Women's Cricket: Afghanistan's Secretive New Sport

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Abigail Hauslohner for TIME

Afghanistan's national women's cricket team practices in the private yard of team manager Mohamed Naeem, in Paghman district, 12 miles west of Kabul. The Afghanistan Olympic Committee agreed extended official sponsorship to Naeem's team two weeks ago. It is Afghanistan's first national women's cricket team.

The dust storm whips through town and obscures the mud-brick farming compounds built into the rocky hillsides 12 miles west of Kabul. The bustling thoroughfares of the Afghan capital, with its women in jeans and loose headscarves, have given way to men on rickshaws and the ghost-like figures of women in burqas that whip around them in the wind. "This neighborhood has lots of mujahideen and people who are close-minded. If they are not Taliban, they have a Taliban mentality," says Mohammed Ajmal Barakzai of his neighbors in Paghman District. "So we keep a low profile so as not to create a problem."

Barakzai is being secretive about Afghanistan's first national women's cricket team, which is using Paghman as its practice grounds — albeit shielded by a high brick wall from public view. The team, where he is assistant coach, isn't typical of Afghanistan, certainly not of Paghman. Last year, Barakzai's father, Mohamed Naeem, returned from a decade in exile in Pakistan with an unusual mission: to set up a cricket team on which his four cricket-loving daughters could play. The plan quickly mushroomed into a family dream for a national women's cricket team.

Cricket had already hit it big in Afghanistan, with enthusiasm for the sport fueled by 3 million refugees returning from Pakistan, where it is hugely popular. Afghanistan's national men's team was one of 12 top teams to compete in this year's International Cricket Council Twenty20 international cricket tournament — a first for Afghanistan and a matter of huge national pride. During President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington in May, Hillary Clinton even used the war-torn country's cricket team as a model for overcoming adversity. "I might suggest that if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team," she said, speaking alongside the Afghan president.

That was the men. For the women's team however, one might speak more of the domestic challenges. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, women's cricket — like other initiatives for women — still lags far behind. And despite efforts by the Afghanistan Olympic Committee to bring sports to girls in Afghan schools and establish national teams, the country had yet to see a national women's cricket team — until two weeks ago.

Most of the players are teens with little to no prior cricket experience. They pile into taxis and rickshaws several days a week to journey from Kabul to Naeem's rented home in Paghman, where the family borrowed a tractor to smooth a fallow plot of land into a makeshift cricket pitch. It's a routine that would be unacceptable for most girls in Afghanistan's provinces, but most members of Naeem's team hail from relatively well-educated families, or at least families exposed to the more liberal leanings of Kabul. Naeem says all of the girls' parents have approved their travel to India to participate in a tournament next month — provided he can find the money. "They are motivating me," says Madina Wahidi, 18, of her parents and her sport. "I want to be world famous."

For the Afghan Olympic Committee, the cricket team marks the latest of over two dozen women's teams to be registered across 21 sports — all developed since 2002. "Six months after the collapse of the Taliban, we started to go into schools to establish teams," says Shamsol Ayot Alam, head of social women's sports at the Afghanistan Olympic Committee. But Alam received "warnings" at first: that girls shouldn't be playing sports; and a year ago, she received a threat over the phone. Around the same time, a man on a motorcycle drove into the girl's basketball team, injuring one of the players. Still, she says there are now around 2,000 female athletes participating in sports in Kabul — most of them in schools.

Then again, as Naeem has learned over a year of organizing, the fact that his players are women is only one of the challenges. And Afghan sports are no more immune to the rampant corruption, inefficiency, and cronyism than other Afghanistan institutions. On a few weekdays, when TIME visited, Olympic Committee staff sat in cramped offices at empty desks. Some stared listlessly into space. Others lamented their low government salaries. And no one appeared to be working.

But accomplishing just about anything official in Afghanistan can be a challenge if you don't have the right connections. And Naeem says it's a mix of politics and tribal loyalties — not gender — that has so far kept the women from getting sponsorship from the Afghanistan Cricket Board, which manages the men's team. "The majority of the cricket board is Pashtun, and they don't want a non-Pashtun team," says Naeem, who is himself a Pashtun, but says his team is a mix of Pashtuns and Tajiks. "They like their own tribes from the border and they like Pakistanis," he says. Head coach Diana Barakzai, Naeem's eldest daughter, adds: "For us, it doesn't matter as long as they're Afghans."

Naeem has been unable to mobilize financial sponsorship — a failure that he likewise attributes to cricket board maneuvering. The chairman of the cricket board is also Afghanistan's finance minister — a post with close ties to Kabul's rapidly developing economy, and a common example of overlapping responsibilities in a system fraught with corruption. "Azizi Bank Foundation had promised some money to prepare the cricket pitch, but today they said they have other priorities now," says Naeem. "The banks are under control of the finance ministry." Emal Shinwari, CEO of the Cricket Board says the rejection of Naeem's team had nothing to do with tribe, gender or politics; it was merely a matter of budget.

Funding and recognition will be the team's most crucial obstacles moving forward. The team has been invited to competitions in New Zealand and Argentina, but had to decline the invitations without official backing and official funds. "We were ready for it, but we couldn't make it," says head coach Diana Barakzai. It was only because of Olympic Committee sponsorship that the team was assigned a practice field for training. But the pitch was deemed unsuitable for girls because it isn't "covered" from public view, so Naeem continues to pay for the transport of his players to Paghman. "In Afghanistan, if they play in public, people will disturb them and say girls cannot play cricket," explains Ajmal, the assistant coach.

Additionally, some national players are spread across the country, in cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Ghor, making it impossible for them to practice as a group more than once a month. On any given practice day, only 10 of the 15-person national team members can make it. The session is supplemented by younger cricket trainees from the family's now 200-strong cricket workshops, where enrollment is free.

It may be a long time before Naeem has the resources to create Afghanistan's first female cricket heroes. But he seems patient. "My dream is that my daughters, my team, go to another country and bring me a cup of victory from an international competition," Naeem says. "If I have a chance, I'll make a team of retired people too."