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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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.