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Afghanistan's female cricket dreams

Despite objections from Afghan society, a women's cricket team is emerging.

Diana just wants to play cricket. That may sound simple enough, but, for women in Afghanistan, little is. The fledgling Afghan women’s cricket squad have been labelled prostitutes and preached against by imams.

The recent beheading of a teenage girl after her father rejected a marriage proposal highlighted the appalling conditions still faced by Afghan women. Implementation of an anti-violence law, designed to protect women fromdomestic abuse, forced marriage, and even murder “remained low”, according to a 2012 UN report. “Cultural restraints, social norms and taboos... and at times, threat to life" prevents anti-women violence from being reported in Afghanistan.

Yet a band of female Afghans aim to show that women can play cricket – and ultimately, that they are worthy of wider equal rights.

Diana Barakzai, 23, is the captain of the women’s national side. Although they have yet to play their first official match – a planned tour to Thailand last month was cancelled due for what the chief executive of Afghan Cricket described as “political reasons” – the story is already a remarkable one.

Diana and her three sisters, who are all keen players and International Cricket Council qualified coaches, learned to play as refugees in Pakistan, having fled from the Taliban. Since returning to Kabul in 2009, they have tried to encourage other women to take up cricket.

(Diana Barakzai Photgraphy: Sarah Fane)

Unusually, Diana recalls that her father and brother “have always been supportive to us, always teaching us about cricket”. Their father converted a plot of land from his old house in Kabul into a cricket pitch that has provided the women’s squad with somewhere to play, but it has certainly not been easy. “Playing cricket for a girl was not less than suicide, but my spirit, and the strong support of my family encouraged me not to stop my activities.” Through playing, she aims “to change the ideas of Afghan people regarding women sports, as they were always against it.”

Raees Ahmadzai, former Afghan cricket captain and now the head of Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organisation, points out that there are “no grounds for women’s cricket” and “the girls will not feel happy to play in front of men”. In their quest to play undisturbed, women have used basketball courts, and even the old National Stadium: the scene of Taliban executions as described in The Kite Runner.

Unsurprisingly, women’s cricket is currently largely the preserve of relatively affluent, Westernised families. Female cricket camps are only organised in four of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, due to potential security risks elsewhere.

Afghan Connection’s Sarah Fane explains the precautions that must be taken for the female cricket camps that the charity organises. “We have to be really careful about them, and we do them only in the big cities. We make sure that we get parental consent, and we do them in girls’ schools behind a wall so that they all feel secure.” She explains the need to avoid clashing with the most patriarchal elements in Afghan society. “If we suddenly did a cricket camp for girls in a conservative area there’d be such a backlash against them and against us so we’re moving very slowly with girls.”

Despite the difficulties, the potential of women’s cricket to galvanise wider female progress in Afghan society has been recognised by some unlikely bodies. UNICEF hosted a camp for 140 female cricketers in 2010, and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has also helped to build cricket pitches in schools.

Official figures show there are now almost 4000 registered female players. A large number of these will only play at camps for a few days a year, but this nevertheless gives the sport a platform from which to develop: it is already easily the most popular women’s sport in Afghanistan. In October 2012, an eight-team women’s cricket tournament was held between Afghan girls’ school teams.

The CEO of Afghan Cricket, Noor Muhammmad, explains how women’s cricket can overcome its opposition. “It needs long term planning including a clear strategy, to convey the message to the community that we will strictly follow up all religious rules for women cricket.” Female players observe hijab dress, playing in headscarves, long trousers and shirts.

The ultimate aim is for the women’s side to be as successful as the men’s team. As recently as 2008, the Afghanistan men’s side was ranked no higher than Jersey; last year they faced England and India in the World Twenty20 tournament, featuring the 12 best sides in the world.

Diana – who could captain the women’s side in their first official match within a year - is inspired by the men’s success, and believes that, with similar help, the women could achieve something similar. “If we also receive support, then I am sure we can have a brilliant women’s cricket team in the near future.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.