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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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.