HANGZHOU: On a pristine volleyball court on the seventh floor of a massive training centre in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, a team of Afghan women prepare for their first Asian Games in defiance of the Taliban government’s antipathy toward women’s sports.
Though separated from families and scattered across Asia, the volleyballers have assembled at the multi-sport event with the support of Olympic officials and the sport’s global federation.
Some fled Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power in the wake of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, fearing persecution from a government that has effectively banned women’s sports.
With little prospect of returning home, they have rebuilt their lives in Pakistan, Iran, and other countries, playing sports in effective exile.
Now in Hangzhou, they yearn to give hope to the hopeless – the women athletes left behind in their homeland.
“Nowadays, they are looking for hope,” Mursal Khedri, a Pakistan-based, 24-year-old member of the volleyball team, told Reuters.
“By seeing us here they can find hope that we (women) can also participate in sports.”
The Taliban administration says they respect women’s rights in line with their interpretation of Islamic law and Afghan custom and that they have declared a “general amnesty” against their former foes under the previous foreign-backed government.
Wearing lycra leggings and shirts with the traditional Afghanistan colours of red, black, and green, the team all train in hijabs under the watch of veteran Iranian coach Nasrin Khazani.
They play their first group match against Kazakhstan when the women’s volleyball tournament starts on Saturday.
They are unlikely to get near the knockout rounds and claiming a single win would be a big achievement for a team of exiles up against rival nations with organised programmes and government funding.
However, just their mere recognition by the Games is a boost for women in the country, says Khushal Malakzai, the secretary general of the Afghanistan Volleyball Federation.
“Actually the important thing for us and also the girls is that participation in such kind of matches and coming here, they give them hope for the future,” he told Reuters.
“And for those girls who are inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan, that they should understand that there are people that are still supporting them.”
The team’s organiser and fundraising champion, Malakzai has been based in Melbourne, Australia, for just over a year, having first fled to Pakistan after fearing for his safety in Afghanistan.
He said he left the country on the advice of Afghanistan’s volleyball federation and after receiving multiple threats from Taliban representatives by phone and in writing due to his support for women’s sports.
A spokesman for the Taliban administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Though initially composed and enthusiastic when talking about the women’s team, Malakzai burst into tears when he saw the players form a circle on the volleyball court, join hands and cry “Afghanistan!” at the end of their training session.
“I am so happy they can be here. But for the girls at home in Afghanistan, it is hopeless,” he said.
For the Afghanistan women in Hangzhou, it is a thrill to compete at a high level but there are also nerves.
In total, there are 17 athletes competing in volleyball, cycling, and athletics.
Australia-based Kimia Yousofi, who will compete in the women’s 100m and carried the Afghanistan flag at the Hangzhou opening ceremony last Saturday with a male teammate, declined to be interviewed.
Her Australia-based coach John Quinn said she did not want attention in case of reprisals against her connections in Afghanistan.
The Afghan men and women athletes marched as one team at the opening ceremony, behind the traditional tri-colour national flag and not the white one used by the Taliban government.
The delegation includes male athletes and sports officials based in Afghanistan.
They are unlikely to attend competition venues to cheer on the women’s volleyball team or other Afghan women athletes due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Malakzai saw little prospect of things changing in the short-term.
“So we hope that everything will change and the Taliban even accepts the women,” he said.
“But it will take time.”