Maihan Wali '18 empowers women in Afghanistan through sports.

Maihan Wali ’18 was a participant of the Inside the Middle East program.

The year was 2002. It was the year following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Maihan Wali ’18 was eight years old. As she sat in the classroom surrounded by her classmates she realized something unnerving: her peers were having difficulty reading and writing, and in some cases, her classmates couldn’t write their names. Wali decided to act. She looked for empty classrooms and after school, established a peer-to-peer literacy program.

At ten, she had her next idea. After watching men playing sports on the news she turned to her sister and said “we should do that!”

Despite never playing a sport in her life, she spoke to her principal about starting an afterschool basketball program for girls.

But the principal warned her it wouldn’t be easy and the program was not without its challenges or risks. She was told it defied cultural and social norms in Afghanistan and that the Minister of Education, who oversees all schools in Afghanistan, would never allow the program in their school.

But Wali was persistent, and the principal allowed her and six of her friends to quietly start a program. They used a basketball that was donated by a local organization and played in the school’s outdoor court.

“It was challenging finding players. Families weren’t ready to let their daughters play sports,” said Wali. “People still had fear from extremists, such as the Taliban, and were afraid.”

By creating the program and actively promoting it in their school, they motivated many other students to join. Two years later, Wali’s program caught the attention of the Afghan Women’s Network, whose mission was to ensure men and women in Afghanistan live in a justice and discrimination free society.

“Through their connections, we were able to get approval through the Minister of Education for the sports program and we also created volleyball teams in Kabul schools,” said Wali. In 2008, she was nominated via a YouTube contest to attend the British Council’s Global Changemakers Conference in London.  

“The conference empowered me; I learned I was not alone and not the only one who faced challenges,” said Wali.

Afterwards, she was able to network with other global changemakers through Facebook and her sports program was officially established as a non-profit organization, Women Empowerment Through Sport (WETS). Wali had expanded the program to include basketball, volleyball, and soccer, with over 700 participants across Afghanistan.

“Playing basketball makes me happy,” said Wali. “It teaches women they are not alone.  As part of a team, you have the same goals. I have seen the positive changes in participants’ lives. I have personally witnessed their smiles and happiness daily.”

Her family supported her venture, but was concerned about her safety. As a founder of WETS, Wali spends time fundraising, building connections through networking, and being interviewed in the news. At one point, she had received threats to her personal safety.

“My mom would ask, ‘Why you? Why not someone else?’” said Wali. “Why not me?” she would ask her mom.  “If I give up, I don’t think anyone would dare to do it.”

Her persistence and motivation have presented global opportunities for Wali and the girls in the program. She’s traveled internationally to speak about WETS and has met organizations that have donated resources, such as uniforms, for all the girls. She was recently invited to represent WETS in the category of Peace and Human Rights at the 2016 Clinton Global Initiative University in April. This summer, WETS is working with orphanages in Afghanistan to empower them through sport.

At Gettysburg, Wali is a political science major and Middle East & Islamic Studies minor. She regularly plays intramural sports such as basketball and soccer. She also participated in the Eisenhower Institute's Inside the Middle East program.

Her advice to others wanting to create change?

“If you think something can happen in a better way, fight for it. Bring positive change, work hard for change. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.”

Contact: Shawna Sherrell, associate director of creative services, 717.337.6812

Posted: Sun, 23 Oct 2016