friends had so much fun together in that little oasis. They played in the heat, in the cold, in the rain — all while wearing long dresses. Some of them wore headscarves too. They were careful not to make a sound, even if they were cheering each other on inside.

But soon enough, their secret games were discovered and they got all sorts of unwelcome visitors. Their teachers scolded them and boys from the neighborhood hollered cruel words from beyond the courtyard walls. One day, a boy hopped over the wall and deflated Magic Ball. It felt like an attack, and many of the girls quit, too fearful to keep going. 

But Khalida and some of the others found another ball and continued to play. Khalida and her mother rallied girls from other schools too. They began to multiply in number, forming clubs. There were bands of girls who felt passionate about this sport — and their right to play it! They knew they were risking their safety and their reputation, but for Khalida, it was worth it. 

“I have nothing to lose,” she said. “The only thing I have is the freedom I get through football.” 

In 2006, Khalida and some of her teammates went to the Afghanistan Football Federation or AFF, the main organization for football in the country. She and her teammates said that they had the skills, stamina and strength to make a powerful national football team. They deserved this chance.

It took a long time for the Federation to listen. Khalida and her teammates argued and pleaded. They explained that they had amazing players. They had funding from the larger international football federation. They’d even run the program. All the AFF needed to do was say yes.

Finally, in 2007, they were given the green light and Khalida helped establish Afghanistan’s first Women’s National Football Team. By this point, Khalida’s mission had become greater than just her love of football. She was determined to change the culture. “We stand, not only for ourselves, but for our sisters,” she said. “This country is not only built for men. It is also for women.”

Stepping out onto the pitch as part of the newly formed national women’s team was an extraordinary feeling. Khalida felt so proud and energized, especially playing defense. Her team could lean on her — physically and emotionally. She would do whatever it took to protect them and advance their cause.

Khalida and her team practiced diligently and started evolving as a cohesive group. Soon, Khalida became the captain of the team, and then the assistant coach. Still, they struggled to get local support. There were so many people out there who thought that women did not belong on the football pitch. The team couldn’t practice in public without getting harassed.

Khalida spoke out about this too. And the president of Afghanistan responded! He was moved to action by their tenacity, and he allowed them to play three times a week on an international military base, where helicopters took off and landed. 

It wasn’t the most focused place to play, but the women took every opportunity to prepare themselves for their next match. They had to pause mid-kick and run for cover whenever they heard the whir of blades spinning madly, then they threw themselves back into the game, running after the ball as the dust settled.

Which leads us back to 2007, on the pitch in Islamabad, Pakistan. This was the biggest game they’d ever played. Khalida was elated to hear the roar of the crowd, to see fans waving the Afghani flag with its tricolor of black, red and green stripes. She didn’t need to take home a trophy to make this the most triumphant experience of her life. All she had fought for was coming true. 

The game that followed demanded all of their athleticism, strategy, and training, and the Afghani women’s soccer team played their hardest. In the end, their many grueling practices paid off, and Khalida and her team won the game, and with it a lot of respect and attention. 

The team’s reputation grew beyond sports. People around the world were in awe of these women and the way they’d fought harassment and discrimination in order to play for their country. Khalida and her teammates did a lot of interviews talking about their mission to empower girls and women.

Khalida soon became the first woman ever to work for the AFF, and got promoted to be in charge of the Women’s Football program. She called out abusive behavior by some of the leaders of the AFF, making sure that anyone who mistreated women was fired.

But as Khalida’s voice got louder, so did the people trying to stop her. She was targeted and harassed, and she even received death threats.

It was an incredibly difficult decision, but in 2011, Khalida was afraid for her life and decided she needed to flee her country. She became a refugee again, making her way to India, finding asylum in Norway, and then living in a refugee camp in Denmark. She promised her team she would do whatever it took to check in with them and coach them from afar. She promised them that she’d fight for their freedom.

Those first few months in Denmark were dismal for Khalida. She felt lost — far away from her home, family, and team. The first time she felt a glimmer of hope was when she started talking to other refugee women. She told them how passionate she felt about sports and together, they began running, swimming, biking, and playing football. Exercising helped them find release and focus. When they were out running or chasing a ball, they could forget about everything else and just have fun.  

Khalida once again felt again like she had a purpose — to inspire women and help them through difficult times by sharing her love of sports. She started an organization called Girl Power, using sports as a way to empower women from marginalized or ostracized communities.

Meanwhile, in 2021, the Taliban took over the government in Afghanistan once again. Khalida knew that meant women and girls in her home country lost whatever freedoms they still had and would be in danger once again. 

From Denmark, Khalida urged her team to burn their national jerseys. It pained her to do this, after they’d fought so hard to wear them, but she knew these jerseys made her teammates easy targets. She had to keep defending her team, keeping them out of harm’s way.

Next, Khalida made it her mission to get them all out of Afghanistan. She called anyone and everyone she could think of, imploring, “My girls are stuck.”

It took an incredible amount of perseverance, but with assistance from around the world, Khalida helped evacuate more than 300 people, including the Afghani women’s football players and their families. She also rescued her own family, and reunited with them in Denmark.

As she welcomed them each to safety, Khalida was able to breathe a small sigh of relief, grateful for this victory, but also deeply aware that there was so much more work to be done. 

Khalida continues to defend her teammates, her fellow refugees, and girls around the world. She travels all over, calling on world leaders to speak out for the women of Afghanistan.

As she says, “I played as a defender…And my role was to defend my team. Today, I am a defender of Human Rights.”

Khalida’s words are powerful, but this is not a match she can win alone. The world rallied around the Afghani women’s team the first time around, and they need our support now more than ever. Khalida calls upon the international community to show up for the women of Afghanistan, and to fight for their rights to live, work, and play.