Khalida Popal

Interview and Photos by Hummel

We’re in Afghanistan. It’s the year 2004. And all 16-year-old Khalida wants to do is play football. Actually, it’s quite simple. And then again not at all. Because football is only for men.

But Khalida doesn’t care

The year was 2004. Afghanistan had only just been liberated from the brutal Taliban regime, but the country was still so marked by conflict that only a small minority remembered what it was like to live without fear and to have the freedom to make your own life choices. Afghan society in general was still influenced by the Taliban era, where women playing sport were deemed completely unacceptable.

What 16-year-old Khalida Popal found unacceptable, however, was the notion that she and her female friends should be treated differently solely due to their gender. And so, she was willing to get involved in the fight for equality, no matter the consequences.

“It’s up to the individual to determine the risks that are worth taking. For me, it’s been worth risking my life in the fight to make a difference for so many others. My fight is not just about me. It’s about all women, about future generations. Given how much is at stake, I’m willing to do anything. It’s a fight I’m more than willing to get involved in and no one’s going to stop me,” Khalida insists.

Football and freedom

That is why she and a small group of her female friends began playing football in the school courtyard after class. Not as an act of rebellion, but simply because playing football made them feel free. Unfortunately, there were many in the community who saw the girls playing football - and by extension, encroaching into what was believed to be the men’s domain - as a major issue.

“To me, football became the symbol of the lack of rights for women in Afghanistan,” explains Khalida, who is 29 years old today. “Through football, I got an opportunity to make my voice heard and direct everyone’s attention to the injustices we as a gender were subjected to.

“Football was the first official sport of Afghanistan, and if men are allowed to play, why shouldn’t we be allowed to as well?”

She who dares...

Khalida grew up in a war-torn country as part of a generation that had never known any other reality, and in a society that was opposed to women’s active involvement in any form of activity. But Khalida and many other Afghans wanted things to be different, even though it would take time and energy to change norms and break down the barriers that had been built up over many years.

“Women are the first victims of war. A lack of teaching, education and learning creates a society that turns against women. Every time a country is occupied, it is the rights of women and children that are restricted,” says Khalida.

Fortunately, there are those in society who find the strength to fight against human injustices, although doing so does not come without a price. Those who dare to speak out against the ruling elite put a lot at stake, including their own lives.

Khalida experienced this first-hand. After receiving numerous death threats in 2011, she had to flee Afghanistan, leaving behind her team mates and the national football team she had helped establish just a few years after the first time she kicked a ball around with her friends.


After just three years playing football, Khalida managed to convince the Afghan Football Association to approve the formation of an Afghan women’s football league in 2007. Shortly thereafter, the first Afghan women’s national football team was formed, playing its first tournament match in Pakistan in 2008.

“The first time we stood out on the pitch in our national team jerseys, singing the national anthem... it was almost indescribable,” Khalida recalls. “Even before the match started, I knew I was completely uninterested in the final score. In so many ways, we had already won. We had reached our goal.”

There they were in Pakistan. Together. A group of women who had fought with enormous tenacity for the right to pursue their passion. The struggle had not only taken place on the pitch, but also - and especially - off it. Each of them had fought against norms and attitudes deeply rooted in their culture; against their schools, their families and society at large.

“We had proven that if men can do it, we women can too. It was the ultimate achievement. It was better than winning the World Cup!”

Today, 11 years after Afghanistan got its first women’s national football team, support for the team has grown. It has now become legal for both men and women to openly support the team through public channels such as social media.

However, the team still faces resistance. They are still not able to play matches in Afghanistan, as the authorities cannot guarantee the safety of the players. Khalida herself has not seen her home country since she fled it in a hurry seven years ago.

Now living in Denmark with her family, Khalida continues unrelentingly to fight for equality and the right of women to be treated on equal terms. For instance, her organization “Girl Power” is particularly focused on giving women in minority communities the chance to develop better self-esteem and confidence through sport.