Awista Ayub once brought eight Afghan girls to America with the simple goal of teaching them how to play soccer. She never could have imagined those young women would go back and transform their country, and eventually be the focal point of her book, However Tall the Mountain (issued in 2010 as a paperback under the title Kabul Girls Soccer Club), which has been praised by public figures around the globe.
Ayub, who graduated from UD in May 2009 with a master of public administration degree, says the original plan was to bring the girls to America through the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange (AYSE), an organization she founded in 2003. The exchange was dedicated to equipping Afghanistan's youth with leadership skills to promote athletics in their communities, and to have the players teach soccer to young children in Afghanistan.
"What I would come to understand later, though, was that by choosing soccer, a male-dominated sport in Afghanistan, the girls would be pushing the boundaries of the sports culture and would be thrust into a position that would challenge the gender barriers of the culture both on and off the field," Ayub said.
The book's hard-cover title, However Tall the Mountain, draws its name from the old Afghan proverb, "However tall the mountain, there is always a road." It tells the stories of these eight young women, as well as of Ayub herself, and how they found strength in themselves, as well as each other, through teamwork, revolutionizing the role of women through what some would see as the small act of playing soccer.
Ayub says that by playing soccer in Afghanistan, the young women were "not only pushing against years of cultural barriers that girls face on a daily basis, but also, pushing against the cultural norm for the sport itself in Afghanistan and redefining the role of women within that sports arena."
Ayub says she never intended to write a book about her experience until she was approached by a representative of the publisher, Hyperion.
"The initial part of the process included a trip to Afghanistan to conduct in-depth interviews with the girls, as well as their families," Ayub said. Her work on the book began in 2006, and the book was published in August 2009.
"That to me was the most intriguing and important part of the process. Although I knew the general background of each girl, it was interesting to hear them talk about their lives in greater detail," she said.
One obstacle Ayub faced when writing the book was that the time period of her writing happened to coincide with the beginning of graduate school at UD, which Ayub started in the fall of 2007. "Managing school and the book at the same time posed both advantages and disadvantages – advantages in that writing the book provided me with a varied distraction from classwork, and it was a disadvantage at times in that a few of the book deadlines coincided with finals week," she said.
In writing the book, Ayub said she wanted to show a side of her native country that she feels is rarely portrayed in the media. Ayub said she believes that it is "vitally important as an Afghan-American to contribute to the knowledge and conversations about Afghanistan, as well as to help broaden the understanding of life on the ground in Afghanistan for those who live it on a daily basis.
"It was my intention to not only broaden the understanding of the country, but also to humanize the people. To show that there is a deeper world beyond the media images and sound bites that most Americans come in contact with, and while part of the life in the country does include facing obstacles, it is also important to share stories of hope and triumph."
Ayub's book has drawn praise from public figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Julie Foudy, former captain of the U.S. National Women's Soccer team, and Khaled Hosseini, the author of the book Kite Runner.
"Awista Ayub has movingly captured the indomitable spirit of Afghan women in this chronicle of brave girls who risked persecution and worse to pursue the dreams of ordinary childhood," Clinton wrote. "In doing what they love most in life — playing soccer — the girls become emblems of the fight for equality and human rights under the Taliban. Their story reminds us that there is always hope and possibility for a brighter future – even in the wreckage left by war and conflict."
Ayub saw the mountain that blocked Afghan youths from participating in sports, and by teaching those original eight girls how to spread the youth sports movement in Afghanistan through soccer, she found the road to the other side.