by Shazia Hasan
“I belong to a Pakhtun family so initially, when I started playing, my parents had their reservations, but they trusted me, too, and saw me as a positive example for other girls,” says Mehwish Khan. She scored the first international goal for Pakistan in 2010 during the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Football Championship in Dhaka, Bangladesh when Pakistan beat Maldives 2-1.
When playing, Mehwish used to wear long shorts which reached lower than her knees, or she made tights, to be worn under the shorts, a part of her playing kit. That was seven years ago, when few girls played football. But true to Mehwish’s parents, thinking, the girls became positive examples and helped open the gates to the football field for many others like them who couldn’t just sit around and watch football on TV.
Now other than the many department and club women football teams, football is also being played by girls in schools.
Recently, Right to Play brought together 240 girls from Karachi’s schools for ‘Football for Peace’, a league, which saw 16 teams playing some 119 matches over a span of three months. The final match between APWA School Nazimabad’s team Eagles and GSS Cosmopolitan School Orangi’s team Glitters at the Karachi United Football Club ground in Clifton saw the latter winning 5-4.
The girls play rough. It was survival of the fittest on the field as several received minor injuries and needed a break and reserves had to be called in. It was neck-to-neck in the end. The goalkeepers for both teams were under considerable pressure but blocking the ball wasn’t the only thing on Glitters’ 12-year-old goalie Warda Irshad’s mind.
“My family doesn’t know I am here, participating in a football tourney final,” says Warda. “I have told them I am at a friend’s place for group studies. They think I have am preparing for a test.”
Asked why she hadn’t told them, she shrugs and looks away for a second. “My brother says that sports are not for girls. He has managed to convince the others at home, too,” she says. “Now my parents, too, say that they send me to school to study and not to play sports. They think I have my nose in my school textbooks right now. They haven’t a clue as to where I am now,” she smiles with a naughty glint in her eye.
“Girl’s today are braver than us at their age,” says 22-year-old Shamsa Kanwal, coach of the winning team Glitters.
“I wish I could play football but since that was never on the cards for me, I’d rather pass on my dream to others and watch them realise it,” she smiles, adding that she has always loved football from as far back as she can remember.
“I used to watch the Premier League and English Football League matches on TV with my father. I used to tell him that I would also be a player like those I saw playing before me on the screen and he would nod and laugh. But after he passed away, I tried to forget about that dream of mine as I thought there was no one to support me at home after him. I also belong to a Pakhtun family,” she shares.
Then during college one of Shamsa’s friends started bringing a football to kick around during recess with some of her friends. “Her name was Ayesha and I liked her because of that football. We didn’t even know the rules of the game but we would create our own goals, from one tree to a bush for instance or we would find bricks or stones to mark the boundaries,” she remembers.
Finishing her studies Shamsa joined the teaching profession. She became a physical training teacher for girls in a government school. That’s where I met the Right to Play people, who wanted to introduce football to schoolgirls. “But before taking the game to the girls they had to teach the teachers,” says Shamsa. “This was how I got to learn about the rules of the game,” she adds.
The many meetings and coaching sessions for the teachers prompted several questions at home. Shamsa’s maternal uncle was not really in favour of her playing herself. But that was when seeing her love for football, her elder brother Rashid intervened. “My brother is amazing. His support for me turned around the others. He drops and picks me from the meetings and practice sessions himself and no one dares utter a word now,” she says.
“I wish I too could be part of a football club. I hear there are many women’s football clubs coming up now. But then I think maybe I am too old. Maybe I should just coach younger girls. Still, there are times when I just want to hand over the whistle around my neck to one of my students and switch places with them on the field,” the 22-year-old laughs.
Another teacher Saima Qazi, who teaches English and science, has also recently stepped in to coach schoolgirls in football. “I used to be pretty active during my student life, playing netball and volleyball. With that knowledge Right to Play also roped me in into their football programme,” she says.
“There was a problem initially getting the girls to play. We couldn’t even make an eight-a-side team sometimes as they would say their father or mother were not in favour of their taking part in such strenuous activity as football,” she adds.
“But we could spot a lot of talent and potential in them. So we started involving the parents, especially the mothers by inviting them to watch their daughters play. The mothers then started convincing the fathers, educating them about the benefits of taking part in healthy sporting activity, and that is how one thing led to the next and we started building teams,” she says. Saima’s own 14-year-old daughter, Makashfa Sajid, was also playing.
Another mother, Farhana, was also there watching the finals where he eldest daughter Madiha Siddiqui was playing as a deep defender. “I have four daughters among whom Madiha is the eldest,” the mother says while trying to console her youngest three-year-old daughter, who was crying and asking her to take her home again and again.
“Thank God my other daughters are not interested in sports like Madiha, and I prefer it that way,” says the mother not realising that the fussy toddler had moved and found something to keep her mind off going home for now. She had found an extra football, which she grabbed in her tiny hands before running back along with it to the sitting area for the guests.
The writer tweets @HasanShazia