Freedom to play: Zahra Mahmoodi fights for gender equality from the soccer field

Tori & Zahra Award
 Zahra Mahmoodi fights for gender equality from the soccer fieldWhen a soldier pointed his gun at Zahra Mahmoodi and demanded the young soccer coach clear the field, she didn’t back down. She knew this tournament might be the only chance her players might have to run, to laugh out loud, and to play.

The soccer field was in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the middle of a war zone. And the players were young Afghan girls, experiencing a taste of freedom in a society just emerging from the shadow of the Taliban.

The confrontation with an armed soldier is only one of the challenges that Zahra has faced as a refugee, as a member of a persecuted minority group, and as a woman living in a culture with strict rules and expectations for female behaviour.

She overcome each one. And in doing so, she’s become a powerful advocate for gender equality through sports.

At 10 years old, Zahra taught herself to play soccer, practising in secret. Then she began coaching her friends, persevering even when threatened with expulsion from school for playing a game that was forbidden to girls.
She went on to lead Afghanistan’s first female national soccer team, to launch the country’s first under-14 girls’ national team and to become the first Afghan woman to hold an international coaching certification. But threats to her life forced her to leave the country she’s so proud to represent.

Now living in Canada, Zahra serves as an ambassador athlete with Right To Play. This Toronto-based international organization works with nearly two million children in disadvantaged areas around the world.

Zahra practises soccer drills with kids in inner-city schools through Right To Play’s Youth to Youth program. Through its PLAY program, she visits with children in some of the 85 Indigenous communities the organization serves across Canada. And wherever she goes, she brings a message of hope—especially to girls.

She shows them that it’s possible to rise above poverty, above discrimination.

“Believe in yourself,” she tells them. “As a girl you will always, at some point, encounter somebody who doesn't believe in you. That's a very important moment in your life because you get to make a decision. Either you give up or you prove them wrong. I proved them wrong.”

“My message to all the girls around the world is to dream big and never give up.”
On November 7, Zahra Mahmoodi will deliver the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Service Lecture, hosted by St. Paul’s University College. This free public lecture is open to everyone but registration is required.