First female Afghan Paralympian unable to compete after Taliban takeover

Afghan taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi was supposed to be on her way to the Tokyo Paralympics and become her country’s first ever female participant in the Games. Instead, as the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan, the 23-year-old tells CBS News she and her family are living in a “nightmare.” 

Khudadadi, who was born with a disability, overcame odds and broke conservative stereotypes as a female athlete in Afghanistan. She now feels four years of training will be for nothing, and is concerned for her safety.   

“Despite being a disabled girl, I reached myself to Kabul with great difficulty to go to the competition. But now I do not even have safety of life, let alone participating in the competition,” she told CBS News. 

Zakia Khudadadi asks to be allowed to participate in the Tokyo Paralympics
Afghan athlete, Zakia Khudadadi, asks to be allowed to participate in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.  Zakia Khudadadi

Khudadadi is not with her family, who is based in her home city of Herat. And that city, much like the rest of the country, has fallen to the Taliban. 

“I am waiting for a bad thing to happen to me or my family at any moment,” she said. “This is the peak of my fear and panic that kills me gradually.” 

“We are all under the control of the Taliban and this is a big nightmare for me and my family,” she added.

According to International Paralympic Committee (IPC)’s profile on her, Khudadadi won the first African 2016 Para-Taekwondo Championships in Egypt at 18 years old. Due to lack of funding, support from the government and the pandemic, Khudadadi and track and field athlete Hossain Rasouli could not compete in the qualification events for the Tokyo Paralympics. 

However, both entered as wildcards and Khudadadi would have competed in the K44 taekwondo category. She told the IPC that she just wanted to “give her best.” She and Rasouli were scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on Tuesday.

IPC issued a statement on Monday saying Afghanistan’s National Paralympic Committee won’t participate in the Paralympic Games. 

“Due to the serious ongoing situation in the country, all airports are closed and there is no way for them to travel to Tokyo,” IPC said. “We hope the team and officials remain safe and well during this difficult time.”

However, Khudadadi remains undeterred. 

“I went through many ups and downs to reach this place. I went through many things day and night to reach this place and it’s not fair to stop it here,” she said. 

In a video obtained by Reuters, Khudadadi made a plea to the international community for help.

“Please, I urge you all, from the women around the globe, institutions for the protection of women, from all government organizations, to not let the rights of a female citizen of Afghanistan in the Paralympic movement to be taken away, so easily… I have suffered a lot,” she said. “I don’t want my struggle to be in vain and without any results.” 

Afghan athlete Zakia Khudadadi pleads to go to Paralympics by Reuters on YouTube

IPC president Andrew Parsons told Reuters that the organization would work with the Afghan team to support her dream again in the future, potentially eyeing the 2024 Paris Games, but was focused on the wellbeing of the people of Afghanistan.

“It’s something that goes way, way, way, way bigger than sports,” he said. “And we are first concerned in Afghanistan as a nation and with the human beings, especially the females of that nation.”

Ahmad Mukhtar contributed to this report.