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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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.