By Farah Asim

Nestled in the Gojal Tehsil of the Hunza District in the north of Pakistan, 3800 metres above sea level, lies a small village called Shimsal. Located near China’s most western border, Shimsal has an aggregate population of about 2000 people surrounded by awe-inspiring and picturesque snow-capped mountains. Worlds away from city-life, almost a 16-hour drive from Islamabad, it is certainly not the sort of place where one would expect to find a passionate group of young girls with a strong appetite for football.

Tracing back to its roots, the Gilgit-Baltistan Girls Football League was established at the hands of one family, specifically a girl – Karishma Inayat. While hailing from the village of Shimsal, Karishma’s father chose to move to Lahore so that his children could get better education. Home is where the heart is, so they say; the Inayats always maintained a strong affinity with the village they belonged to.

In the year 2012, Karishma’s father introduced her to football, where she realised her passion for the game. Fast-forward to 2016, Karishma, along with her two sisters, represented Pakistan in the Jubilee Games held in Dubai. It was then that she, along with her sisters and cousins, came up with the idea of bringing football to Shimsal for girls to get involved in the sport. Her first and foremost motivation was the social pressure girls in the region had to face every day. The idea Karishma had was not just to promote football in Shimsal and its surrounding areas, but to give the girls something to live for; provide them with a platform to realise their true potential and their hidden talents.

The people of Shimsal and its communities progressively embraced the idea and were very supportive; maintaining an open mind about their girls playing football. Karishma and her team would find girls waiting on grounds; parents would bring their daughters to the grounds wanting them to join the team. The response was overwhelming with over 100 girls coming to register for the first tournament which was held in 2017. The support and registrations have continued to pour in as the Inayats recently held their second tournament in 2018.

Let there be no mistake that it was not an easy task for Karishma Inayat and her team to get the GB-Girls Football League to where it is today. Barriers have mostly been logistical and financial. National and regional structures do not exist in a way which allows them to get their girls competing. Initially, they’ve had to rely on donations from the locals and even contributions from the girls’ own pockets to buy basic equipment. More importantly, there was a total lack of opportunities available to get the girls playing for national or regional level games.

The inspiring story of the Inayats reached the far corners of the country in no time. They were grateful to Haleeb Foods Ltd, who provided them with equipment and amazing colored kits for each of the 10 teams involved in this year’s tournament. It is because of their support that this year’s tournament was even bigger and way better than the last year’s.

In particular regards to women empowerment, Karishma stated: “Football can empower women, promote gender equality and challenge stereotypes. Introducing these girls to football has had a phenomenal impact on their confidence and their self-esteem. It has enabled them to develop inner-strength and with that a determination that would help them overcome any setbacks that life throws at them.”

Memosh Khawaja, CEO of Haleeb Foods, also shared his views about the partnership and stated: “I am pleased that we joined hands with GB-GFL to promote an activity that goes beyond just football and propagates women empowerment.” He reiterated: “The GB-GFL has enormous power to generate real social, economic and environmental change and contribute to sustainable development and social cohesion. Not only that, it brings in much-needed diversity in the male-dominated sport and challenges the mindsets and prejudice of the people in the region, as well as the whole country.”

Sami Qahar, Head of Marketing at Haleeb Foods Ltd, while talking about this partnership stated: “The story of Karishma and her team of young sisters and relatives is indeed a bright beacon of empowerment for young girls and women via sports. We at HFL are extremely proud to be associated with the GB Girls Football League. This arrangement will not only make its mark in the development of football in Gilgit-Baltistan but it also ensures that these amazing young girls are given the opportunity to spread their wings and realise their full potential.”

Prominent Sports Analyst Zohaib Hussain was a part of this year’s tournament and weighed in with his views on the tournament. “I am extremely overwhelmed by the scenic beauty of Shimsal. What’s even more awe-inspiring is witnessing the sheer raw passion of these girls playing football in this small but absolutely breathtaking town. I have no doubts that Karishma Inayat and her siblings, Sumira Inayat and Azeem Inayat, through their efforts, will transform the lives of these girls as well as the communities in the region.”

The organisers of GB-GFL have vowed to continue the tradition and keep the league alive in the coming years. More power to them.

Published in The Nation, 1 October 2018