Afghanistan women's cricketers resettled in Australia feeling unsupported by international cricket bosses
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Afghanistan's contracted women cricketers have thanked Australia – the government and its people – for providing them with a future they never thought they would have after the Taliban took control of their country in August 2021.
That is when their payments stopped and the homes of suspected female athletes or their male supporters began being raided.
The women cricketers fled over the border into Pakistan, while seeking asylum elsewhere.
Twenty-two of the 25 were granted emergency visas to Australia. One is in England, the other two now live in Canada.
In the 18 months since their ordeal, they say nobody from the International Cricket Council (ICC) or the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) has contacted them to see if they are OK.
Beatings from her mother and jeers from her neighbours never stopped Noura from playing football, and later boxing. Then the Taliban came.
When Cricket Australia (CA) announced earlier this month it was withdrawing from an upcoming ODI series against Afghanistan's men's team, citing the Taliban's growing list of restrictions for women, the exiled female cricketers finally felt like a cricket body had their backs and was prepared to say so publicly.
Speaking to The Ticket in Melbourne this week, several of the players wondered why it was not cricket's world governing body, or cricket officials in their own country, offering such support.
"[We] need the support of the ACB, and also ICC," Bibi Khadija said.
"In Afghanistan we were the national team players but after the Taliban came we couldn't play. But here [In Australia] we want to make our team. This is our great ambition to play cricket for our country."
Khadija was 19 years old when she crossed into Pakistan alone, joined later by her two brothers, before being granted visas by the Australian government. Through her ordeal she has become close to teammate Firooza Afghan.
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"If we have the support of the ACB, the ICC, the people of Afghanistan and other countries that play cricket, then it is possible for us to keep playing," Afghan said.
"In Australia we have a lot of support – lots of equipment and facilities. But my question is, women have been playing cricket in Afghanistan since 2010 … why did the ICC not send anyone to check on us?
"We want to put on our uniform and see our flag in the middle of the ground and play in the World Cup. [We want to] shine and make our country proud."
Nazifa Amiri said despite the criticism CA received, it is making a positive difference.
"For the first time, the men's matches have been cancelled and they can feel what we are feeling," Amiri said.
"Nowadays, unfortunately the people of the world have forgotten Afghanistan … the girls and the women.
"They can't study, they can't work, they can't go to university, and they have to marry really soon … it's not really right.
"When the world sees when a country like Australia does not want to play against Afghanistan, that makes a difference."
The youngest player in the team is 16-year-old Shabnam Ahsan.
Members of the Afghan diaspora in Australia say the Blue Tigers' first tour of Australia since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul is a chance to take pride in their country and show Afghanistan is "not just about war and suffering".
"When the Taliban came, we became hopeless … if a miracle happens … we want to go to the field for Afghanistan … for people to encourage us and for audiences to come," she said.
Friba Hotack was afraid her family would be targeted once the Taliban arrived in Kabul.
"Because my life was in danger, I separated from my family. I was in Pakistan for a month. I was afraid. I was very scared," she said.
"Our dreams were shattered from the day the Taliban came. Everything – bat, cricket equipment, we burnt everything because of the fear.
"The day we came to Australia, those dreams became alive again. We started to want to play again. We wanted to have a team here, to play cricket here."
Early in December the team wrote to the chairman of the ICC, and the ACB, asking for clarification of their situation.
"Could you please advise what the official stance is on our national playing contracts and future playing opportunities, noting that we are no longer living in Afghanistan?" they wrote.
"The funding provided by the ICC to the ACB for the women's program – where has this money gone? And can it be redirected to an organisation in Australia to invest in our development on behalf of the ACB so we can still represent our country on the international stage?"
In a response earlier this month, the ICC told the women it was a matter for the ACB, suggesting their hands were tied.
Afghanistan is one of only 12 full members of the ICC, yet it is the only one that is not supporting its women's team.
The Afghanistan Cricket Board received around US$37 million ($53.5 million) in the last round of ICC funding to be invested in developing the game for men and women.
The women were paid for the first six months of their contracts in 2021, but since the Taliban took over they have not seen a cent that was supposedly earmarked for their development.
The ICC's strategy for global growth places "women's cricket firmly at the heart of its long-term ambitions", and it recently teamed up with UNICEF to create a program empowering women and girls around the world.
Firooza Afghan is one of the players featured in the UNICEF promotional video.
Afghanistan's men's cricket team is one of the few shining lights in a country struggling under the weight of economic and financial sanctions put in place after America's withdrawal in August 2021, slamming the door on two decades of development under allied support.
Other than cheering on the men's cricket team, there is not much else for the nation to celebrate under the Taliban's cultural austerity. Australia's withdrawal from the upcoming ODI series was described as 'pathetic' by the Afghanistan Cricket Board.
While the ICC told the female cricketers it was up to the Afghanistan cricket authorities to determine how their funding was spent, the ICC has played a much more proactive role in guaranteeing the men's team remains competitively active.
Adelaide Strikers star Rashid Khan took a swipe at Cricket Australia after it cancelled a series against Afghanistan in the UAE for the men's team.
Afghanistan's men's team plays its home matches in the United Arab Emirates, where the ICC is based. Afghan players have received residency visas there, and the issue of payments to visiting teams and other vendors can be done from the ICC offices, bypassing the problems of sanctions and money transfers that would exist if matches were played at home in Afghanistan.
But the challenges being faced by the women appear to be little more than an agenda item on the ICC's meeting schedule.
In today's language, women in Afghanistan are being cancelled — robbed of higher education, banned from working and playing sport, forced into a private existence behind closed doors.
The ICC declined an interview and did not provide answers to questions put forward by The Ticket, reiterating only that the "developments" in Afghanistan will be discussed at the next ICC meeting in March.
The ICC's glossy brochures and well-produced videos detailing its commitment to women's development are not reflected in its handling of the plight of Afghanistan women's team.
So far, the ICC remains unwilling to sanction Afghanistan for failing to deliver on the country's obligations — supposedly conditional on remaining a "full member" of world cricket.
Players on the women's team find it interesting that Cricket Australia's decision not to play the Afghanistan men's team has been criticised and labelled a "political" decision, yet when the Taliban cancelled women's sport nobody was making such an argument on their behalf.
"We want all cricketers and all athletes around the world, for just 10 seconds put yourself in our position and feel what we are feeling now," Firooza Afghan said.
"If you feel bad, then you know what we are feeling, and you will support us."
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Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for the ICC to follow Australia's example and take action against Afghanistan until it lives up to its own anti-discrimination policy.
"A country that has gender apartheid, that not only fails to uphold and support the rights of female athletes to play sport, but actually actively bans them … and athletes are living in fear of being beaten or jailed for simply participating in sport … I think the ICC should be referred to the Olympic charter that says sport is a human right," HRW director Minky Worden said.
The former chief executive of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, Shafiq Stanikzai, now living in Dubai, said he supports the call of the women to play, but does not support Cricket Australia's decision to withdraw from the men's ODI series.
"This is part of a much, much broader discussion," he told The Ticket.
"Where do you want to see Afghanistan as a nation? Are you going to deprive, abandon, lose talent? We have suffered all these three major things. We are living in a trauma. Are you adding more into it? Or do you want to be a support?"
This week, while speaking to the ABC, two of the players received SMS notifications announcing they had been selected for representative teams in the suburbs of Melbourne where they have lived for the past year.
It is a major milestone for players who have been existing in a cricket limbo 11,000 kilometres away from the country they would still love to represent.
Cricket has made no secret of its Olympic ambitions.
Brisbane 2032 would seem to be a logical Olympics for the dream to become a reality, with Australia's proud cricketing pedigree and the applause CA has received internationally for its drive in supporting and growing the women's game from grass roots to elite competition.
Cricket's world record attendance for a women's match is 86,174, set at the MCG final of the 2020 T20 World Cup.
Jodie Davis had played cricket for Australia and moved on to coaching when she got a phone call that would change her life forever, forging a new path for Pakistan's female cricketers.
But with an international governing body reluctant to make legitimate demands of one its members, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will need to think twice before welcoming cricket into the competition schedule.
All 206 nations that competed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — including Afghanistan — fielded women athletes with an almost 50-50 gender split overall.
The IOC twice sent a delegation to Qatar to meet with representatives of Afghanistan's government seeking a commitment for the inclusion of women in its team for the next Summer Olympics in Paris 2024.
The talks failed to move the hard-line Islamist leaders, and the IOC has walked away, privately expressing little hope but challenging Afghan officials to "surprise" them.
With support from the ICC and with enough pressure applied to Afghanistan's cricket authorities, combined with the tenacity of the women's players, there could be a future for the Afghanistan women's team based in Australia using the funds the ICC earmarked for them, and managed through Cricket Australia.
Diana Barakzai is known as the mother of women's cricket in Afghanistan. Originally, she played the game with her three sisters before captaining the team and becoming the first national coach.
Her wish is that future generations of girls and women in Afghanistan can one day enjoy the game as she and her siblings once did. But first, there must be peace.
"Afghanistan is a beautiful country, it has lots of good people … for that, I want peace for Afghanistan," Barakzai said.
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Firooza Afghan wants the women of her country to keep dreaming.
"All girls and women in Afghanistan dream to become engineers, or doctors, or anything … we are really talented and we have big dreams for our future," she said.
"If it is possible, I really want to wear my national team's uniform … and for us to play in the World Cup. This is really what we all want. And I think this will happen one day, maybe not for us. But we will work so that it will happen for others."
Afghanistan's women cricketers will not let the Taliban extinguish their dreams.
Cricket Australia has declared its support publicly and taken decisive action.
The challenge is whether other nations, and the world governing body, are prepared to do the same.
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Afghanistan women's cricketers resettled in Australia feeling unsupported by international cricket bosses – ABC News