By Farhanaz Zahidi
KARACHI: Ask her a simple question like ‘how old are you’ and you get a very poetic response from her. “Born in the sultry Karachi summer of ‘87, I’m approaching the cusp of 27 years now,” says Karachi United’s Mashal Hussain. This female athlete who has become an advocate for empowering women through sports can kick the ball hard, speak eloquently and keep her head in the right place.
Mashal recently got back after representing Pakistan at the Girl Power in Play symposium, held on June 18-19, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada, against the backdrop of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Creating ripples among female sportspersons of Pakistan, she spoke about how Karachi United Football Club – Women’s Squad, have used the medium of sports to create positive social impact and in particular helped empower women.
Coming from what she calls ‘a fairly athletic and active family, always bustling around’, Mashal spent her primary years between Karachi and Toronto. Inclined towards sports from the beginning, she dabbled with many sports. “I stubbornly pushed our school to introduce basketball into the curriculum.”
However, her particular interest in football began in her junior year at McGill University where she briefly worked with the Men’s Varsity Team as a fitness assistant.
“The captain of the squad at the time sustained an injury and I was helping him recover through various drills and exercises. In doing so, I developed a liking for the game and began watching European leagues, learning the game and playing it.” A few months of coaching and the liking grew into a passion and she has been playing and coaching the sport ever since. She, accompanied by her younger sister, represent the same team now.
Pushing boundaries as a woman
For Mashal and others like her who have pursued their passions on the road less travelled by females in Pakistan, the path is not always easy.
“Women’s football in Pakistan involves cultural frustrations, religious misconceptions, the issue of women’s rights, emancipation from a conservative tradition and a general changing of mind set of the local population,” says Mashal. The gender issue, according to her, is deep-rooted and is, globally, a feminist issue. In the context of Pakistan, Hussain admits that there is a gender bias regarding aspects such as funding, media promotion, government support, facilitation of infrastructure, grassroots development, and of course, awareness.
“Women who realise and follow their passion are rare in our society. And if that passion happens to be sports-related, we need to become the role models we want to look up to,” says Mashal.
When asked about the original and synthetic turf issue in the football world cup, which experts see as part of gender bias against female footballers, Mashal expressed satisfaction that at least the world has come to realise this.
“That is a positive step; not enough, though. While we’re fighting for media coverage and funding of grassroots development, the fact that uproar was created and acknowledged about this issue means that more people are paying attention.”
Luckily for Mashal, her family has been supportive of her playing and forging a career in this field.
“I know how lucky I am and it is a personal goal of mine to influence today’s youth to become the kind of people my parents are.”
In addition, she has had a good experience since she began working at Karachi United.
“Most of our staff is male, but they never let the gender bias get in the way of football and my role as their superior. Outside the organisation, of course, no such utopia exists,” she says.
As one who has faced gender bias head on, Mashal does not only blame the men.
“Gender bias is also perpetuated and propagated by females in our country. So that is another barrier we strive to break.”
Women must play
Women’s participation in sports is showing encouraging and important impacts on women’s development, of which Mashal is a strong proponent.
“Sport empowers women by instilling in them the confidence that they are often denied in countries such as our own. In sport, women are not only encouraged to be competitive, but they are also accepted for being aggressive and fierce with being labelled. It empowers women by giving them a sense of belonging,” says Mashal.
Mashal feels that including women would ensure the overall development of any sports industry that could potentially bolster the country’s economy and global standing and that the media will always sensationalize women’s sports.
“People shouldn’t be watching our players because of their aesthetic appeal or religious background. Instead, the success stories I consider truly inspirational are based on personal growth, economic empowerment, career development, societal contribution, impact and a personal sense of fulfilment.”
State of women’s football in Pakistan
“Women’s football is abysmal in the country. That we are the only professional entity working towards grassroots development (girls between the ages of 3-16) should shed some light on why the country is ranked,” says a disgruntled Mashal.
The fact that an open trial for the national team has not been held in years sheds light on the plight of women’s football in the country. Mashal added that the local governing body is in cahoots and is struggling to understand that holding one tournament a year will not promote the sport at the grassroots or the competitive level.
“I cannot comment on discrimination, per se, but the state of affairs of Pakistan Football is laughable and sad at the same time.”
Aspiring female footballers look up to Mashal as a success story. When asked to comment on that, she replies that her story has barely begun.
“My story is in its initial chapters still. The plot has not thickened and the character development has only just begun. So, no, I do not consider myself a success story. However, I have had the pleasure of working with girls and women who are success stories already,” she says, and shares that some of the players that have come through the Karachi United (women’s) pipeline are proving to be real game changers for the organization, the team, and for Pakistan.
Our voices must be heard
“It was empowering to be in the company of so many influential and driven individuals,” says Mashal, when asked about her recent experience at Ottawa.
Women Deliver, UNICEF, Right to Play, GAIN, and One Goal teamed up to host the Girl Power in Play symposium. The two-day event focused on the power of girls’ involvement in sport and gathered decision makers, sports stars, influencers, and girls and women involved in sport.
“I’ve met people whose stories resonate with me because I can appreciate their effort.”
Mashal had stumbled upon an open application for this event last year.
“I came across it while perusing how to get involved with the FIFA Women’s World Cup, for which opportunities were scarce. After I applied, they got back to me a few months later and we were good to go,” she says and commends Women Deliver for channelling everyone’s motivation and zeal into a productive and focused forum. Women Deliver is a global advocacy organization bringing together voices from around the world to call for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women.
Mashal also said that the games have been great, though watching them from Pakistan poses problems due to relying on live streaming.
In the opinion of Mashal, the biggest obstacle to women’s participation and progress is opportunity.
“It will take a few generations, perhaps. I am so glad, however, to have been able to contribute towards this slow, but necessary revolution.”