KABUL Afghanistan's female basketball team has played its first game against a squad of American women especially created for them, highlighting the struggles Afghan women still face more than a decade after the Taliban were toppled.
With black hijabs covering their hair and clad in red sweatshirts, the national all-women team has trouble finding opponents in a country where sport is underfunded and women often encounter disapproval from relatives and society who deem it un-Islamic.
"They are taller and older than us (but) we're happy to have competition," Afghan team member Sameera Asghari, 19, said of American team "Kabul Kats", composed of female staff of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Despite playing for years against mostly female students, and often winning, the Afghan team lost to Kabul Kats with a score of 38 to 21 in the friendly, played in the gym belonging to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in its heavily barricaded headquarters in the centre of the capital.
Kabul Kats was formed in December after the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, met members of the Afghan female team, who lamented their struggle in finding other teams to play.
"So we agreed it would be fun to play a game against our embassy women," Crocker told Reuters at the match on Wednesday, a day before International Women's Day.
While Afghan women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan and U.S. officials seek to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure stability after foreign combat troops leave by end-2014.
Her head downturned, Afghan team captain Palwasha Sangar, 19, said she feared any return of the Islamist group.
"We will not have freedom nor rights if the Taliban have power, they are ill-minded," she said, recalling the time when "they didn't want us outside the house", referring to a Taliban law which forbade women leaving the house without a male relative.
There is now fear among some Western officials and rights groups that women's rights in Afghanistan could be compromised under any power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Activists were outraged this week when President Hamid Karzai backed recommendations from his powerful clerics, the Ulema Council, to segregate the sexes and allow husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances, reminiscent of Taliban rule.
While Kabul Kats player and U.S. embassy strategic planner Melanie Smith applauded her opponents, whose team was formed seven years ago, she added: "I know they are still working really hard to achieve equal rights."
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Michael Georgy)