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Let the Games Begin…

Originally intended for the Good Times (magazine), posting it here.

VENUE: The Second Floor (T2F)

Sporting sagas could always use a rag-tag team to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Shifting the lens towards female players posed against a conservative backdrop who defy gravity and dare to dream puts an empowering spin on the chosen narrative. While underdogs make trusty hooks, women with gumption never go out of style.

Finding them is not that difficult. Mashal Hussain and Khadija Kazmi are the face of KU women’s football. The Karachi United FC – Women’s Squad was launched in 2010. Mashal, who is the ‘Youth Program Coordinator – Women Division Lead’ defines it as a dream job. She is aware of the irony that in most circles it wouldn’t be classified as a career. Her steely determination to push the conversation about women’s sports into development territory based on time spent in the field gives her words an added poignancy.

Mashal and Khadija appear poised to step into their role as potential change-agents and visionaries. They have been involved in arranging championships, training youth, community uplift and welfare projects. Their chosen path is littered with cultural landmines that threaten to derail the growth and development process.

They use an inventive way to sum up their personal experiences by screening a documentary about Zanzibar’s female football team. ‘The New Generation Queens – Football Beyond the Pitch’ directed by Megan Shutzer has been selected because of the similarity of challenges faced by both sides and the regional roadblocks carved from chauvinism and religious bigotry on display. Zanzibar’s spectacular losses somehow become irrelevant to the storyline. Their indefatigable spirit is the showstopper.

Politics cause added stress fractures on the local front. Despite these hurdles the Pakistani women have preserved and made inroads. There are rough patches and dark days. A scene where the Zanzibar team, seen in Coca Cola sponsored T-shirts is expected to play without water or soda raises eyebrows. The local payers can relate to their plight including the water deprivation part. That this happened at a national level and not in a backwater township is clearly a source of concern.

Mashal was introduced to the game at 19. She was too old by football standards and remembers her first match against a team of boys on a cricket pitch and being wiped out by their opponents. Fortunately, setbacks or grim statistics are not the final word in their playbook. A select few have embarked on a lonely trek and soldier on, braced for resistance. They relate cautionary tales of parents who support their daughters’ life choices and are dismayed by the limits set that prevent girls from exploring their true potential. Of corporate sponsorships that exist but are targeted at competitions and not, as should be the case, sports development. That development is not driven by tournaments alone is obvious to the players – they can just look on as the pursuit of careers or marriage inevitably pushes athletic ambitions on the back burner.

The lack of proper support on a State level also holds them back. They have introduced the first national ‘Under 12’ and ‘Under 10’ girls’ academy in the region and bear witness to the social impact on disenfranchised youth hailing from rough neighborhoods like Golimar, Lyari or Manghpir. Both women have a vision of the future where football is not regarded as a summer fling to be cast aside when real life comes a calling. Mashal sees a love of sports opening up new vistas leading to infrastructure development, apparel design, or ground maintenance. She insists that this is an investment worth making and points to the array of rewards that come along with it – like the wonderful camaraderie, self-belief, or support networks. The two are living proof of the transformative power of sports and share their wish-list which includes widening the net and an athlete pool to choose from, for starters.

They now come forward in a bid to sway opinions in their favor. Khadija, who represented Pakistan in the Generation Amazing Program (Qatar) in Brazil 2014 remains a passionate advocate for social change and for platforms that can harness the power of football and bend perceptions. Awareness is needed to counter the state of apathy that exists on every level. The duo is pragmatic. Change doesn’t happen overnight – and they are willing to wait. They realize that they are at the first rung and there are many more to go. Football was their passion and they are in it for the long haul.
For Mashal, Sports Development is next step and she is now headed to Harvard University to pursue a degree that will prepare her for the next chapter of her life.

Casting female footballers from the third world as stakeholders in the art of nation building may be a radical notion. Since they are not just aiming for shelves lined with trophies – success from their vantage point offers a picturesque view of an arena that raises champions and cultivates a culture of sports innovation on the side. It’s a fascinating spectacle.


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