The best portraits capture a person’s essence, almost always by focusing on the human face. But AP photographer Ebrahim Noroozi, on assignment in Kabul temporarily from Iran, needed to do something different to show the effects of Afghanistan’s rule banning women playing sports.
Using the emblematic burqa to conceal the identities of the women athletes now forbidden from doing what they love best, Noroozi came up with the haunting series of faceless portraits to offer an unparalleled illustration of the erasure of Afghan women from public life under the Taliban.
Several female athletes who once played a variety of sports unrestricted posed for Noroozi with their athletic equipment – and their identities hidden by burqas, the all-encompassing robe and hood that completely covers the face, leaving only a swath of mesh to see through.
Life for Afghan girls and women had transformed after two decades of an American-backed government, especially in Kabul and other cities. Afghan society remained deeply conservative — to the degree that one athlete described her mother beating her when her soccer team won a championship — but university degrees, work outside the home, and sports were all within reach. That changed when the Taliban took over in 2021.
The practice of sports was one of the first activities the Taliban outlawed for women.
For weeks Noroozi worked diligently on finding willing subjects. Then the difficulty came with how to show both their newly suppressed lives and the sports they loved. The idea of posing with the burqas came after one girl mentioned she wore one to leave Kabul, afraid that the Taliban will come after her and others.
It took around three months to complete the project showing these women and their “secret sports.”
The athletes don’t normally wear the burqa but said they sometimes do now when going outside while wanting to remain anonymous and avoid harassment. They described to The Associated Press intimidating visits and phone calls from the Taliban — warnings that sports were now off-limits to them.
Noroozi’s images were published in an array of multimedia presentations by AP’s subscribers worldwide, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. The latter used them to illustrate a story about the near-simultaneous decision by Australia to cancel a men’s one-day international cricket series over the restrictions on women.
For innovation and sensitivity in showing a difficult subject, we are honored to award Noroozi’s work Best of the Week – First Winner.