During a football match, 17-year-old Bakhtawar Abdul Ghaffar is receiving praise from her neighbors for her brilliant performance. The neighbors are not only admirers of his style of play but also recognize Bakhtawar’s leadership skills in coaching his daughters in football.
For Bakhtawar, who lives in Lyari’s Musa Lane, mastering football was an elusive goal. But she has been playing football for the past 8 years and during that time she faced many challenges that came her way.
Bakhtawar says that ‘before I started playing football, I used to see boys playing football in my street and I wanted to play like them’. Bakhtawar befriended the boys so that he could play with them. However, he faced severe criticism in his neighborhood. Almost all her neighbors objected to a girl playing football with boys on the street.
He said with a smile that “still my family supported me”.
Then instead of playing football in the street, he started playing in the famous Kukri Ground of Lyari. At that time there were only two girls in the boys’ team, Bakhtawar and Mehrjan. That is, one girl breaks the prevailing traditions and thus makes a place for another girl in the football team.
Mehrjan participates in all kinds of sports. She also rides a bicycle but football seems to be her first love. But the Kukri ground is dominated by male footballers and girls playing football among boys look isolated. Later some other girls also join their team. All these girls want to be accepted by the society by showing their outstanding performance.
“Watching us play football amazes the boys,” says Mehrjan. But what they find more surprising is girls playing with boys. We continued to play with determination but it was not easy.
“Given the controversial past of Lyari, especially Le Market, I face severe criticism from relatives and neighbors because I have to pass through here to go to the cook ground,” she says. I know that one of the reasons for this objection is that this game is not a source of income for me because I am also told that I am wasting my time playing football.
“Since I am an artiste, I earn enough to cover my football expenses by decorating the stage and rooms (for weddings and other events),” she adds.
Things got better for girls in Lyari when Women as a Nation (WIN), a local non-profit organization that aims to develop leadership skills in girls through sports, held its first football talent hunt event in 2021. What did
Through a program called ‘Lyari Cook’, WIN brought forward 50 girls who dreamed of playing football on the open field. And so there is no need for one or two girls to play in the boys football team. Now there are so many of them that they can form their own football team. Among these girls is Shamsa Shahnawaz, another talented young player who belongs to Musa Lane like Bakhtawar. The talented girls of Lyari have dreams of making a name for themselves in football
16-year-old Shamsa is the goalkeeper of a girls’ community team. Shamsa, also known as the ’emotional player’, goes to the Gabol Park ground for daily practice. This ground was full of boys throughout the day.
“In the early days, boys used to taunt me and tease me in Gabol Park,” says Shamsa. But after playing with them and showing my skills, the same boys started encouraging me.
“It’s just a matter of proving your skills and showing your skills at the right time and place can change perceptions,” she says. Seeing Shamsa playing, her younger sister has also started playing football.
WIN coordinator and coach Mehreen Shaukat says she plans to start a football club for girls in Lyari. “I have been coaching girls in football for almost 5 years now,” she says. She also recalled the period when men found out that she was interested in playing football and faced their disapproval.
She says that ‘once I was traveling in a rickshaw wearing a track suit and holding a football. The rickshaw driver asked me if I play football. When I said yes, he said, “Who will marry you with such habits?”
Earlier, girls wearing tracksuits were criticized. To deal with this, Mehreen Shaukat came up with the idea that girls can play football in any outfit, regardless of what they wear.
“We organized an event called ‘Fair Play’ to encourage girls from the local community that they can play football even in their traditional attire,” Mehreen added. Around 50 girls belonging to the local community dressed up in traditional Baloch dresses in this event.
Javed Arab of Javed Arab Football Academy (JAFA) has been training boys in football for the past 30 years. But now training girls in football has also become part of their responsibilities.
He said that “I first brought my 14-year-old daughter to the football field to remove the obstacles in the way of training girls.”
Javed Arab has trained 9 Pakistani players who have played at the international level so far. However, throughout her career as a player and coach, she has faced several issues that need to be addressed for female athletes.
He raised the point that the biggest problem here is the early marriage of girls. In the middle of their career, their relationship gets fixed or they get married, due to which their career stops.
He also said that when they are playing under Pakistan Football Federation, these girls are given necessary training and stipend but after they come back they are not asked.
He said that although the PFF is doing its best, there is a need to make a long-term plan for proper social and financial security for the talented players. Their educational expenses should also be included in this plan. In this way, they will be able to focus fully on improving their skills without any problem.