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Podcast / November 15 2021

Olympic judoka fights for women in Afghanistan

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Friba Rezayee was one of the first women to compete for Afghanistan in the Olympics. Since then, she’s worked tirelessly to support Afghan women in sports and education. Her mission is to help create her country’s future leaders. But now that the Taliban is back in power, what’s to become of Friba’s fight for gender equality in Afghanistan?

Full Transcript

S1 E1: Olympic judoka fights for women in Afghanistan

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.





Since August, tens of thousands of people have fled Afghanistan.



The sudden capture of the country’s capital has shocked the world and caused bedlam this morning at the Kabul airport, where thousands… 



The Kabul airport is the only safe way out of Afghanistan. 



People are literally clinging on to US military aircraft as they try to take off. As far as commercial flights…



Now, with all the athletes leaving the country, all the educated people are leaving the country, I have a concern that the legacy of education and the legacy of sport will leave with them. If education and sport die in a society, what would remain in the society? It would be an empty, meaningless society. 


IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. As an African American, as a Muslim, from birth, you are political. Sports is how I learned to advocate for myself. It’s where I found my voice. And this season on The Long Game, we’re going to hear from other athletes who are using their voices to create meaningful change in this world. 




Friba Rezayee knows what it’s like to leave her country. She did it once as a child when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan. Friba returned in 2001. She started training in the sport of judo. And in 2004, she became the first woman to represent Afghanistan in the Olympics. But just a year later, Friba was forced to leave Afghanistan again. Friba spent several years in Pakistan and relocated to Canada in 2011. There, she worked tirelessly to support Afghan women in sports and education. Her mission is to help create her country’s future leaders. But now that the Taliban is back in power, what’s to become of Friba’s dream of gender equality in Afghanistan? Here’s Friba: 




FRIBA REZAYEE: I always believed that everybody is equal, everybody’s the same, everybody should be respected. And I was a very hardheaded child. During Eid — Muslim families’ festival, like Christmas — my mother made a joke that, “We are getting new clothes for the boys, but not for the girls,” just to tease me. And one of my brother confirmed that, and I slapped him very hard. And I was only five years old. I did not like being treated like that, even for a second, as a joke, because to me, it didn’t make any sense. I was like, “If I am born, if I exist, I should have the same rights as my brothers.” 


I was born in Afghanistan, in the capital of Kabul. I was born in a big family. I had three sisters and four brothers. Given the Afghan society and Afghan culture, and perspective towards women and girls, there was no gender equality. Boys and girls were always separated, and that always bothered me, because I did not see any fun in playing with the dolls or like, sitting at home, like, playing kitchen, or like, tea party. I was a very outdoor person. I always want to be very active. Always very — what we call “boy-ish” games. I was not allowed to go outside and play soccer with the boys, but I did. I was not allowed to go to just hang out with the boys outside, and I always got in trouble. But I always did that, because I wanted to set a precedent as a child for my existence and for my rights. 


My father always supported me, he’s a very supportive dad. He always loved us no matter what we did, and he always supported us no matter what we did. My mother had the expectation from me that I would grow up, and I would get married at early age. I would bear children, and I would become an obedient housewife, and I would become a good mother — a mother of probably six or seven children in Afghanistan. And I will have a very small and traditional life. She always expected that from me, but when I turned out to be the opposite, she was disappointed at the beginning. She wasn’t happy when I played sport, when I went to my dojo, when I went for boxing. She was upset with me, and there were times that — whenever I came home from my judo training — in order to make her happy, I would immediately go do the chores, do the laundry, wash the dishes, clean house to make her happy. But later, after the Olympics, she was realizing that this is what I wanted to do, and she supported me after that. 





What appears to be happening is that the Taliban are advancing… 


FRIBA: In 1995, when the Taliban took over the central government for the first time, my family became refugees, and we went to a neighboring country, Pakistan, and we went to Peshawar — is the closest province to the Afghan border. Small refugee house, and we had cable at that time in a very — we had a very small glass TV. My brothers always watched Mike Tyson matches. They were huge fan of heavy boxing, and I always watched those matches with them. And I also watched Laila Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali. 



Introducing the undefeated Laila “She Bee Stingin’” Ali!


FRIBA: Seeing her fight like that, be very strong and very confident — that really spoke to me, and I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to train hard, I wanted to practice hard and I wanted to challenge her. In my mind, she was my idol and icon, as well as my opponent, secretly, like, “I am going to go train hard, and I’m going to challenge her.”



The world changed after the September 11 attacks on the United States. At the time, Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, who refused to give up Osama bin Laden…



On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. 


FRIBA: When USA invaded Afghanistan in 2001, my family returned to Afghanistan immediately, like so many other Afghan families. And when we went back to Afghanistan, we started a normal life — everybody was expecting a normal life. I was enrolled in all-girls school. My brothers were enrolled in school. My dad got a job. My older brother got a job with the UN, so life was good. 


I was still very, very interested in pursuing my boxing dream. One of my sports teacher introduced me to the Afghan National Olympic Committee. They assigned a male boxing coach. He trained me; he agreed to train me, and he did. He trained me for a few weeks, but it was becoming very, very dangerous in Afghanistan to train boxing, because I was the only girl practicing in the entire country at that time. 


One day my coach called me, and he said that he can no longer train me, because it’s not safe anymore. There were a few religious and fundamentalist guys who were waiting for me to come for the training, to hurt me. They were waiting there with knives, with flogs and so many other tools to capture me and to hurt me. When I insisted that I wanted to train because I had a dream to go to Las Vegas, fight Laila Ali — when I insisted on the phone that I know I want to continue my training, my coach said that sport is not valuable than your life. And he hang up the phone. 


There was no way for me that I could continue my boxing, but I was still in search of finding a sports center in Afghanistan where I could go and train. And I found out there was a place where they trained girls. This was a small dojo. I run towards the dojo — and I was only 16 years old, I was, like, full of energy; there was dust in my hair, on my shoes. And I met my coach Farhad Hazrati — who’s still my coach — with a, like, short breath. And I told him that [GASPS] “Coach, I want you to train me boxing, because I want to challenge Laila Ali!” He just stared at me, and he was like, “OK, come in.” He trained me boxing for a few days, but he later told me, “We don’t train boxing here, but we train judo.” As soon as I walked in on the judo mats, when my feet touched the mats, I knew that this is it. This is how I will find my strength as well as my freedom. 


We were only three teenagers practicing judo in the entire country. There were other girls, but they were very young. We were peers. We wanted to support each other, and we wanted to encourage other girls. And we knew that this is not only sport for us, this is how we bring visibility to our rights. I wanted to show — and prove it to the Afghan society — that women and girls are as strong as boys and men, and we can do it and also show it to the world that Afghanistan has such girls and such women who are fighting for their rights, who are working very hard to normalize women’s rights. So it was very significant. It was very precious to us. 


In judo, we have a philosophy. By saying “tai sabaki” in Japanese — which means the control of your body — then that is, itself, is very empowering. Once you have control of your body, mind, you have control of your life, and then you can lead. And you can lead as an example for the rest of the people in the community. I was very proud to be able to train and lead the kids at the dojo, and I was also gaining respect. So the — the connection between the sport and women’s leadership is very significant, very strong. You can’t separate the two. 


National Olympic Committee was getting ready to send Afghanistan’s team to the Olympics, and I was selected to represent Afghanistan and represent women at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. That itself was a huge achievement for me. I was honored. I was privileged to be able to represent my country. 




FRIBA: And I competed against a four-times world champion from Spain. 




FRIBA: I enter the mat. I wanted — I wanted to win. 




FRIBA: I did not win and I was very upset. I was crying hysterically, and I called my family members, especially my father and one of my brother and I — I was crying on the phone, and I told my father that, “I’m so sorry I did not win, I let you down.” But my father said that, “Don’t worry if you didn’t win, you made history. This is like first step on the moon.” That was very encouraging, and that made me feel better. That was it. History was made. I became the first Afghan woman to participate in the Olympics. That was a very proud moment. I’m still proud of it, and I’m still hold that very precious to me. 


When I returned from the Olympics, I was still at high school, and I went back to high school to continue my classes. One of my teachers — she was very, very nice, and she was very kind to me. And she gathered a group of girls to sing the national anthem to me. [LAUGHS] And they did. It was very sweet, very nice. Imagine those girls in their black and white uniform, and they stood in front of me. They sang the national anthem, and my teacher was very supporting, and she gave me a big hug, and she kissed my forehead. And she said that, “You are pride of our country.” 


When I returned to my dojo, the number of enrollment at the judo, and judo sport at the dojo, increased. There were a lot of — like, I would say hundreds of girls and women who wanted to play sport. And this was a sports revolution for Afghan women. It opened a pathway for other Afghan girls to play other sports. So many other girls joined different sports — volleyball, basketball, soccer — you name it, Afghan women did. And this was also a message to the world that there are women and girls in Afghanistan who are fighting for their rights, and they want Afghanistan to be same as the rest of the world. 




IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. 




IBTIHAJ: And now back to Friba Rezayee and her story about women and sports in Afghanistan. 


FRIBA: I was receiving death threats from the fundamentalists, from the religious people and also from patriarchy. They said that, “This is un-Islamic. This is untraditional of Afghan girls to compete at international arena and not cover her head, show some skin” — although judo uniform is very covered; it has long jacket and very covered pants. I did not have a typical Afghan girl look. I cut my hair very short, like boy’s haircut, and I dyed it red. And I refused to cover my head. And I would — I would go outside and walk like that, and that put me on the spot. So I was a little bit famous in the local community. These people were sending me threatening messages by text messages, phone calls, as well as they dropped letters at our house. People would verbally abuse me, physically abuse me, and I was under a lot of threats that I could not even go outside. I would just stay at home. I went into hiding, I went into hiding for a couple of months for my and for my family’s safety. 


What drove me to Canada is — is the freedom to be able to practice and to be able to do whatever I want to do. There is no limits. I have always wanted to help other Afghan women to get their education and — as well as have access to sports and sports leadership. In 2018, myself, with other activists as well as university professors, we came together, and we formed the Women Leaders of Tomorrow. Our first objective is to find scholarships and bursaries, for young qualified Afghan women from Afghanistan, to North American universities. And our second component is our sports component, GOAL — G-O-A-L, which stands for Girls of Afghanistan Lead. The goal was to train these girls professionally and highest level possible, so they become their community leaders, they become professional athletes, or become the sports instructors — especially judo instructor, because in Afghanistan, we don’t have a prominent female judo coach. And we provide online mentorship as well as English language training — an English language program for the Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan. The goal and the purpose of this is that — so Afghan women learn the international language, and they can speak for themselves, in their own words. Because it’s crucial for us to hear the authentic stories from Afghanistan, from those women directly. This project was very, very successful, and we were producing leaders, we were achieving our goals. We had so many plans, including the plan to send our team to 2024 Olympic Games. And the girls were still practicing. And they practiced judo on the mats until the day that the Taliban returned. 



The Taliban are now in complete control of Afghanistan. The sudden capture of the country’s capital has shocked the world…



… Seizing nearly all of the country in just over a week…



 …Hours after arriving in Kabul, sitting at the president’s desk. 


FRIBA: All our rights and freedom were halted overnight. My heart was broken, my heart was bleeding, but my mind could not comprehend the fact that this was happening. We lost everything. We are in uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen. 


Everybody went into hiding. Our dojo shut down, they’re still shut down. Everybody is terrified, because everybody’s waiting for that knock from the Taliban at the door to come and capture them and take them to their Sharia law. Taliban were patrolling the neighborhood where our dojos are. They actually sat down inside our dojos, and they were waiting for the girls to come for the training, so they can apprehend the girls directly there. But the girls were very intelligent. They did not go to the judo practice, because they knew the Taliban are patrolling the neighborhood. The Taliban also started taking the survey in the neighborhood, writing down the names of those people who worked for the government, who worked for the international organization. They included the female athletes in that list. 


One of our prominent judo athletes sent me a message saying that the Taliban raided her house, and the Taliban wanted to capture her and bring her to justice. And they ordered her to come and appear at the local mosque in front of the members of the community and in front of the local leader of the Taliban. They scheduled her to be lashed or flogged 100 times in front of people for playing sport. We were able to get her to safety immediately with our contacts and our resources, but she was in hiding and on the run from the Taliban for three weeks. 





The airport, now overrun. Desperate, chaotic scenes as massive crowds surge onto the tarmac, desperate to get out of the country.



Thousands of Afghans are stranded at the airport with their suitcases and whatever other belongings they could muster together…


FRIBA: We tried to get her in one of those airplanes, either to Canadian or US military airplanes. We added her name on the list. She was on the official list for the flights. She waited five nights in the car with her dad to get a chance to get on the plane at the airport. And there were suicide bombers. Many people were killed. There was totally chaos — I’m sure you have seen the pictures from the Kabul airport. So she was there. She did not get a chance to get on the plane, and the flights stopped. There were no flights. There were no airplanes. 


While this was happening, my Afghan coach — the coach that I asked to train me boxing because I wanted to challenge Laila Ali — he was on Taliban’s list, as well. Taliban was particularly looking for him. He would be judged for training girls and allowing the two gender to practice at the same time. And because he has been supporting and training Afghan women and Afghan girls for such a long time, for the last two decades, we had to find a safety and shelter for him, as well. And then with — with our contacts, with our collaboration with IJF — International Judo Federation — we managed to secure visas for them to Uzbekistan. They are now both in Uzbekistan, in Tashkent. But the rest of the judo team remaining in Afghanistan, they are in such a vulnerable situation, and they are terrified for their lives. I am terrified for their lives. 


Everybody is forced to stay at home. There are no sport, there’s no education. Taliban recently released a decree that girls are not allowed to go to school above sixth grade. They closed all the secondary schools and education for girls and women, and they also closed all the universities. Taliban simply banned women from participating in any sort of sport. And right now, our dojos are locked — like, literally locked; they put a lock on the door. And one of our athletes was in Afghanistan, she says that, “This is my life now. All I do is — I’m in my living room or in our bedroom. All I do is eat, sleep, and breathe.” And she says, “This is not the meaning of life. This is not the purpose that I was — I was born.” I am trying and I’m working tirelessly to get our judo team into safety as soon as we can. It’s extremely difficult, it’s extremely complicated, but we are working. I’m not giving up my hope, and we are still planning to send our team, and hopefully two girls, to the 2024 Olympic Games. 


It is devastating, because Afghan women had so many achievements and so many goals in the last two decades. Women ran for office, women ran businesses, women were in the parliament, women — there were female athletes, teachers, doctors; you name it, Afghan women did. And we hold those achievements and gains very dear to us, very precious to us. 


A 18-years-old in our program, in Afghanistan right now, said to me, “Friba, I want to become the first female president of Afghanistan.” And I ask her, “How?” And she says, “If you study history, and if you look out throughout the history, none of these dictators, none of these regimes lasted forever. Taliban are not going to last forever, either. I am 18 years old. I want to go pursue my higher education in a western country and get my education, get my masters and get my Ph.D. By the time I receive and I get my higher education, get my Ph.D., Taliban will be gone from Afghanistan, and I’ll return to Afghanistan, and I will become a leader. And I will lead my country.” I’m very, very proud of her, and I also believe in her. She is still in Afghanistan. We are trying to find her a scholarship at one of the colleges, or even high school, because her high school is closed now, her studies are interrupted. It is very difficult, but we are trying to find her a scholarship. 


I believe in the power of people of Afghanistan, and I believe in the power of women and girls of Afghanistan. As much as Afghanistan has been devastated and has seen crisis before, we are very, very strong — especially Afghan women are very strong. 



Afghan women activists are risking their lives in order to protest…





Rifle butts and tear gas used against women asking only to work, go to school and to be included in Afghanistan’s new government. The protests began…





A machine-gun burst sends a clear message: The protest is over.


FRIBA: I had never seen Afghan woman so strong and so united. That is what is driving me. That is my hope. As much as I’m devastated, I cannot afford to lose hope, and I’m not giving up on my hope, because hope is the only thing that keeps us going. Regardless our geographical location, our team in Afghanistan — and Afghan women in diaspora — we have centered our voices, we are helping each other, we are lifting each other up. There is a great unity among us now. We all have the same message. We all have same goals, and we are all working together to achieve the same goal, which is peace and human rights — women’s rights — in Afghanistan. I believe that the principles of human rights, democracy and women’s rights are stronger than men with a gun. 




IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Cherie Turner and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. 


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