JACOBABAD: When Erum Baloch’s hopes of becoming a professional hockey player were shattered by social norms, she started to dream even bigger and promised to create an environment where the dreams of other girls could come true.
For many girls in Jacobabad, a city of 200,000 in an impoverished rural area of southern Pakistan’s Sindh province, sports remain a taboo and a source of stigma.
“It was very difficult for me to proceed,” Baloch told Arab News. “Girls could not join sports.”
But in 2017, when she was only 23, Baloch established the Stars Women Hockey Academy Jacobabad. The club she and her friends founded from their own savings was the first such academy for women in the region.
“It became my dream to establish a hockey academy, so that girls who wanted to play would not find themselves in the situations like those that I faced,” Baloch said.
Orphaned by her father at the age of four, and having lost her only brother to a bomb blast in 2015, Baloch found all support in her mother, Asifa Begum, who allowed her to pursue her childhood dream in hopes that it could heal her trauma.
“My son’s death was a tragedy for the whole family. One way for Erum to come out of it was to concentrate on her childhood dream of running a hockey club,” Begum said.
“Despite pressure from extended family and friends, I let her do what she wanted.”
In the beginning, it was not easy.
“People were not mentally prepared for how girls play, so they started creating hurdles. Many also threatened us. But we didn’t stop,” Baloch said.
The girls struggled to find a pitch, but eventually were permitted to play at a sports ground of a girl’s college.
They still spend their own savings on the club, but recently have also started to receive small donations to keep the academy running.
Eighteen of their players have participated in provincial and national-level tournaments, including Nabeela Bhayo, 21, one of the club’s co-founding members, who now plays for the provincial Sindh Hockey Team as a goalkeeper.
Bhayo is also one of the four Jacobabad girl hockey players who were admitted to study at Punjab University under its sports quota in 2019 and completed her master’s of commerce degree.
“Back home, people are so conservative that they object to us wearing sports trousers and shirts,” she told Arab News. “I am thankful that my family is supportive.”
Bhayo’s biggest supporter is her father, Nabeel Bhayo, who says it is an honor that his daughter is representing Jacobabad on the national level.
He has also been advocating among other parents to let their daughters play sports and achieve something in their lives.
“Jacobabad is a highly conservative area,” he said. “My daughter and her club members are breaking the taboo.”