It is played on every available strip of grass and patch of asphalt, in every galli and mohallah. Hockey may be Pakistan’s national sport, but cricket is the national passion. Of late, however, that passion has turned sour, with forfeited matches, failed dope tests, fitness problems, the early exit from the World Cup in March and the death of coach Bob Woolmer. It has been a bad year for Pakistani cricket, to say the least – for men’s cricket, at any rate.
While the men in white are portrayed alternately as gods or devils, depending on the slant of the fickle public mood, the country’s cricketing women have been building a team under the radar. Yes, Pakistan does have a women’s cricket team. No, these women in white have not won a major tournament yet. But that must be seen in context.
“The Indian women’s team has been playing for more than 35 years,” says 21-year-old Urooj Mumtaz Khan, captain of the national women’s cricket team. “We can’t compare.” The current Pakistani team is merely two years old. Also stacked against it is the nature of cricket’s social milieu. Those games being played in the gallis and mohallahs? All by boys. And while Shamsa Hashmi, secretary of the women’s wing of the Pakistan Cricket Board, may call the game a “second religion”, Pakistan’s religious extremists have raised a fuss about mixed-gender sporting events.
|Pakistani Captian Shamsa Hasami in Lahore October 2005|
In 2005, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – the conservative multi-party religious alliance that constitutes one-fifth of the current Parliament – intervened in a mixed marathon in Lahore. When violent clashes ensued, the government prohibited women and men from ‘sporting’ together. The aftershocks of that decision can be felt even today. Men are banned from women’s cricket matches unless accompanied by their families. This ban even extends to the Women’s World Cup qualifier tournament, an international event where the likes of Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea, Bermuda, Ireland, South Africa, Scotland and the Netherlands will compete in Lahore this November. But team captain Khan is happy with the decision. “We do prefer to avoid groups of men watching our games. This keeps out riffraff who come to see us playing for cheap thrills.”
Khan herself comes from a fairly liberal family. She batted and bowled with the boys from a young age, and was soon playing more competitive cricket with boys older than she was. Her parents have been supportive, and her college (she is in the final year of a dentistry programme) has fully accommodated her sporting pursuits. For Urooj, cricketing has never been a male activity. “I’ve got a younger brother who doesn’t play cricket,” she says with a grin.
On to Lahore
More encouraging than the experience of women like Urooj Khan, who hails from metropolitan Karachi, is the sight of female cricketers who come from inland towns such as Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Multan, Sialkot and even far-off Toba Tek Singh. The national team’s fast bowler, Qanita Jalil, is from Abbottabad, in the NWFP, where the provincial government is led by the MMA. But in a country where women are pigeonholed as either demure housewives or glitzy sex bombs, the sporty woman is a breath of fresh air for many. And the fact that playing sports is becoming increasingly acceptable at the family level despite the conservative wave that seems to be sweeping the country, is giving girls a healthy outdoor outlet that was previously almost nonexistent. Urooj has many girls between the ages of 14 and 18 coming to participate in matches and camps.
Women’s sports have been getting a boost in Pakistan over the past eight years of Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Previously, the only women’s national team was under the Pakistan Hockey Federation. Now, the Pakistan Football Federation and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) have separate women’s wings. Under Nawaz Sharif’s government from 1997 to 1999, women were forbidden from playing any sport in public. It was in the face of death threats that sisters Sharmeen and Shazia Khan brought women’s cricket to Pakistan back in 1996. Despite stiff opposition, they went on to form the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Control Association (PWCCA), which became affiliated to the International Women’s Cricket Council.
The PWCCA team eventually qualified for the 1997 World Cup held in India, and went on in 2000 to beat the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lords in London. However, official backing for the sport has increased since the time that Sharmeen and Shazia Khan had to depend on their businessman father for funding support. In fact, Pakistan’s revised National Sports Policy of 2005 states: “All sports federations will organise appropriate sports for women. Women wings (where feasible) will be created.” Indeed, it was when the PCB took over the reins of women’s cricket in 2005 that the game really picked up.
“The PCB is contributing in terms of facilities and funds,” says Shamsa Hashmi. “Cricket has been introduced at the school and college level. Plus, there are 11 regional teams.” It has been a busy six months for the women’s wing. This year alone, there have been the Inter-District Women’s Championship, the National Women’s Cricket Championship and the National Schools Under-17 Women’s Championship. Meanwhile, a month-long training camp for 33 players in preparation for the November qualifiers is currently underway in Lahore. In their first major win last year, the Pakistan women’s team triumphed 3-0 over the visiting team from Hong Kong.
Urooj Khan is now looking forward to the November qualifiers, in which Pakistan’s main competition will come from Ireland and South Africa. Eight teams are competing for just two slots in the World Cup, and this will be a make-or-break tournament for the fledgling team. “One of the obstacles we face is that girls do not get to play cricket all year round like boys do, so fitness can be a problem,” says Hashmi. “So we give them exercises they can easily do at home.”
But how far women’s cricket in Pakistan can win over deeply entrenched social mores remains to be seen. When asked whether she sees herself playing cricket five years from now, Khan at first answers in the affirmative, but then her face clouds a bit in doubt. “I would like to get married,” she admits shyly. PCB’s Hashmi has also observed that the priority of most young Pakistani women is to settle down – with a husband and kids, rather than a red leather ball and a white willow bat. Perhaps if the team qualifies for the World Cup, there will be an incentive to delay the inevitable.
~ Amber Rahim Shamsi is senior copy editor at Dawn
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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