Safe in Spain, Afghan women’s basketball star speaks out about Taliban takeover

As captain of Afghanistan's wheelchair basketball team and a women's rights activist, Nilofar Bayat fled for her life when the Taliban took over, seeking safety in Spain where she hopes to soon be back on the court.

Safe in Spain, Afghan women's basketball star speaks out about Taliban takeover
The captain of Afghanistan's women's wheelchair basketball team Nilofar Bayat poses in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

Speaking to reporters in the northern city of Bilbao just days after arriving on a Spanish military plane, this 28-year-old athlete spoke of her
shock at how quickly the Taliban swept into the capital Kabul and of her struggle to get out.

“I really want the UN and all countries to help Afghanistan.. because the Taliban are the same as they were 20 years ago,” she said.

“If you see Afghanistan now, it’s all men, there are no women because they don’t accept woman as part of society.”

After a nerve-wracking escape, she and her husband Ramesh, who plays for Afghanistan’s national basketball team, landed at an airbase just outside Madrid on Friday and are now starting a new life in Bilbao.

“When the Taliban came and I saw them around my home, I was scared and I started to think about myself and my family,” said Bayat after the insurgents swept into the capital on August 15.

“I’ve been in too many videos and spoken about the Taliban, about all I’ve done in basketball and working for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

There can be a big case for the Taliban to kill me and my family.”

With the help of the Spanish embassy she managed to secure a seat on a plane, and set off for the airport where she found scenes of chaos with the Taliban shooting and beating people to stop them reaching the airport.

“It was a really difficult day.. I’ve never seen this much danger in my country. I cried a lot, not because they beat me or my husband, but because of who had taken control of the country,” explained this former law student.

Nilofar Bayat (R) and her husband Ramish pose following a press conference in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao.

‘Others are still there’

With the help of several German soldiers, they managed to get in but spent two days there in the blazing Kabul sun with “nothing to sleep on.. and not enough food” before finally being flown out on a Spanish military plane.

But she’s acutely aware that in getting away, she was one of the lucky ones.

“I’m luckier than other Afghan people in that I’ve left and am here and can start a new life. But I’m just one person, others are still there,” she said.

When the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, a rocket hit Bayat’s family home when she was just two-years-old. In the attack, her brother was killed, her father was injured and she lost a leg.

“They changed my life forever, they caused pain and something that I’ll carry forever in my life,” said Bayat.

“I am the best proof of how dangerous the Taliban are.. and how living in Afghanistan is hard and difficult: there is no future and no hope.”

In a country where many people have been left with disabilities due to the attacks or polio, Bayat became interested in wheelchair basketball after seeing the men play and went on to play a key role in setting up an Afghan women’s team.

“When I’m in the gym and playing basketball, I forget what’s happening in my country and also that I have a disability,” she said.

She came to Spain with the help of a Spanish journalist friend and has received “many offers” to play with wheelchair basketball teams, including onefrom Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, with whom she hopes to start playing “as soon as possible”.

READ ALSO: ‘Time is running out’: Spain warns it will have to leave people behind in Afghanistan

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Spain’s PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

With the next general election slated for December 2023, recent polling shows Spain's Conservatives gaining ground on the Socialists. Spanish political correspondent Conor Faulkner looks at whether the PP will need far-right Vox to govern, as they now do at a regional level.

Spain's PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

Recent polling from Spain’s CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) shows the incumbent PSOE-led government with a slight, but shrinking, advantage over opposition parties.

On 30.3 percent, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE would form the government if elections were held today, but that score is unimproved since April and, crucially, the centre-right party Popular Party is gaining, polling at 28.7 percent in May, with the difference between the two now only 1.6 percent.

In fact, PP have been on a steady rise since a turbulent start to 2022 in which former leader Pablo Casado was forced to resign after becoming entangled in intra-party infighting with PP’s regional President in Madrid, Isabel Ayuso.

Casado was replaced by Galician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, considered to be a more traditional centre-right candidate in the mould of Rajoy, who served as President of Galicia between 2009-2022.

PROFILE: Feijóo, steady hand on the tiller for Spain’s opposition party

Whereas Casado was often drawn into scandal and outflanked on cultural issues by far-right Vox, Feijóo is considered a more conventional conservative less prone to populism, and his short tenure as leader has put the PP back on the road to electoral respectability. 

PP were polling around 21 percent in February, amid the public infighting, but since then have steadily risen to the 28.7 percent that they would get if an election were held today, according to recent CIS numbers.

Yet, while many view Feijóo as more centrist than his predecessor, at the regional level far-right Vox have entered into a regional government coalition with PP in Castilla y León.

With important regional elections looming in Andalusia in June, and a general election further down the line in December 2023, it remains unclear if PP would be forced to rely on Vox to overcome PSOE’s thin polling advantage and form a national government.

Crucially, PP’s recent rise has not chipped away at Vox’s polling numbers. According to the CIS, Vox’s polling numbers grew from 14.8 percent in April to 16.6 percent in May, and with centrist Cuidadanos all but electorally wiped out, hovering around 2 or 3 percent all year, and the far-left, junior coalition partner Podemos falling further in the polls, to below 10 percent, the CIS estimate a higher probability of a right-wing PP-Vox (45 percent) than they do a PSOE-Podemos (39.9 percent) government.

With Vox now firmly established as Spain’s third political party and already on the offensive in Castilla y Leon’s regional government – including its Minister of Industry, Commerce and Employment in the assembly recently declaring war against “the virus of communism” – all eyes will be on the upcoming Andalusian regional elections to see if PP is again forced to rely on Vox members to form a government.

Vox’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, climate-sceptic populist policy programme is controversial, and the prospect of them as junior coalition partner in a national government would be an abrupt change from a government that wants to introduce menstrual leave and provide financial aid to renters.

Their entry into government at the regional level in Castilla y León was the first time they have officially entered into an executive, at any level, although PP have relied on Vox votes in regional assemblies in both Murcia and Andalusia in the past.

READ ALSO: Spanish cabinet approves paid ‘menstrual leave’

Whereas under Casado’s leadership PP were often forced rightward on cultural issues in an effort to stop Vox shaving away at their core electoral base, under Feijóo the future is less clear. Although Feijóo is considered more centrist than his predecessor, Vox’s steady rise since its emergence into Spanish politics since 2014 worries many on the left and centre, particularly as it has now officially entered into government at the regional level.

Yet, Feijóo seems keen to draw some distinction between the two parties. “The leaders of Vox cannot prove experience in management [of the country] because they do not have it, [and] it seems that they do not like the European Union… the State of Autonomies does not satisfy them either,” he said this week, but did recognise their electoral gains as “obvious.”

“The difference between Vox and the PP,” he continued, “is that a good part of Vox leaders came from the PP and left the common home.”

“We are very interested in those votes that those leaders have because they were votes that the PP had. And, as you will understand, we are here to win,” he added.

What exactly that means for the future political makeup of La Moncloa – whether Feijóo intends to win back those votes for PP or keep them in the ‘common home’ and work with Vox in coalition – remains unclear.

With the Sánchez-led coalition having had almost its entire term swallowed up by the global pandemic, then war in Europe, and now a cost of living and inflation crisis, it seems likely the left could lose the next general election and the Spanish right will return to power.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether that means a PP government or a PP-Vox coalition and the prospect of the far-right in government. All eyes will be on Andalusia in June to see how Feijóo pivots his party as it looks ahead to general elections next year. 

READ ALSO: What a Vox government could mean for foreigners in Spain