Women need ‘freedom’ to play football [Express Tribune]

Women need ‘freedom’ to play football [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: “It is about freedom, freedom to play, I don’t think Pakistani girls get the freedom and moral support they need, maybe that’s why our national women’s team and even women’s football don’t do well, but I want to be a professional footballer,” says Marvi Baig.

15-year-old, glasses-wearing Marvi Baig is a surprise and a chutzpah if you see her play football, her skill on the field at the Mountain Girls Premier League last month.

Her observation on women’s game is unique, innocent but sharp; in fact she shows amazement when told that the national women’s team last played in 2014 at the South Asian Football Federation Championship. She giggled but quickly added, “I want to play for international clubs then. I want to be a footballer. That is my passion. That is what I dream.”

Women footballers do need freedom from the complacent mind-set that women’s sport is not as competitive or important as men’s, freedom in attitudes in people that it can be more than a recreational activity. But more so, a proper league system by the Pakistan Football Federation and a healthy echo-system for women footballers to grow. There is also a need for proper registration of clubs along with safe spaces and venues for the players with basic amenities.

Talent like Marvi’s is evident in the viral posts on the internet too, courtesy photographer Faraz Ali who posted about the league first on his social media accounts speaks volumes of what Marvi and the young female footballers deserve, but in the current state of affairs the pathways for them to become international footballers and even represent the country are limited or next to none.

Even the field that the league took place did not have grass and Marvi admits that although it was dangerous but when the girls began to play they forgot about the ground having no grass.

“I was busy playing, all the girls were, we didn’t think about weather, if the grass was there or not, because playing football was all we wanted to do and win too,” Marvi told The Express Tribune.

Marvi’s free-kick is legendary almost already, maybe the best to have come out in recent years when it comes to Pakistani football and that too at such a young age, but is also about the ball control.

She was the top scorer at the Gulmit League that had 10 teams from Gojal. She says it is all because she trains hard in Gilgit with her older brother.

“I trained really hard, I worked hard with my middle brother, we don’t have a proper playing pitch in Gilgit either. I train near my house but in Gulmit there was more freedom I felt, compared to Gilgit. Gulmit is not as conservative as Gilgit,” explains Marvi.

She began playing football when she was seven years old and initially started to learn tricks with the ball. She said she would barely get to go to the football ground in Gilgit, once or twice periodically, but with the help of her brother she would train near her house.

Her explanation on what freedom means lies a lot in the need for safe spaces for girl to play and for them to exercise the same right to train as boys do, with or without the grassy grounds.

“I know like other girls too, I need support from my family and my coaches at my club. Unfortunately we don’t get the freedom to even play outside freely because we are girls and that is something I want to change. In Gulmit I felt safe in my community,” said Marvi.

She wants to the play like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but she looks up to Pakistan defender Malika-e-Noor as her favourite Pakistani football player.

“I like her a lot, but I want to be a striker, a good striker and I trained hard, at least two hours each day without fail, so that I’m ready to perform but I know I have a long way to go,” says Marvi who has played at the National championship for Aga Khan Sport Board team and went to Islamabad last year.

“The talent and competition is very tough at the national level, so I want to work hard and improve each time,” said Marvi.

Meanwhile, one of the reasons the tournament that began on August 14 was organised was due to the growing frustration and gloom among the youth in Gulmit during the Covid-19 pandemic as many players like Marvi had been visiting Gulmit during vacations.

“The tournament was great, I also think we are stronger as mountain people, but I forgot about Covid-19 while playing. I feel we will get through the pandemic now more easily, but we need to be careful,” said Marvi.

According to the organiser of the Gulmit Girls Premier League and the President of the Gulmit Young Stars Club and Students Worker Organisation Tariq Rahim Baig, Marvi’s talent is one that has been recognised, however the aim is to keep the Gulmit youth in action.

“We are impressed with all the players in the tournament. I know Marvi’s talent really shined, other players too, and they even got cash awards unofficially by chief guest and others because of how beautifully they played. But the purpose was to engage the youth, we couldn’t hold the Gulmit Premier League for men due to Covid-19 this year. That has been our main feature, but we thought we should hold the league for girls. This was also done in collaboration with the Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism and Sports Department,” explains Tariq.

“Need a grass pitch”

Tariq admits that organising the event was a challenge financially, but also because they had to take the ground from a school and the surface had rocks and sand on it which is an alarming situation for the player.

“We need a pitch, a good football pitch, but we also know we can’t make one here on this ground because it belongs to the education department. Then making an artificial turf will be very difficult too as that would require a lot of money. We need a good pitch, either with the help of the government or private sponsors because we really want to hold the girls league every year now, bigger and better, this was just the first edition,” said Tariq.

“Gender biases must be conquered”

He said that they faced a lot of judgement and societal criticism from the more conservative quarters while they did not receive any help in any way from the the Gilgit-Baltistan Football Association.

“There were very harsh comments, like why are girls playing in the attire that they were playing, some very harsh judgements, but we know we need to face them for better the future of our community. But mostly our women go out to do whatever they want, there are no restrictions, they are good in sports, however there is the conservative element too.

“We are getting approached by different places, even the Pakistan Football Federation said that they want to send a team from Lahore to Gulmit to help us, so it is all good, however we couldn’t get registered as a club with GBFA. We never got any support from them before, we are working as a sports club and an NGO,” said Tariq.

He told The Express Tribune that the Gulmit Young Stars Sports Club have around 30-35 female footballers and 60-65 male footballers whereas the club has cricket and volleyball teams as well.

Great expectations for future

“Football is the most popular sports we have,” said Tariq. “After the league too there are lots of girls who want to play, and we have sent our footballers to different football tournaments for girls in the past three years as well, so it is encouraging. What we expect now after the social media exposure is betterment, more support for next year of the league and helping us to build a pitch. We want the league to become a brand,” concluded Tariq.

He added that with the success he wants the PFF to have a better look at the district football associations as they do not work properly and even when the local players go to represent GB at national tournaments.

Meanwhile, the girls will have a training camp in November in Gulmit as well, whereas the Gulmit Premier League for men may take place in October.

Published in The Express Tribune, 2 September 2020