Afghan women are displaying defiance on an international stage.

A group of 17 displaced athletes are taking part in the 2023 Asian Games, an event organized every four years by the ​​Olympic Council of Asia and sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. Participants typically come from all over the continent to compete – but many of the Afghan women doing so this year have traveled from other parts of the world, even as far as Australia, after feeling Taliban rule. 

Those competing see their involvement as an opportunity to reach out to the women still living inside Afghanistan. “Nowadays, they are looking for hope,” Mursal Khedri, a member of the coalition now living in Pakistan, said to Reuters. “By seeing us here, they can find hope that we can also participate in sports.”

Boosting morale from afar is a shared goal. Since its August 2021 takeover in Afghanistan, the Taliban has severely restricted the lives of girls and women throughout the country – barring them from attending school, limiting their ability to work, and requiring them to cover their hair and faces, among other injustices. Even beauty salons have been closed.

Following an initial period of confusion and fear, Afghan women set about finding ways to secretly maintain their autonomy, gathering in secret locations to practice writing or participate in book clubs. 

But it’s been extremely tough – which is why the Afghan women athletes feel strongly about taking part in this year’s Games, Khushal Malakzai, the secretary general of Afghanistan’s volleyball federation, told Reuters. 

“[T]he important thing for us, and also the girls, is that participation … give[s] them hope for the future – and for those girls who are inside Afghanistan … they should understand that there are people that are still supporting them,” he explained.

The Games commenced Sept. 23 with an opening ceremony – and Afghan women athletes came out defiantly during their debut, walking in the ceremony alongside their male counterparts while carrying the Afghan tricolor flag, a symbol of Tablian resistance.

The displaced athletes, who are competing in events such as cycling and volleyball, have had complications to weather while at the Games themselves, in terms of accessing practice facilities. Organizers told Reuters though that all teams, not just the Afghan women’s team, were unable to access the courts they needed to initially.

Bumps in the road aside, the Afghan women are clear on their objectives: They want to win, but more than that, they want to make a statement.

Roqia Mohammadi, who plays for the country’s volleyball team, reinforced to Voice of America that the message is one of solidarity. “With our presence, we want to say that [Afghan women at home] are not alone. Wherever we are – we are Afghans. And we’ll stand by each other.”

The Games will continue until Sunday, Oct. 8.