She made history by playing football. Now she’s changing lives
By Aimee Lewis, CNN
In a remote village in Pakistan’s Chitral Valley, about 1500 meters above sea level, wi-fi is intermittent. It is among these mountains bordering Afghanistan that Karishma Ali is changing lives — and trying to tell her story despite technological difficulties. It is a world away, says Ali, from the capital Islamabad, where she would have spent most of this year studying at university had a global pandemic not forced the 23-year-old to return to her family home.
Last year she was named among Forbes’ ’30 Under 30′ in Asia, along with the likes of tennis star Naomi Osaka and K-pop band Blackpink, and, having already achieved much, the first woman from her region to have played football at a national and international level has her sights on making a difference to women and girls in the patriarchal region where she grew up.
“Things are hard for girls here, especially to have a different dream or to do something outside of what society expects you to do,” she tells CNN Sport, the signal holding out for an absorbing 45-minute telephone call. Temporarily closed because of Covid-19, the center she founded — Chitral Women’s Sports Club — to encourage girls in the region to play football has opened its doors again and there are hopes an exchange program will soon be organized for the girls to attend a football camp in Islamabad. “But a lot needs to be done,” says Ali.
Her ambition is matched by her bravery. As a teenager she says she received death threats on social media when some men in Chitral learned she was playing football in Islamabad, but she continues to play, and continues to use her voice. “I want to bring change to those girls and those women who want to become more than a housewife,” she says.
Had Ali grown up in a different household, perhaps she too would now be married with a family of her own. According to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report early marriage “remains a serious problem” in the country, with UNICEF saying 21% of girls are married before the age of 18.
But Ali had a father who allowed her to dream; who gave her an education, who would watch and play football with her and who, perhaps most importantly of all, gave her the strength to carry on with even when she was threatened. “Because of my dad, I was different,” she says, explaining that girls in the region did not attend school when she was growing up.
Last year Human Rights Watch said five million primary school-age children in Pakistan were out of school, with “most of them girls.””Even though I was only eight, I was thinking everything was so wrong with society. Why were women not allowed to do certain things men were allowed to? Even though I’d not been out or seen other women do something different, I knew women could do things if they were given an opportunity.”
Along with a Dutchman who visited the region at the beginning of the century, her teacher father built the first English medium school in the region for girls, the Al Zahra Polestar school. “I don’t know if he was built that way, he’s always been encouraging. He’s always encouraging my mother, my sister, myself. He’s never stopped us from doing anything,” she says of her father.
It was while watching the 2006 FIFA World Cup with her father that Ali was set on a path that changed her life, helping her become the leader who would eventually make a difference to others in her region. “The moment I started watching football, that’s when I knew I just wanted to play this game. I fell in love,” she says.
“When I step onto the field or pitch, I forget all the problems I have in life, everything. I’m just focusing on the ball, my teammates, so focused on the game I just forget. it’s a different sort of happiness I cannot really explain.”
After years of only being able to kick the ball with her father when on picnics, it was when she went to school in Islamabad that she was able to join a team.
Ten years after watching her first match on television, Ali would be selected to represent Pakistan in an international tournament, though it did not come under the umbrella of the Pakistan Football Federation. “My dad told me it’d be easier if the people back here [in Chitral] do not get to know about you,” she says. “I never posted on social media, I never told people I was playing football but, in 2016, when I was selected for the international, I saw this one post that had a heading saying ‘Karishma Ali is the first girl from Chitral to play football at a national or international level.’
“When people saw the post, I got to see horrible comments, horrible responses from different people. I basically was threatened, there was a lot of social media hate but also directly. “I received messages saying ‘if you continue to do this, we will kill you when you come back, or your legs should be chopped off’ … I was only 18 years old and thought maybe I should stop.”
A tearful conversation with her father gave her the strength to continue. The life of a reformist is never straightforward. And when she was shortlisted by Forbes last year, some attitudes began to change. “That’s slowly when people realized that girls, when they receive the same opportunity, they can make you proud and bring pride to the whole nation, not only to their own family or to themselves,” she says.
“There are still a lot of people who don’t appreciate what I do but there are people who are openly supporting me now.”At the end of the last decade, Ali organized a football camp in the village — “I was shocked to see how many girls were coming,” she says, still with a sense of wonder — and a year later started her sports club. “My aim was to physically and mentally empower these young girls,” she continues.
“Yes, some of them may turn out to be international footballers hopefully, but the other girls are getting the benefit of just having fun and not have to worry about anything else and be in a safe environment where they can feel free to talk about their problems and just enjoy.”
Like a fast-moving train, Ali is forever going forward. She isn’t the sort to pause. High-achievers rarely do. Last year the boundless student set up a handicraft center for women, an initiative which led to her meeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited Pakistan, and also saw her take part in Milan Fashion Week, where she walked on the catwalk with the Italian designer who collaborated with the Chitral women on her designs.
“A girl from the mountains going to Milan Fashion Week — a dream I never dreamt about,” she says, still amazed.”The Chitral embroidery is very famous and unique. They were making the embroidery but were unable to sell it so I thought I should intervene. They make different embroidery, and we try to sell them and they earn money through that.”
When life’s normal routines were put on hold because of the pandemic, Ali would spend hours driving on bumpy, mountainous roads with her father and uncle delivering much-needed supplies to the local hospital and underprivileged villagers. Items bought with money she raised, mainly through social media.
She says that, as of August, they had supplied one month’s worth of rations to 300 families, and donated 155 N95 masks, 53 goggles, 250 PPE suits, 650 surgical masks, 400 pairs of surgical gloves and 76 face shields to the DHQ Hospital Chitral.
“The men work as daily wage laborers in different cities in Pakistan and what happened after the close down, many industries and businesses closed down, they had to return home, and people were finding it really difficult, a lot of families were in need,” Ali says of the situation in Chitral over the last few months.
Having earned a bachelors degree in business and management in spite of the various strains experienced during the last few months of her final year, Ali, as expected, is looking to the future. She will put her studies on hold for a year to continue working on her many projects. Her sole focus is not on her world. There will always be the bigger picture.
“Ten years from now I want to see at least 10-20 more girls like myself who come back here [Chitral] after they’ve achieved their dream and work for the other girls that I was not able to reach out to and, slowly, I see a progressive society where men and women are working equally, where women do not have to stress about traditional customs, and be able to freely do what they can and see that I was part of all of this change,” she says.
“I want to see more women in leadership positions and then sit back and enjoy. This is what I wanted to fight for.”