She speaks by phone from Copenhagen in the voice of an older sister or a mother trying to protect the Afghan girls and women who found freedom and joy on soccer fields.
Yet silence is what she urges of the soccer-playing girls and young women now under Taliban rule. Burn the jerseys you wore with such pride, she begs them. Take down your photos. Destroy all evidence that you played. Disappear in every way possible.
“It is very painful,” Popal says of her message, “because for all these years, I have been fighting to empower women and girls, to earn the right to wear the jersey. I am now saying: ‘Take them off. Destroy them.’ ”
The Taliban has taken over, so there can be no mementos for these athletes. Only memories are safe now.
“Our enemies are outside the window,” Popal says.
From the start, Popal explains, Afghanistan’s women’s national soccer team was intended as a platform for opposing the barbarism of the Taliban, whose influence was felt long after its leaders were driven from power in 2001.
Forming the team was itself an act of protest. The mere fact that Afghan girls dared fill their lungs with fresh air — that they ran, kicked a ball, fell down, cheered their teammates and learned to be brave — constituted defiance.
Unlike Popal, 34, Afghanistan’s current soccer-playing girls have never lived under Taliban rule. That was a nightmare lived by their older relatives; soccer was their path to a new order.
“They have used football as a way to personally experience freedom,” Popal says. “To build networks, build connections, build self-confidence. To breathe. To be happy.”
She was 9 when the Taliban seized power in 1996 and implemented a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They closed schools for girls, barred women from working, required women to wear the head-to-toe, face-covering burqas and banned them from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. Transgressors were publicly stoned, whipped or executed.
“They took from me the right of education. They took my rights as a girl, as a child,” the soft-spoken Popal recalls in clear, precise English. “They have beaten my father. They stoned my mother for working. They took our freedom. We had to flee as refugees and live in a refugee camp.”
After the Taliban was toppled in 2001, Popal returned to Afghanistan with her parents and hundreds of thousands of refugees to reclaim their country.
“Then everything was beautiful and hopeful,” she says. “We wanted to represent a picture of a new Afghanistan, with the generations of hopes and dreams. A generation who wants to take a stand and say, ‘We will do everything possible to participate actively in the development and growth of our country.’ ”
Playing soccer and forming a national women’s team were part of her vision.
It was not without challenges.
As the face of women’s soccer in her country, Popal became a visible target of hate among those who clung to the Taliban’s beliefs. She had garbage thrown at her on the street and received threatening calls at night, she recounted in a 2017 interview with the Guardian.
Fearing for her safety, she fled again, finding temporary haven in India before making her way to Denmark.
From her base there, she has continued working as the Afghan team’s general manager, arranging matches with other countries, recruiting coaches and, in 2016, collaborating with a Danish sportswear manufacturer to design a hijab that can be worn on the pitch.
Amid revelations in 2018 that Keramuddin Keram, the president of the Afghanistan Football Federation, was sexually and physically abusing young female players, Popal and other players raised their voices and found allies in Human Rights Watch and FIFPro, a global network of international soccer players. On the eve of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, FIFA banned Keram for life and fined him about $1 million — a punishment Popal calls “fantastic.”
With the Taliban’s return, Afghanistan’s female athletes face renewed danger. Basketball player Samira Asghari, who was elected to the International Olympic Committee in 2018 at age 24, pleaded for international help in evacuating her country’s female athletes, coaches and support staff.
“We must get them out of Taliban’s hands. … Please do something before it is too late,” Asghari tweeted, according to Inside the Games, which wrote about her since-deleted post.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, notes that Afghanistan’s female athletes now face extreme risk of persecution largely because they were encouraged to be role models for women’s rights and gender equity by FIFA and the IOC, who also spotlighted them to demonstrate their own strides on gender equity.
In Worden’s view, that now suggests a responsibility for FIFA and the IOC to exert their global influence in ensuring the athletes’ safety.
“There are also dozens of local female and girls’ club teams for [soccer], basketball, cycling, martial arts, and other sports across the country who will need protection. The IOC and FIFA should absolutely take action now — including working with [U.S.], United Nations and [human-rights] authorities — to identify, support, and evacuate top athletes and sports leaders to prevent possible gender-based retaliation by the Taliban,” Worden wrote in an email exchange.
In a statement, FIFA called the situation in Afghanistan “very worrying” and voiced shock and sadness over the death of Zaki Anwari, an Afghan youth national team player who fell from a U.S. military plane at the Kabul airport. The statement added that FIFA remains in contact with the Afghanistan Football Federation and players in the country, is “supporting them through this difficult time” and remains committed to growing the women’s game in Afghanistan.
Popal is calling on everyone with a voice to raise theirs.
“My message to every single human being who is watching, witnessing what is happening in Afghanistan is: Raise your voice and ask the question, ‘What about the women of Afghanistan? What about the generation of young people who had so many big dreams? What about them?
“What you hear from all the politicians is: ‘Our mission has been very successful. We are taking our people out. We are done with Afghanistan.’ There is no talking about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ and ‘women’s rights’ — all these words that they entered our country with as promises to the people and the women of Afghanistan.
“The women of Afghanistan feel abandoned by the world. They feel betrayed by the world. And that is painful.”