The South Asia Channel
In Pakistan, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” Attitude Emerges
Pakistani girls and women used to be excluded from sports, but a revolution sweeping the country has given many female athletes hope for the future.
Buried behind the headlines of protests, violence, and the polio epidemic, there is a positive development in Pakistan currently: a revolution in women’s athletics.
Since the 2013 parliamentary elections in Pakistan that ushered in the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of national power, sports and athletics in Pakistan have experienced their own process of democratization. Pakistani women are not only participating in athletics, but also achieving many impressive milestones and defying social expectations.
In Pakistan, images of athletic women are not common, there is a dearth of physical education curriculum in schools, and social norms in the rural areas have dictated that women not participate in athletics for fear it will render their bodies unfeminine.
It was only in the last two decades that women have been able to attend spectator sports. During the rule of General Zia ul-Haq, a religious body ruled women’s participation and attendance at sporting events as obscene. However, since the mid-90’s, many women’s sporting teams have been assembled and girls and women throughout the country have ignored criticism from religious groups in pursuit of their passion — athletics.
Pakistan’s far north province of Gilgit-Baltistan is home to arguably the most majestic mountain ranges in the world: the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas. Samina Baig, a 23-year old from the Shimshal Valley in Hunza, has recently taken the mountaineering world by storm. Last spring, Samina was the first Pakistani woman to summit Mount Everest in Nepal when she climbed the mountain with her older brother Mirza Ali. Since that historic climb, the sibling duo has summited seven of the highest peaks in the world: Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, Mount Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, Mount McKinley in Alaska, and most recently Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak.
Samina’s recent tour de force was a part of Adventure Diplomacy Expedition, a program sponsored by the Serena Hotel chain, and the Embassies of Argentina, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia, and the United States. Impressive physical achievements aside, the greater goal for the sibling duo has been to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The two founded Pakistan Youth Outreach, an initiative that encourages young people to study and enjoy the outdoors, with a particular focus on encouraging women in mountaineering. In 2011, they organized a Karakorum Gender Equality Expedition. The peak which they summited was previously unnamed, so Samina decided to call it Koh i Brobar, or Mt. Equality. Samina’s athletic prowess and message of women’s empowerment can be viewed in the forthcoming film Beyond the Heights.
Another Pakistani woman reaching new heights is Nazia Parveen. She has been proving that women not only can make the leap into the professional rock climbing circle, but also can be better than their male counterparts once they’re there. Originally from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Parveen was accustomed to a somewhat nomadic life due to her father’s Army career. Now a college student in Islamabad, Nazia splits her time between academics and climbing in the Margallah Hills, the lesser Himalayan range in the capital. She has won thirteen competitions, often beating male climbers for the top spot. . Even after earning many athletic accolades, Nazis is often asked: “What are you doing in a male sport?” Despite such social pressures, competition has given Nazia confidence and strength.
Nazia is now a rock-climbing instructor for other adventurous girls and women in Pakistan. She recruits women from local universities and is training her younger sister Roshna to climb. Next, Nazia hopes to spread the message of athletics and female empowerment to her home region in the tribal territories bordering Afghanistan.
Maria Toorpakay, an award-winning squash player, has had to hide her identity to pursue her passion. Growing up in Waziristan, in order to compete in weight lifting and squash, Maria had to dress as a boy as sports were not an option for girls. During a tournament, she was asked to produce her birth certificate, exposing her true gender. She was bullied and harassed by other athletes. Today, Maria is Pakistan’s number one women’s squash player. She is a vocal supporter of women in sports, as she credits the competition with allowing her to cope with growing up in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. “I feel that this is my responsibility. I have to raise my voice for the other girls,” Maria said after competing in the Asian Games in South Korea in September.
Last year, Pakistan fielded their first ever women’s team for the Kabaddi World Cup. Kabaddi, a sport indigenous to South Asia, is thought of as a combination of rugby and wrestling. Upon being recruited for the national team, Sayeda Fareeda Khanum remarked: “Getting the national colors was my childhood dream. I am going to India to fight a do-or-die battle for my nation and prove that Pakistani girls can do everything women do in other countries.” Khanum, who grew up in a conservative religious family, had to fight with her parents for years to be allowed to participate in competitive sports.
Although women’s professional cricket has existed for several years in Pakistan, 2013 ushered in some firsts: last spring’s Benazir Bhutto Women’s Cricket Challenge was the first time a women’s cricket tournament was covered on live television in Pakistan. Additionally, this tournament was the first women’s sporting event where men were allowed to attend as spectators. Allowing young boys and their fathers to watch women’s sports in person is a powerful tool in promoting gender equality to multiple generations of Pakistanis.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwest province formerly home to Malala Yousafzai, has seen a surge in women and girls participating in sports in recent years as well. When the Pakistani Taliban had a grasp of this region, all sports were banned. Today the provincial government is actively investing in sporting facilities, hiring trained coaches, and parents are becoming increasingly more supportive of participation in sports. Girls are active in many traditionally male-dominated sports such as wrestling, judo, and swimming. Aqsa, a teenage karate champ said, “I feel I can do anything a boy can do.”
Regional athletic organizers are envisioning the day when there will even be sports scholarships for girls to attend college. “Girls have to come and play their hearts out to break the shackles, and they are doing it,” said Ramza Khan, a baseball player from Peshawar, the provincial capital.
Today, girls in Pakistan are being introduced to sports at a much younger age. Fatima Saleem, a sports anchor for GEO News, founded Go Girl Pakistan, an organization that instills confidence and sportsmanship in girls through sports. Through receipt of a $5,000 grant, Fatima organized three soccer clinics in Karachi for 100 girls aged 5-12 years. Fatima’s program takes a community approach, involving the parents through “Mommy and Me” and “Daddy and Me” clinics. The results have been positive and there is strong demand for more clinics.
Girls and women in Pakistan are hungry for athletic opportunity. Through continued coaching, I expect to see many women proudly hoist the green flag while standing on winner’s podiums in years to come.
Kelsey L. Campbell is a member of the Truman National Security Project. She has lived and worked in Pakistan.