Our Program Director, Beth Tumiel, will be in Pakistan in partnership with Women Win over the next week where she will be Advancing the Playing Field for Girls with other national organizations who use sports as a tool for girls’ empowerment and social change. She will be sharing her journey with us on our blog, and on our social media accounts (Follow us: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).
Last Friday we went to Aga Khan, a private University in Karachi. Being one of the only universities in Pakistan with an indoor sports center that includes a weightlifting room and pool, our host from Right to Play was excited to take us there. Most spaces that are available for sports in Pakistan are outside, causing yet another barrier to girls playing sports since temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in the summer. Aside from seeing the facilities, we were there to do a site visit with two medical students who play basketball on the university team, two administrators and four members of the national cricket team.
The first part of the day was a tour of the facilities and an orientation to the history of the university, which was founded by the Shia Ismaili Muslims, a religious minority group. When we asked about sports based scholarships, an administrator said, “We only have merit based scholarships here.” One of the basketball players immediately countered with, “for now.” When we toured the weight room, the same student said, “We’ll have more weights by next year.” These are women set on making change. They know what’s at stake if a change doesn’t happen. Opportunities for equality are lost. The other student told us that “discrimination disappears when playing sports.” She described that as soon as she steps onto the court with her male colleagues, even those who give her a tough time for playing, they are all just players.
When the four cricket players joined us, the room changed dramatically. Leadership shifted from the basketball players to the cricket players. From one group of powerful young women to another. It was apparent how much the basketball players looked up to the cricket players: for paving a path to the celebration of Pakistani women in sports. For their strong dedication to a sport that was helping all women be accepted as players. For pushing the envelope because pushing the envelope meant improving things for everyone. I saw the power of girls being lived out in their conversation.
Our host led us all in a discussion to learn about the girls’ experiences. The young women talked about their challenges. About how people would “pass judgement on us about the way we dressed or looked.” About how they were discouraged from playing their sport by friends and family. About how they don’t get the same support from their local governments as the men’s teams do.
But they also talked about how they are making change, and how they are convincing people. One of them reminded us, “Because we are girls, we have to keep fighting.” After she started to get recognition, one girl’s father is now openly proud of her and attends all of her games. When another girl’s grandmother saw how happy it made her, she started asking her about the sport. Another girl said that “my parents don’t say anything anymore. I don’t know if it is giving up or support. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I still get to play.”
At the end of the day, the girls from the National Cricket Team asked me to take a selfie. I was thrilled to do so because I had wanted to ask the same thing, but was afraid to speak up. These young women, they were not afraid to ask. I’ve got a lot to learn from them.