After allegations of sexual abuse, Afghanistan women’s soccer team fights for justice
Detailed allegations surfaced months ago that officials from the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) were sexually assaulting members of the women’s football team. Now the players, many of whom were victims, are holding the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the International Federation of Association Football — better known as FIFA, the sport’s highest governing body — accountable for what they say was a slow response to well-known problem.
In a series of exclusive news reports late last year, reporter Suzanne Wrack, writing in The Guardian, reported on allegations of sexualized violence, as well as mental and psychological abuse of players by AFF executives.
In one instance, a player disclosed that a gun was put to her head after she was sexually assaulted and was punched in the face. The abuser threatened to kill her and her family if she spoke to the media. Another survivor said she was threatened in front of her teammates and said the AFF executive threatened to cut off her tongue.
Almost a month after reporting about the initial case, Wrack published a follow up and identified the main abuser: Keramuddin Karim, the president of the AFF.
Details of the abuse endured by many players, some as young as 16, are gruesome. Karim allegedly threatened to cut players from the squad if they did not comply with his demands for sexual favors. He publicly called two of his victims “lesbians” after he raped them, in an attempt to threaten them into silence. Although not specifically stated in their laws, many Afghans (including the LGBTQ community) believe that being gay is a criminal offense that could be punishable by death.
Khalida Popal, program and event director of the team and first captain of the squad, told ThinkProgress that many players feared for their personal safety and for the safety of their families. Karim leveraged these prevalent attitudes, and used allegations of homosexuality to scare players from speaking out.
Players detailed how Karim kept a digital identification lock on his office door which could only be unlocked inside or outside with his fingerprint. He also has a secret bedroom inside his office, the players claimed, where as many as 25 girls were abused during Karim’s tenure as president of the AFF.
Teammates first notified Popal of the abuse after a training camp in Jordan in February 2018, though she believes the abuse had been going on for years. She alleges that while at the camp, two officials accompanied players from Afghanistan. Neither was not part of the coaching or administrative staff, but rather were sent by the AFF. Popal said those two men repeatedly harassed and sexually assaulted the players.
“These guys were calling on the rooms of the players and sleeping with the girls. AFF staff members would say to girls that they could get them on the team list and would pay them £100 a month if they would say yes to everything. They were pushing and forcing the girls. Coercing them,” she told the Guardian.
Popal added that she alerted specific people at the AFC — with which the AFF is affiliated — and at FIFA, as well as the AFF itself, but was met with little if any response.
“There is no system that protects our players. There are a few players that have been affected sexually, mentally, physically they were abused by certain people at the Football Association of Afghanistan. The players were coming and complaining about it, and reporting constantly to me. Our voice has never been heard by the Federation because somehow, almost everyone [at the Federation] has been involved in [the abuse],” Popal said.
The AFF advised Popal to “play quietly,” promising that when the team returned to Kabul, the issue would be dealt with. At the time, Popal carefully began her own investigation, which included dozens of conversations with players and AFF staff.
In May 2018, Popal discussed the allegations with Sarai Bareman, the chief women’s football officer at FIFA; Moya Dodd, former AFC executive member; and David Borja, adviser to the president of the AFC. But nothing came of her outreach.
Eyes and ears on you, @theafcdotcom. Your silence is deafening and the entire football world is watching. We will not stop fighting to protect and empower our players and to end corruption and abuse. Do the right thing. Hold your member nations accountable. #AbuseIsNotFootball pic.twitter.com/eN3YovQfuL
— Haley Carter (@H_C_Carter) December 30, 2018
Who watches the watchers?
As a former governor, Keramuddin Karim wields a lot of political power and influence in Afghanistan. The players were fully aware of this, and thus had reason to believe that if they spoke out, retribution would be swift. In December 2018, an op-ed in the Afghan Herald noted that local media in Afghanistan failed to report on the story at all, and pointed out the vulnerability of Afghan women “who brave all social and security threats continuing their active role in the development and well-being of the Afghan people.”
Neither FIFA or AFC provided much in the way of support for the survivors, much to the frustration of the players, Popal, and coaches Kelly Lindsay and Haley Carter, in whom Popal confided.
To many who work in the women’s soccer — where pay equity, abuse against players, mismanagement, and a complete lack of commitment to growing the women’s game is the standard practice for the powerful men who occupy its boardrooms — the response was unsurprising.
(Full disclosure: this reporter created a Change.Org petition to support the Afghanistan Women’s National Team in their fight against systemic misogyny in football. There are over 1,600 signatures.)
Members of the team and coaching staff continue to speak with media and have been transparent from the start. They are urging FIFA and AFC to create better mechanisms for players to disclose abuse, and are requesting support and commitment to the players and staff of the AFF who are sincere in their efforts to build a strong football community in Afghanistan.
IMPORTANT!! National team staffs and players should bookmark this link—trying to navigate to it is like running an internet maze. Further, football culture should encourage women to come forward and FIFA must act in a timely fashion. When dealing with life or death, it matters. https://t.co/4iNjruZYeY
— Haley Carter (@H_C_Carter) December 27, 2018
Meanwhile, the AFF has vehemently denied the allegations, and released a statement via Facebook on the same day that The Guardian published its initial report regarding the abuse.
“The AFF is disappointed that these very serious allegations seem to come from former employees, without ever having directly contacted the AFF and/or provided any specific information to help the AFF to investigate these allegations. As such, the AFF can only reiterate that these allegations are completely groundless. Should the AFF receive specific factual information and/or evidence, it will not hesitate to initiate further investigations immediately and to take all appropriate steps to prevent such actions and prosecute those responsible for them,” the statement said. For her part, Popal asserts that she did report the allegations to the AFF.
The reporting structure of FIFA is equally problematic. When allegations of abuse are brought to FIFA, the president of the federation representing the country from which the allegation originated is copied on the form. It would seem FIFA never accounted for the possibility that the head of a federation could be the person accused.
Less than two weeks after the abuse was made public, FIFA provisionally suspended Karim from his duties for 90 days. Karim denied any wrongdoing, and appealed his suspension. On January 15, FIFA chief ethics Judge Vassilios Skouris dismissed that appeal.
Much to Popal’s chagrin, the AFC has remained largely silent on the issue. When ThinkProgress contacted Colin Gibson, AFC’s director of communications, about the federation’s position on the case and how it plans to support the Afghanistan Women’s National Team moving forward, Gibson directed ThinkProgress back to FIFA “for any further information.”
FIFA responded to a ThinkProgress media request with a statement:
“The matter is currently being addressed in a ‘do no harm way’ towards the victims, with reputable entities with which FIFA has formed a strong working relationship on human rights related issues in recent years. Once the facts are established whatever remedial measures needed will be taken.”
A vision interrupted
Popal had long had a vision of women athletes representing Afghanistan on the international stage. She hoped to afford girls an opportunity to experience a kind of freedom that _the beautiful game_ can provide. And she coupled the power of sport with the fight for gender equality, and in June of 2014 she founded Girl Power, an organization designed to inspire and empower women. Popel partnered with hummel, the sportswear company, which agreed to sponsor the team. They created the world’s first football kit that includes a hijab — for players who chose to wear it — and provided equipment and counsel where it was required.
When the sex abuse allegations were made public, hummel immediately cut ties with the AFF. The swift and uncompromising response from an international sporting goods company was encouraging to the team and their supporters. Shortly after hummel’s announcement, the attorney general of Afghanistan created a committee to investigate the allegations, and barred Karim and four other AFF officials from leaving the country.
In early December, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani emphasized his displeasure: “This is shocking for all the people of Afghanistan. No kind of disrespect against our boy and girl athletes is acceptable. I want the attorney general to investigate this thoroughly. I cannot tolerate immorality.”
I encourage all women in Afghanistan and all around to world to stand together and fight against as system that takes advantage of women. Because together we will be unbreakable. #MeTooAfghanistan #Unity @FIFAcom @theafcdotcom We need fundamental change in the system! pic.twitter.com/x6bokt8gzY
— Shabnam Mobarez (@shabnammobarez) December 28, 2018
On February 5, two-time FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein gathered a roundtable of players, advocates, activists, and policymakers in London to discuss the allegations. Lindsey and Popal were in attendance. Al-Hussein now heads the Association Football Development Programme (AFDP) Global, an organization that seeks to support development projects within the AFC. In conjunction with the meeting, AFDP published a list of recommendations, including how FIFA needs to create an independent committee to investigate claims, as well as setting up a consistent and reliable method with which survivors can report allegations.
Moving forward, Popal, Lindsay, and Carter remain committed to the team, and are looking to grow the program while protecting their players, largely outside the traditional federation hierarchy. For the last three years, they have funded, amplified, and developed the team using crowdsourcing, a partnership with Soccer Without Borders, and their personal time. They have never been remunerated for their efforts.
The team plans to continue training, and vow to ensure that the voices of Afghan women will not be silenced.
“The [case] should be taken seriously,” Popal told ThinkProgress, speaking about her vision for the future and how this #MeTooAfghanistan moment affects soccer.
“Justice should take place,” she said. “The story shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet. Abuser should have punishments [sic]”.
Like many of the resilient women of Afghanistan, they are fully aware that they will need to find the solutions to problems largely created by men.
Shireen Ahmed is a freelance sportswriter, sports activist, and co-host of the Burn It All Down podcast.