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Meet Zahra Mahmoodi from Afghanistan. Here she gives a very honest account of her life growing up and how she never ended her dream to play football and what she has done to ensure it doesn’t remain a dream for other girls.

To support Zahra and the other Equal Playing Field players, please visit visit http://equalplayingfield.com/donate/

 

I was born 26 years ago in Iran as an Afghan refugee in a neighborhood where many Afghan refugee families were living who were forced to leave Afghanistan due to war and armed conflicts. I started working from the age of 7 because even though my father was working in 2 or 3 jobs at the same time he was receiving very low wages for hard labour in poor working environments. First I and my siblings were packaging electric tapes at home after school and I remember my hands were always full of glue - which, aside from my physical appearance that marked me out as different to the other kids, gave another reason to be discriminated against by some of my Iranian classmates and teachers. But I was happy and thankful that I was able to go to school while many other refugee kids could not.

I fell in love with soccer when I was 9 years old and became a huge fan of Manchester United. On my way to school I would see boys playing soccer everywhere, but I could not think of anywhere I could play. When our school built a handball field I told some of my classmate “let’s play soccer in it, I know the rules” and we started playing every morning before school. But soon after, the school administration warned us that they will kick us out if we play soccer again because apparently it was not appropriate for the girls to play. Soccer was just for boys.

One of our teachers advised us to sign for a private club in a gym where we might be able to play. But Afghan refugees were not welcomed in the club and even if the door hadn’t been closed in my face I would not have been able to afford it.

It broke my heart and I tried to say goodbye to the dream of playing but could not. The economic situation of our family did not become any better and suddenly my father decided that we should sew soccer balls at home to sell in the market. During the day we sewed soccer balls and at night my sister and I would stay in our little workshop to pump and clean the balls.

That was the first time I could play with a ball away from the critical eyes of society. In 2004, when I was 14, my school decided to refuse us entry – even thought we had the right documentation. Despite the fact that there were so many health, security and education challenges to overcome right after the fall of Taliban, we decided we should retun to Afghanistan.

Back in Kabul, I made friends very quickly and started teaching them how to play soccer. We had no soccer field, so we made goals with rocks and played on the school’s dusty yard. Many of my friends have never run or laughed out loud before as it was considered inappropriate for the girls. The girls loved this game and wanted to play it more often.

After about a year we learned that the Afghanistan Football Federation was considering having a girls’ soccer tournament – meaning there were a few other girls interested in playing. After playing in that tournament, I was chosen for the Afghanistan’s first Girls’ National Team.

It was not easy to play soccer in a male dominated society where girls have been denied their very basic rights for decades and where issues such as child marriage and domestic violence are an everyday challenge.

Our team players faced many social and economic challenges beside the security issues. Most of us had to walk hours to reach the practice field which was within the International Security Assistance Force’s headquarter in Kabul. Sometimes our coach or I had to talk to girls’ families to convince them to let them come and play by promising they would be safe and that we respected religious and traditional values.

Sometimes I would go to different schools to convince their principles to let the girls play soccer in their schools and they would object most of the times. My own family was not happy about me playing soccer, mostly for economic and security reasons, especially because being part of a minority group, a Hazara, made me even more vulnerable in society. But I always felt so much responsibility towards other kids that never had a chance to experience this wonderful game.

I had a dream to become a soccer player.  I accomplished my dream even though it seemed impossible at first.  Now, I have a dream of an equal world where it does not matter if you are a girl or a boy and you can dream of being whatever you want!

I just wanted more and more kids find their way to the wonderful world of soccer when you can share your joy with your teammates and forget all your problems in home and school. I became the Captain of our national team and played in many national and international games. I was also the first female in Afghanistan to become a FIFA licensed coach and founded under 14 girls’ national team. In my efforts to bring more attention to the female sport players I met with John Kerry secretary of states and later I won the Muhammad Ali humanitarian award.

I am climbing this mountain for the girls who climb a mountain of challenges in their everyday life just for very basic rights, such as playing games and participating in sports and social activities. I hope that through doing so, we can bring more attention to the girls and women who need global support and attention. I want to tell them that they are not alone and I appreciate their fight for their rights. Each time they climb a mountain, they are in fact sweeping away a stone from the path that other girls will follow.

To support Zahra and the other Equal Playing Field players, please visit visit http://equalplayingfield.com/donate/

To find out more about the challenge, please go to www.equalplayingfield.com