By Hajra Khan, Women’s National Team Vice-Captain
In Pakistan, there is a general lack of support for girls who want to do more than just get married and become mothers. Girls face many obstacles, including lack of access to quality and affordable education, and cultural barriers. Consequently, their freedom of movement and pursuit of their dreams is restricted to a great extent be it in the field of sport, politics, education, science and so forth. While there exist some exceptions, a vast majority of the women are not exposed to equal opportunities and avenues in order to express themselves.
From my experience as one of the pioneers of women football in Pakistan, I have witnessed an increase in the appeal and popularity of the sport among women and men alike. While the initiative to present an opportunity for females to participate in this sport is commendable, there is a general consensus that more efforts are needed for further improvements. Investments to uplift the standard of the game and the officials involved as well as increase the publicity to reach women of all backgrounds are essential. Presently, I feel that the efforts made are rather superficial and lack dedication apparent from the fact that national tournaments take place once annually without an ongoing organization. The National Women Football team has only played three international tournaments while there are opportunities for further engagement and improvement. On the contrary, we see regional examples in other South Asian countries where the girls are given more opportunities to grow and hone their talent by participating in various events and friendly matches. I believe that we are equally capable of facing any competition given adequate training and exposure.
The violence against women is a major problem in Pakistan that needs to be seriously addressed. Every year, there are between 8,000 to 9,000 reported (and many unreported) crimes against women. These include, rape, acid throwing or burning, honor killings, forced marriages, forced prostitution and female trade. Unfortunately, the past few years have been witness to a steep increase in such crimes. Despite the passage of numerous bills in the parliament, its implementation is still limited to a few cases since the social and cultural context of Pakistani society is predominantly patriarchal. The civil society and women’s groups in Pakistan, however, are actively fighting for women’s cause to mitigate biased attitudes against their complaints of violence among prosecutors, police officers and medico legal doctors.
Additionally, while the participation of women in politics through reserved seats (quota) is increasing, the presence of women in political parties as well as in political structure at the local, provincial, and national levels remains insignificant due to cultural and structural barriers. A prominent female minister was assassinated publicly by a fanatic for being actively involved in politics which is considered purely a man’s domain.
In 1996, when sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan first tried to introduce women’s cricket in Pakistan, they were met with court cases and even death threats. The government refused to grant them permission to play India in 1997, and ruled that women were forbidden from playing sports in public. However, later on they were granted permission, and the Pakistani women’s cricket team played its first recorded match on January 28, 1997.
The recent story of a fifteen year old school student and education activist, Malala, who was shot for raising her voice in support of female education, is upsetting. Malala’s bravery and perseverance by continuing her education in the face of a ban is admirable and gives a loud and clear message to the extremist that their injustice will be met with resistance. We have many more such examples where young girls are forced to discontinue education out of fear of life from the extremists and are deprived from one of their basic rights.
These issues are of utmost significance to me on a personal level as well as to the society at large in which I reside. Being equal citizens of the country, female participation and representation in different fields is a right that no one can take away. Moreover, females make up almost half of the population of my country and thus cannot be excluded from legislation, decision-making and contribution towards the economy. And of course, when it comes to legislation, there is no one suitable enough to legislate for their own interests.
In my opinion, sports such as football can provide an excellent platform to encourage education for girls, enable them to express themselves and give them a voice within their families and society. It can help girls gain respect for their bodies and develop self-esteem while also building on their inter-personal and leadership skills. Being a part of a team helps them form long lasting bonds and enables them to become cooperative team players. Moreover, engaging in a physically demanding sport like football challenges the stereotype that girls are weaker than boys and gives them a sense of achievement that they can attain any targets in life. Football, among other team sports, can teach women (as well as men) important lessons in life; cultural and racial differences dissolve and interaction with other team mates are done without coercion and exploitation. Moreover, each player is made conscious of the fact that everyone has to play within a framework of rules and penalties exist to sanction transgressions. Football has universal appeal that can bridge divides and promote peace among different sets of ideologies.
Significant investments in girls’ education, be it by the aid of football or by spending directly on schools and colleges, can bring a positive change by overcoming gender discrimination and the vicious cycle of poverty. Better education opportunities will improve their access to economic opportunities which in turn will empower them. Their role in decision making related to marriage, health and to raise healthy children will be positively affected. Ultimately, such women will not only improve the lives of their children, but their contribution will also trickle down to their families and communities. Therefore, as the famous saying goes, educating a woman is like educating the entire nation.
All in all, it seems that we are proponents of a liberated Pakistan where women are given the same status as men, but in reality there is more that needs to be done in practice. Passing bills in the parliament and making public statements for the purpose of media coverage might silence the critics for a short duration but will eventually create unrest and a sense of insecurity and social exclusion within the masses as promises are not fulfilled. The concept of sports for development is a novel one and needs to be adapted within the social and cultural norms of our society with commitment and dedication. While speaking out in favor of more opportunities for girls, initiatives such as these are excellent examples to educate and empower them.