Kawser Amine: Opening the field for girls
A Creative Leadership story for International Women's Day 202308/03/2023
Afghan soccer player and women’s rights advocate Kawser Amine was a guest speaker at a Human Library event during the online 2022 Creative Leadership conference on Living your Possibilites - From Healing to Action. On International Women's Day 2023, celebrating the achievements of women from all walks of life, she talks about her remarkable journey and her fight for every woman to be free to fulfill her potential.
Whether she’s on the soccer field, or speaking up for women’s rights, Kawser Amine doesn’t believe in giving up. For eight years, she was a member of Afghanistan’s first national women’s soccer team, a risky business in a society where infringing cultural conventions can put your life at risk.
Three times a week, she and her sister went to the army helicopter ground in Kabul, passing through 12 checkpoints on the way to train behind high walls.
Once a bomb exploded behind them just as they were getting onto the bus home. ‘It was very hard, but we did not give up because if we did, there would be no opportunity for the women and girls standing behind us.
We opened up the field for girls. Before the regime change, hundreds of girls were playing soccer in Afghanistan. I felt so proud!’
Kawser was only nine in 2007 when she was selected for the team. (She explains that, because of cultural norms, the women’s national team is made up of youth and teens.) Her mother must be remarkable, to allow her children to follow their dreams in the face of such risks? Yes, Kawser agrees: ‘She did an amazing job of supporting us in continuing our education and playing our sport.’
Kawser went to the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in 2013 to study political science, got married in 2014, and resigned from professional soccer the next year, with her daughter on the way. In 2016 the AUAF was attacked. Thirteen people were killed and 50 injured. The Taliban followed up with a letter to each student, threatening to kill them if they continued to study there. The university closed down indefinitely, and Kawser transferred her degree to the Indian School of Business Management in New Delhi, where she graduated in general management with a specialization in international relations.
From Afghanistan to the US
Meanwhile, she and her husband looked for ways to leave the country for their own safety and for their daughter’s future. ‘Afghanistan is not a country where girls are safe to explore or to think big. I didn’t want her to experience what I had experienced.’ Finally, in 2019 they left for the US under a scheme open to them because her husband worked with the American military and NATO.
The adjustment was difficult. In Afghanistan, Kawser had worked as a political advisor, gender advisor and programme director for the government. ‘I struggled to find myself as an immigrant woman in San Francisco, but I never thought of leaving my activism,’ she says. ‘I got a job as a bank teller, but my heart and mind were far away from my job.’ Then Covid started, and because Kawser was pregnant, her doctor advised her to resign.
Over the next 18 months, during which her son was born, Kawser began to build her own foundation, Women’s Solidarity for Peace and Leadership, with the help of a friend and the network she created. Then, in August 2021, Kabul fell. ‘I knew from the very beginning that the Taliban would stop girls’ activities and women’s access to their fundamental rights.’ She designed a social media campaign, Stand for Girls’ Education in Afghanistan.
A year later, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was beaten to death in Iran for allegedly failing to comply with women’s dress regulations, Kawser realized that her advocacy needed to reach wider. She launched Join My Voice, an international women’s solidarity campaign which invites women to share their stories. ‘The campaign is designed to respond to women’s crises, such as inequality, sexual assault and violence of all sorts, and to uplift their stories and experiences,’ she says.
Kawser believes in the power of sport to bring change for the better. ‘Soccer is not just a game to me: it’s a language of unity, power, solidarity and peace.’
Alongside her social media campaigns, Kawser is setting up the Amine Soccer Academy, to help vulnerable children to realize their dreams of playing soccer. ‘I want to give them the confidence that comes from sport, the skills to succeed and the belief that they are capable of greatness.’ She has found a warm response to her plan from local government and schools and allies in such organizations as the US Soccer Foundation and Beyond Sport to partner with her.
She is also taking part in an initiative of the National Football League, which promotes football in high schools as a means of preventing students from falling into addiction. Recently she spoke at a high school in Arizona and was astonished by the warmth of the students’ response.
‘I never give up,’ she told them. ‘I fought for my education. You guys have many opportunities. Please use them to change your society. I come from a country that has seen more than 45 years of war and oppression. But instead of becoming a victim, I choose to turn my anger into action.’
A call for gender equality in Afghanistan
On International Women’s Day, Kawser calls on world leaders to push for gender equality in Afghanistan. ‘Women in Afghanistan are not even allowed to go out of their homes without a male companion: can you imagine what it is like in families where there are no males? I hear these stories every day and night, and my heart breaks.’
The Creative Leadership conference Living your Possibilities - From Healing to Action challenged participants to explore their potential to change the world for the better. Nearly 200 people from all over the world took part. Kawser’s mission fitted right in.
Read the full report on Creative Leadership 2022
Soccer is not just a game to me: it’s a language of unity, power, solidarity and peace.
Watch Kawser introducing her work with Women’s Solidarity for Peace and Leadership
- Interview by Mary Lean
- Photos published with kind permission by Kawser Amine
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