A group of 10 Pakistani girls and young women managed to convince their parents that it would be a good idea to come to the US to play soccer.
The team members, between the ages of 12 and 21, are in Washington with three coaches through a State Department program to hone their soccer skills — training for a sport that has a scanty audience and little support back home.
All members of the Young Rising Stars Female Football Club (YRS), they battle with ease the deep ambivalence in conservative Muslim society about girls playing sport.
“I started playing late — when I was 17 and initially thought I was too old to be called a ‘young rising star.’ Now I just love it — so inspiring,” said team captain Sana Mahmood, 19.
“American girls start playing at three to five years and have such an advantage over us,” Mahmood said. “We lack technical skills, have no professional facilities — that is very disappointing about my country.”
YRS has a lot to be proud of, winning the first national tournament for women last August.
“The sports infrastructure [in the US] is fantastic. Boys support girls playing football. In Pakistan, no one comes to watch our matches, and if the men come, they only stare,” Mahmood said.
Soccer is seen as a men’s game in Pakistan, but things are slowly changing, Ghiasuddin Baloch, the team’s manager and a former national soccer player.
“I was very keen to bring young girls into the sport, to change their lives. Sports is empowering. But there was lots of resistance from parents and school principals,” Baloch said.
“I was criticized for encouraging girls to come out and play. Principals said they didn’t want girls running around in half-sleeved shirts and shorts. Some parents were worried their daughters wouldn’t get married as they would be considered too masculine,” he said.
Experiencing soccer in the US is a big step forward for the girls, Baloch said. In September 2005, when Pakistani women played their first-ever soccer championship, they had to wear long-sleeved jerseys and baggy trousers. The only men allowed into the stadium were the male coaches.
Until 2004, there was no women’s soccer in Pakistan, but FIFA cited as a major achievement that the 2005 women’s national finals were aired live on national TV.
Bushra Jamali, 17, said nonchalantly that she barged onto the field at five years old, long before her other teammates started.
“I was a tomboy in school and pushed my way into the team, even though I was the only girl,” she said. “My father encourages me, but not my mother. I’m slowly convincing her with my hard work.”
To prove that she can do it all, Jamali gets up before 5am each day, studies until 9am and then leaves for school. From 3pm onward she’s at soccer practice.
In a country where many girls don’t go to school and get married young, the soccer players dream of playing internationally.
“I am passionate about it, and I’ll fly with it was much as I can. There is so much to learn in the US,” Mahmood said.
“We’re like a big family who’ve ventured across the Atlantic alone,” Mahmood said. “Some girls have never stepped outside Pakistan and feel a little uncomfortable, but on the field everything is forgotten.”