Thursday, June 09, 2011

for the love of the game

We live in a post-Title IX age, but it's an unfortunate reality that girls and women in the sporting world still face plenty of uphill battles. You may have heard me grumble about certain inequities that continue to exist for women and girls who attempt to play with the boys...or who want to manage or officiate their games. And I'd be happy to talk your ear off about the paucity of insightful, fair, and unsexist coverage of women's collegiate and professional sports in the media these days.

But these gripes aside, I'm reminded from time to time of how far we've come in the last few decades, and how much we athletes of the modern West take for granted. Today, it was a young woman named Khalida Popal who really drove the point home. Popal is the captain of an all-women's soccer team, which might not sound all that special until you realize that her team is based in Afghanistan, a war-torn nation where females are regularly treated not just as second-class citizens but as subhuman beings.

While the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, playing sports was strictly forbidden for any female, young or old. More recently, though, officials have allowed limited playing opportunities for Afghan women. For a time, Popal and her teammates had actually procured practice space in the same Kabul stadium in which public executions were once held. And in December, officials allowed a team of Afghan women to play an international game for the first time. Unfortunately, though, the players received numerous threats for following their passion for the game of soccer, and they soon lost their practice space.

Now, NATO has stepped in and offered the athletes a patch of grass near its headquarters, where they can work out and play friendlies against female NATO officers. But playing soccer is still seen by many in Afghanistan as offensive behavior for women and girls, and the athletes continue to be ostracized.

This isn't the first I've heard of females in strict traditional societies butting heads with the law of the land in the name of the sport they love . . . I'm reminded of the the Iranian woman who had to get special permission from a local ayatollah to race Formula-One-style cars; the Palestinian girls who defy their culture to surf along the Gaza Strip; and the Pakistani women who've faced death threats for trying to play cricket. I'm also all too aware that sports are just the tip of the human rights iceberg when it comes to women and girls suffering from all manner of physical and psychological violations each and every day.

But hearing Khalida Popal tell her story truly made me appreciate for a moment the freedoms we have here in America—and not just the freedom to play sports, but the freedom to act when we feel our rights are being infringed upon. I can only hope that Popal and others like her continue to defy the odds and fight for their rights—and that more of the men in traditional societies recognize that female athletes are not a threat, and speak out in favor of letting the games go on. I also encourage you to learn about organizations such as Goals For Girls, cosponsored by UNICEF and FIFA, to find out how you can contribute to the empowerment of girls and women through sport.