From the graves rises the spirit of women’s football [Express Tribune]

From the graves rises the spirit of women’s football [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: Located in the middle of nowhere, Makli Hill is one of the world’s oldest graveyards. It is isolated, it is historic, it is haunting. It is the hub of women’s football in the country.

Amongst the graves and the barren hills that surround it, football breathes life into the world of the women that inhabit the surrounding area.

One of these trailblazing women is 17-year-old Syeda Faiza, who is setting out to establish exclusive all-female football clubs not only in Makli and Thatta but also in other parts of Sindh.

Faiza serves as the youth ambassador for non-governmental organisation Right to Play’s (RTP) Generation Amazing programme.

“People see Makli as a graveyard, but I see it as my home, my playground, and I know there are many girls like me who want to become footballers,” Faiza tells The Express Tribune, standing in front of the Government Girls Higher Secondary School Makli and the GGHSS Ward-I Shirazi Muhalla from Thatta.

As is the case with almost all 17-year-olds, the sky is the limit for Faiza, but for now she is going to take it one step at a time. “I’m going to work to form a women’s football club first,” she says. “I’ll get it registered with the district football association. But most of all, I would like one of the girls from Makli to be trained as a coach from abroad. She can then come back and train girls here.”

Faiza stands not alone. Many have recognised the potential this necropolis holds. These include the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (QSCDL), which is responsible for holding the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The QSCDL gave Rs2 million to the RTP for the installation of a pitch in Makli on a piece of government land, which more than 300 girls now call their footballing home.

For Faiza, and surely for many more like her, the ground represents not just a place to play football but also the catalyst for social change and community growth.

Already a healthy budding rivalry exists between Makli and Thatta. A recent match finished 3-1 in favour of Makli at the new football ground, and the sport seems to be changing the girls. “These girls are now more confident, their personalities are more vibrant,” said RTP Government Girls Higher Secondary School Makli coach Razia Sultana.

Playing a sport like football in such a conservative society doesn’t come without its hurdles. “The girls have to wear their kits — blue shorts and shirts — over their shalwar kameez,” added Razia. “It used to be such a hassle for them but now they are used to it.”

The girls yearn to perform better and improve, and so they turn to watching football on TV in order to work on their technique. And while in their heart of hearts they may know that most of them will one day have to give up the sport, for now they want to enjoy playing it for as long as possible.

“I’ll play football for as long as I can,” said skipper Zainab Safi, a ninth-grader. “We play football every day after school and we come for matches during school hours too. Our teachers are our coaches. I and my teammates understand what is going on in the Indian Super League so we watch it rather than the English Premier League — which is a bit strange for us.”

Zainab and her friends only began playing football last year but the effect of their actions resonate far and wide, with coaches looking to convince families in adjoining cities such as Jangshahi, Gharo and Dhabeji to let their girls play football. So far, that has proven to be the biggest challenge.

All good things must come to an end

Generation Amazing project manager Nadeemuddin Qureshi is heartened by the number of success stories to come out of the programme. “Sports can work miracles for these children, and the young coaches have benefitted from this programme as well,” he said. “This opens up options to the youth in these communities. They don’t just have to become footballers, but they can also become a coach or a coordinator, or contribute to society in a different way.”

The resounding success of the programme has taken even RTP by surprise. “We have more than 6,000 children across Pakistan with us, but this particular programme is using football to bring about change,” said RTP coordinator Ali Khyam. “We’re training local teachers in collaboration with Karachi United FC. So far the results have been astonishing.”

But there is only so much that an NGO can do, and Generation Amazing — for all its impressive results — wraps up in 2016. The work that it has done must not go to waste; the government needs to step in and fill the void. “We want to involve the government so that they can carry out the work and make permanent changes in the infrastructure,” said Ali.

All good things must come to an end, and perhaps no one would be more aware of this harsh reality than those who inhabit this famous old graveyard, but one thing is for sure; the people of Makli have never been this full of life before.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2015.