Afghan women have always lived in two spaces – the public world outside the home and the private domestic world. Traditionally, public spaces have been dominated by men, with women only tolerated when they are less visible. According to this historical tradition, becoming an athlete and playing sport in public is considered revolutionary for Afghan girls.
So what challenges have female athletes faced in the past, how have they overcome these, and what is the situation facing them under the Taliban rule? Fazila Hurzad, a member of the Afghan national bowling team, spoke to Geneva Solutions from Afghanistan about how her secret hobby turned into a promising career before being snatched away from her.
A secret hobby
Twenty-four-year-old Hurzad has been a member of the Afghan national bowling team since 2019. She was born in northern Samangan province and later moved to another northern province, Balkh, where she pursued her studies.
“After graduating from school in 2015, I started studying law and diplomacy at one of the private universities in Mazar, the capital of Balkh,” she said. “As a part-time job, I was working as a reporter for a local TV channel but I wasn’t doing any sport.”
Mazar is one of the few cities in Afghanistan where women have the opportunity to play sports, along with Kabul, Herat and Bamiyan. In smaller towns and rural areas, this is rare if ever possible. According to cultural and religious traditions, women should stay at home far away from men's eyes, but the big cities were more influenced by democracy and women gained relative freedom. Even in the cities, the options are limited. Basketball and volleyball are the most common sports traditionally played by women, but recently new sports have become popular that most people were previously unfamiliar with, including bowling.
“I didn't know much about bowling,” said Hurzad. “Then I went to one of the newly built bowling clubs in Mazar to prepare a report on bowling for my job. After I finished with the report I played bowling for a couple of minutes. I found it fascinating. Since then, I started bowling regularly as a hobby.”
In Afghan society, young girls generally do not have the right to choose. Parents often decide who their daughters should marry, in which field they should study, what profession they should choose or what they should do with their lives. If a girl wants to get this right, she has to start her struggle at home.
“I had been going to a bowling club in secret,” explained Hurzad. “My mother and brothers did not know about it because I was afraid of how they would react.”
“Normally in the club hall it would be the boys who were playing, but girls didn't usually participate,” she added. “As I had been regularly going there along with some of my journalist colleagues, we decided to make several reports about bowling to show it to the public in a positive light. After that, we witnessed the number of girls [playing] increasing every day.”
In just a short time, Hurzad's intense love for the sport along with her passion and perseverance led the young athlete to be selected for the national bowling team when it was established in 2019.
“One day at the club I noticed an announcement from the National Olympic Committee on a series of test matches to select bowling players for the national team,” she said. “As an amateur bowling player, I nominated myself for the competition.”
In the provincial level test match held in Mazar city, 30 athletes participated, of which 15 were girls and 15 were boys. Hurzad won, qualifying for the final competition before being selected for the national team in Kabul.
“My family and I were watching TV one night when the report about the test match in Mazar was broadcasted, and I was announced as the winner of the competition,” she explained. “When my brother heard it he hurriedly asked my mother if it was me. I was shocked because I didn't know what would happen when they found out.”
Despite some dissatisfaction at first, Hurzad's family did not oppose her. She soon moved to Kabul and began her activities as a member of the national bowling team, which consisted of three women and three men.
“In September 2019, we participated in the 25th Asian Bowling Championship held in Kuwait along with players from 27 other countries,” Hurzad said.
“It is clear that the other players had more experience and better facilities than us, so we could not win any position in these competitions, but our game score was higher than countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and India. But most importantly, we returned to the country with new and useful experiences that could help us in the future,” she added.
“We should be attending another tournament in December 2021 which will be held in China but, with the new regime, everything is dismissed.”
Cast out from the team
After returning from Kuwait, the Afghan Bowling Federation expelled Hurzad from the national team for one year due to non-observance of the hijab during the tournament.
This decision was widely criticised by women's rights activists and reported on in the international news. Over a week later, the Afghan National Olympic Committee publicly apologised to Hurzad and readmitted her to the national team.
However, she has now found herself cast out from the sport she loves once again. Just as they have banned women from studying and working, the Taliban have banned female athletes from sport. Almost all female sports teams' members have already left the country, but Hurzad remains in Afghanistan. She is waiting for an opportunity to leave, fearful of what her life will look like under Taliban rule.
“All my fellow athletes have left the country, but I haven't had the chance yet,” Hurzad explained. “I live alone in a corner of the country and I have neither financial support nor life security. I'm afraid because I cannot even predict what will happen in the future – not even in an hour's time. This is my life under the Taliban rule.”