Reaching New Heights - Gender Equality at 4100 meters above sea level
There’s something to be said about football. The screaming fans, packed stadiums and a nail-biting 90 minutes that is filled with a rush of emotions. As with all sports, football has gained a massive fan following and is often televised in all its glory. But the glitter and fame is not all there is to it. What happens when you take away the big-names, tournaments and all the fame.
In this case, it leaves behind a group of youngsters whose drive and passion to pursue their dreams knows no bounds. Playing a football match at Pakistan’s highest altitude football ground in Zarthgurbein, this group of young girls is working change the idea that football is a “man’s sport.”
The Gender Equality football match, hosted by Al-Shams Football club was a test in both skill and endurance. It took the group of 29 players and 7 managing officers a trek of 4 hours to reach the football ground at Zarthgurbein, which is 4100m above sea level. The club has previously hosted a Women’s Football Tournament and will be hosting its second one next week from around 13-17 September.
Speaking to ex-coach and club owner Munawar Ali Shah, gave us an insight into how hard the club has worked in the last 4 years to change mindsets around female sports in Gilgit-Baltistan and it’s surrounding areas. Mr. Shah spoke about the struggles he faced initially, starting with a group of girls that had almost no experience with the sport and a society that had little interest in helping these girls learn. Fortunately, however, he says households are now more accepting of women’s sports and are looking past their previous concerns. Initially he said, they faced criticism over the sports uniform that girls needed to wear as well as for the fact that football was seen as a distraction from the household chores that girls were expected to priorities. However, these concerns have slowly melted away as the club as proved its worth, allowed its players to shine and prove that their passions and dreams are far more than a mere distraction.
Sania Rehman, a key member of the team and a player in the recent Gender Equality match also had a lot to say about her experiences as a female football player in Pakistan. Although she previously played volleyball, and was a keen sportswomen, football was completely new to her when she joined Al-Shams FC in 2016 - the year the club was started. She had nothing but praise for not just her coach but the club management as well, for creating a team from a group of girls that were all completely new to the game. Sania also had the opportunity to represent Hunza in an Under-19s tournament, a feat she could not have imagined when she first started out.
Speaking about her interactions with her family and societal response to her playing football, she was grateful for her father’s support even when those around him did not seem so keen. However, she did go on to say that girls were generally appreciated in Hunza and so the shift in seeing them go from one role to another did not seem that big for most people. She felt that sports gave her purpose and a sense of belonging, and at a young 18 years of age, it was heartwarming to see her filled with so much passion and hope for her future.
Mr. Shah was proud of the changes his club have brought to his local region and aims to expand their reach to other areas of Gilgit-Baltistan in the hope that this message of empowerment and equality will spread as far as possible. Everyone deserves a shot at following their dreams and it is up to those who have the resources to do so, to help make that possible. Given the success the club has found in its own locality in less than 4 years, it could do wonders in other regions as well.
This example of a small club making a difference in their tiny part of the world just goes to show that ripples become waves and bring about changes we couldn’t even imagine. Encouraging women’s sports, is about more than just winning a match or kicking a football around. It builds up confidence and brings about a drive in young girls - a drive that we as a country desperately need if we want to make our mark on the world. Although you may not have heard of this particular football club before, and they might not be “insta-famous” this young group of girls is ready to leave their mark and inspire others like them for generations to come. Pakistan is not just limited to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. We harbour talented individuals in every corner of our country and all they need is a chance to prove their worth.