An Exiled Afghan Soccer Star Keeps Women in the Game

As the outspoken captain of Afghanistan’s first national women’s soccer team, Khalida Popal faced threats to her life and her family. Her advocacy for women’s rights forced her to flee to Denmark, where she keeps working to get girls playing.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Once captain of Afghanistan's first national women's soccer team, Khalida Popal is now in exile in Denmark, encouraging refugee women to take up the sport. Photo courtesy of Hummel International

Khalida Popal first picked up a soccer ball as a teenager and immediately fell in love with the sport. A few years later, she was recruiting other young women to play. Then she went on to cofound her country’s first national women’s soccer team. Popal, 29, became a public voice for the importance of sports for women and an advocate for women’s rights.

In most countries, Popal would be a symbol of empowerment. But in her native Afghanistan, she was considered a threat to culture and religion. When the death threats started to come in, her parents got worried. Popal says her father told her, “If you want to stay alive, if you want to keep your voice stronger, you have to leave the country. Otherwise, you will end up in jail or you will end up dying here.”

She fled, first to India and then to Norway, where she lived for a few months. In July 2011, after having spent months in a camp for asylum seekers, she received permission to stay in Denmark.

Now resettled in a town north of Copenhagen, Popal has gone back to her personal mission. Through her organization Girl Power, she encourages refugee women around Europe to play sports. Popal spoke with Women & Girls Hub about playing soccer in Afghanistan and starting again in Denmark.

Women & Girls Hub: Why did you have to leave your home country?

Khalida Popal: I used to play football in Afghanistan and I became a leader of the women’s football team in Afghanistan. I was also working as a women’s rights activist, and I encouraged women to stand up for gender equality and raise their voices for justice. That’s what created a lot of troubles in my life. Since Afghanistan is still a male-dominated country, the men don’t want to lose power to women.

I faced so many problems and death threats from those men until it got so dangerous for my family and me to stay in Afghanistan. So I had to leave my country and stay underground for a few months until I came to Denmark.

Women & Girls Hub: How did you start playing soccer in Afghanistan?

Popal: When I first started playing football, I was 15 or 16 years old. I was very excited, since it was fun to kick the ball. I was playing barefoot, without shoes or sneakers. That was the only thing we had for after-school activities. As women, we had no other activities.

In the beginning, I was one of the first women players in Afghanistan. As there was no women’s football, it was something new for the society there. People were against it because they thought that if women get power and play sports, it’s against the culture, and against the religion, which it’s actually not.

In one of my first days playing football in 2004, we were playing inside the schoolyard, which was surrounded by walls. When some men outside heard our voices, they entered the football field. They took our ball and destroyed it with a small knife. That was the only ball we had. We used to call it the Happiness Ball.

They were throwing rocks and garbage toward us, and calling us prostitutes. They were trying to take our books and school bags. They were trying to take away our right to play football, but then I made the decision: “That’s my right. I will get back the ball that they took from me.” From that time until now, football has been a part of my life.

Women & Girls Hub: Who were those men saying you can’t play soccer?

Popal: When I started, I faced troubles from the men living around the area where I was playing football. Those men were uneducated and mostly very closed-minded.

[Then] I started working in the football association, and I had to work among so many men. They were not used to seeing women working together with them.

Since they were well educated and they were in sports, I was expecting that these men would understand us, they would encourage us, and support us. But, actually it was the opposite. They thought that if a woman becomes a leader, it’s against their honor. It’s difficult for them to accept.

That’s why we did a lot of campaigns to bring the women together. I always believe in power of sports, because it gives self-confidence and self-esteem in women to raise their voice.

Women & Girls Hub: As you became more popular, how did it become more dangerous for you?

Popal: Everybody knew me as a leader of women’s football, because I was talking a lot in the media. Not only about football, but about women’s rights, too.

There was a group of men who stood against me. I felt in danger, and they wanted to silence my voice. I wanted to keep it alive.

That’s why I made a decision to leave my country, my family, my career, the love that I had for my team. My team that was my dream, my love, I had to leave that. The country that I wanted to play for, I had to leave that. And I left.

Women & Girls Hub: How do you stay involved with Afghanistan’s women’s soccer even from Denmark?

Popal: When I came to Denmark, I didn’t leave everything back home and say, “No, I will start a new life and I will not return back.” I didn’t do that.

I’m kind of happy because I’m still following the dreams that I had for my country, for my team. I’m now working as a program and event director of Afghanistan Women’s Football. I’m organizing events and festivals for them.

Soon, they will travel to different countries and participate in different events. I will travel with them. Of course, I cannot go back to my country, but I do most of the office work from here.

When I started playing football, it was four girls. When I left Afghanistan, there were more than 2,000 women playing football. It was important to give the opportunity and open the doors for other women.

Women & Girls Hub: What was it like for you to first move to Denmark?

Popal: In general, I have found Denmark very peaceful and a country full of freedom, where women are supported by the people and by the government. Women support each other. Here, women have the right to do what they want and nobody can make decisions for them.

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