Hajra Khan: The world at her feet [The Nation]

Hajra Khan: The world at her feet [The Nation]

by Maha Shafqat Khan

ISLAMABAD: At 24, Hajra Khan has achieved what most girls in Pakistan can only dream of. Not only is she the captain of Pakistan’s national football team but has also played for international football clubs. She is the highest scoring female footballer in the country, a goodwill ambassador and has no plans of slowing down. Recently, she returned from Jordan, where she was one of the few players from 29 countries who took part in a world record football match at the lowest altitude point in the world at the shore of the Dead Sea.

On a cloudy summer afternoon, at the end of a relentless rain spell, I met Hajra at a cozy coffee house located in the foothills of the Saidpur village. The moment she walked in, wearing her number 14 jersey, the entire room lit up with her smile. She has this really positive aura around her, the kind of aura that gives you a rush of energy.

Curled up on a very comfy brown sofa wearing barely any makeup, beautiful black curly locks falling down her shoulders, Khan comes across not as the ferociously competitive footballer that she is but more as a laid-back youngster who has a passion for getting inked and riding Harleys. Tall and pretty, with a hundred megawatt smile, she really knows her way around a football jersey, a pair of jeans, and simple Adidas kicks. She seems to inhabit the world in a different way than most players. But behind all that stardom, achievements and success, I came to know a shy girl desperately trying to make her country proud, which she already has, on countless occasions.

Hajra never even thought of becoming a professional footballer until one day when her mother coerced her into participating in a provincial level football trial. She tells me that the only time she had played football was on the streets with a chalk-drawn goal post on a wall adjacent to her house, she was always an athletic child but had never even imagined that she would end up becoming such a big football star. During the trials, she was selected by a club, which is a level ahead of provincial football, and that’s how her football journey began.

A big chunk of credit goes to her parents as they have always supported her and her dreams, she said: “I went to India at 11 for track because I really enjoyed running, and not even once did my parents try to stop me or oppress me because of my gender or age”. But it wasn’t all perfect, she said “My extended family did have problems with my career choice but today everyone proudly boasts about me, which proves the statement that if you work hard and keep your head down, your success will not only speak volumes but will shut down all those who thought you didn’t have it in you.”

Hajra’s football journey is not less than a rollercoaster ride, she started playing football professionally at 14, became a top scorer the very first year, became the best player in 2016, scored 103 goals in her club career, set a record of 30 goals in 6 games, joined an international football club i.e. Maldives’ Sun Hotels and Resorts FC and became the first Pakistani woman to make an appearance in Europe as a professional footballer.

We get to talking about the first thing that crosses the minds of all South Asians when female athletes are mentioned in any context, i.e. their uniform. Sania Mirza is one of the biggest Tennis players in India, yet she has also faced heaps of criticism and countless trolls for wearing shorts and skirts due to her Islamic faith and Asian heritage. Female Pakistani footballers have also faced the same backlash for wearing shorts but as Hajra puts it, “We will get dismissed from international tournaments if we won’t follow the dress code, in fact nobody will take us seriously if we end up at an international championship wearing shalwars, but I can proudly tell you that with time the backlash has drastically decreased, in fact, parents do not create a big problem anymore when their daughters participate in championships wearing shorts”. I could still see the disappointment in her eyes while talking about this issue, that is when we agreed on how our society needs to stop judging a woman’s character by the length of her clothes, only then will we be able to empower our women.

It’s no secret that today our football team is full of empowered and ambitious young women from all parts of the country. “We managed to bring in girls, that too from good backgrounds, today we have dentists, lawyers, economists and other well-read people in the team. But in the future I want to bring in younger girls as they should start playing at the age of 4, that’s how things are done in other countries. I want to empower the women of my country through sport. Today, not only social media but traditional media is also very keen on supporting and promoting us. Things have drastically changed, but we still have a long way to go, all we need is an equal opportunity at the field. I skipped a term of O level exams for an important championship, look where I am today, my parents gave me the space to achieve what I have achieved”.

Strength is much more than a trivial physical feature for Hajra, it is a guiding principle. When I asked her if she considered herself to be a feminist she said: “I don’t believe in labels, but what I do believe in is equality and equity”. She has spoken about equal opportunities and equal pay regardless of gender on countless Pakistani and international forums. She is an advocate for equal rights and has managed to prove that she is equally strong by gaining humongous success and fame when it comes to football. When talking about defying norms, she said: “It’s a big deal for a Pakistani girl to move out, but my parents trusted me, they knew I was responsible and so I did, the inspiration and motivation of which came out of my Euro football tour.”

Hajra shattered huge glass ceilings when she played in the leisure league championship in an all-boys team, she not only proved that women are equally as good as men but also set a precedent as she helped her team win the match by scoring the winning goal. I was really eager to ask her if she had faced any discrimination but to my utter surprise, she said, “The boys treated me with complete respect and not even once did they make me feel like I belonged to a different gender, neither did they discriminate against me on the field, their behaviour is an example that Pakistani men can support the cause of equality. But the only impediment is the federation.

“We do our own laundry, there’s a lack of specialised medical professionals, we rarely get warm food, yet they expect us to win against big countries whose players are looked after quite well, we can’t win championships unless we are provided with adequate facilities and are treated equally. We put in the same amount of hours as the men’s team, yet we still don’t get paid enough and don’t get equal opportunities, it’s really unfair, we have the same training period, yet they get paid double, even though girls leave their jobs and pause their studies to be able to play professionally, only for their passion for football and their love for this country, but if things go on like this, parents will eventually give up on these girls and would force them to leave it all behind.”

I couldn’t help but bring up the FIFA trophy scandal where a fellow player had protested against FIFA, the federation, and even Hajra and had accused them of discrimination, to which she commented that, “The accusations were baseless, all the travel and lodging expenses of the players were undertaken by the concerned authorities, the team was also brought on stage and had been given their due respect, In fact I felt disrespected as that girl didn’t even consider the fact that I was there as a representative of the team”.

Keeping in mind the recent #metoo inundation I asked her if she had faced any sexual harassment at the hands of the Federation or anyone in the field, surprisingly she revealed “No thankfully, football is super clean, which is why I’m still in the sport, I’m sure girls might have been harassed in other sports or maybe other clubs, but I haven’t faced such a situation neither has anyone close to me, the federation understands that we are capable to defend ourselves, so nobody even dared to try.”

But all this hard work, nerve wrecking routine and big dreams naturally takes a toll on one’s physical and mental health. Being the best comes with its own pressures and stress which nobody teaches us on how to deal with, especially at such a young age.

The worst part of which is that the federation doesn’t even employ any therapists or psychiatrists that could help our players deal with the anxiety, stress, and depression that comes along with such an intense sport and the success and failure attached to it. Due to her own battles, she plans on launching a formal campaign for the cause of mental health of athletes so they would be provided with mental health facilities and so would not succumb to the pressures attached to the game. Despite all the obstacles, she has managed to do what no other woman has achieved in the country so far, her drive makes me believe that the future of our country is truly bright and there is no force that can stop the wave of change that is flowing towards us.

Published in The Nation, 28 April 2018