RAWALPINDI: Forty young football enthusiasts in matching black tracksuits jogged down the cement bleachers framing the expansive football pitch of the Islamabad Sports Complex on Tuesday, egging one another on and cheering as they embarked on a new day of sports and fun.
While athletes of all stripes could be seen on the many fields and tracks of the complex, what made this particular sight unique was that all of the athletes were young girls from Pakistan’s northernmost, long-neglected region of Chitral. The girls were brought to the capital by the Chitral Women’s Sports Club, the brainchild of national football star Karishma Ali.
Running a football club for girls from poor families in a remote, mountainous area of Pakistan is not easy during a pandemic, but Ali has not let the challenging circumstances stop her from pursuing her dream of helping girls in her native Chitral region.
“Usually when we do our activities, it’s kept secret and done far from their villages for security reasons,” Ali, 23, told Arab News on Tuesday, at the Islamabad Sports Complex. “This is why I brought them here, to give them a more comfortable environment. You can already see the change in their confidence, how they are playing out in the open versus at home.”
Ali started her club two years ago with 60 girls between the ages of 8 and 16. Now the club has over 150 members who ski and play volleyball, cricket and football.
Ali hopes the club will help the girls overcome both sexual discrimination and poverty in a country where boys’ education and sports are prioritized. Her dream is to help her girls win sports scholarships in professional colleges in Pakistan and beyond.
“These girls have talent,” said Ali, who has represented her country at international football tournaments. “If we get requisite support, we can have 1,000 female footballers from Chitral.”
In Islamabad, the footballers are attending a week-long camp from Jan. 23-29 under Coach Jose Alonso who runs a Spanish Football Academy in the capital. The camp has also given them the opportunity to interact and play with other female football stars.
“I am excited and happy because I see the girls smiling every day,” said Ali. “I haven’t seen a single upset face. They are getting the chance not only to play the way other athletes get to play and practice out in the open, but also to have fun.”
Indeed, for many of the girls, aged between 12 and 16, this is their first time away from home and in the capital.
“We do not get opportunities like this back home. Just having the chance to come and play every day has been really fun,” Zakira Nida, 14, said. “That’s what we lack the most: opportunities.”
“Boys get a lot of chances to play in our region,” said Mehek Sultan, 15. “But our society does not just consist of boys. We are here, too. We should also get to play because participating in sports is good for everyone.”
The Pakistani women’s football team, which faced a FIFA ban due to inactivity in 2013, remained dormant even after the ban was lifted in 2017. Last year in October 2020, the Pakistan Football Federation began work to revive the sport by organizing football camps.
Ali’s own passion for football began when she was nine years old and watched the 2006 FIFA World Cup with her father.
“I just knew this is the game for me,” she had said in media interviews last year.
But it was not easy. When the community discovered Ali’s football career, some were deeply hostile, and she received messages threatening to kill her if she continued.
“It was seen as inappropriate culturally because I would wear shorts, thereby baring my skin,” she told reporters.
The situation eased in 2019 when Ali was selected for Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 Asia list of rising stars and the community began to recognize her achievements.
Now, Ali says it is high time people in Pakistani sports management begin to believe in women.
“Women’s teams are becoming famous all over the world,” she said. “In the US, they are winning the fight to be paid equally and we are still fighting for our right to play.”