South Asian female athletes share inspiring stories of grit and determination

Women athletes from across the South Asian region came together for an online discussion focusing on their challenges and wins, sharing moving stories and inspiring solidarity. 

The over-two hour long session, “Women in Sports: Challenges and Wins” on Sunday, 25 July, ended with several ideas for future collaboration,  including a book project and an association of South Asian women athletes. 

Khalida Popal: “South Asia is like our home. Our pain is the same. What’s missing is unity.”

“War has taken away everything from us,” said Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team. “Someone had to take a step. I was harassed, criticised and attacked but didn’t give up. My fight was not just for myself. It was for my sisters and for all other women in my country.”

“South Asia is like our home,” she said. “Our pain is the same. What’s missing is unity.”

Khalida was among the dozen or so sportswomen who participated in the event, the fourth webinar in the monthly series, “Imagine!  Neighbours in Peace,” organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network — Sapan. The series title is borrowed from an unpublished volume by the pioneering cross-border website, Chowk.com. 

Sunday’s webinar was held in association with the South Asia Women in Media (SAWM). Aekta Kapoor, founder-editor of eShe magazine, conducted the proceedings. The discussion with participating athletes was anchored by Payoshni Mitra, prominent activist advocating athletes’ rights  and Director and Trustee of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and Karachi-based sports journalist Natasha Raheel

Like Khalida Popal, international squash player Noorena Shams, the first ever international female athlete from Malakand Division in Pakistan’s north-western region, also grew up in conflict. “I can still hear the bombs,” she said, adding that she expected to die, and never thought she would play squash, especially at this level.

Noorena pointed out that in a region where even accessing education is a struggle for girls, playing a game is naturally harder: “I disguised myself as a boy to play cricket in Peshawar,” she said. “…South Asians should continue to be there for each other. It is not about the trophy or who did it first. We have to do it together, be there for each other.”

A coalition of individuals and organisations joining hands to take forward the principles of peace, justice, democracy, and human rights in the region, Sapan has  been drawing attention to healthcare for all as a public health issue since its launch in March this year. The organisation also considers sports — and conflict — as issues of public health, especially for women. 

The Tokyo Olympics were finally underway and Indian women were already bringing home medals as participants at the Sapan event spoke about the difficulties of taking up sports as a  profession. It is a battle that most of them have faced, often starting at home.

Bangladeshi basketball player Ashreen Mridha stressed that the responsibility for getting girls into sports lies not with just federations and sports bodies but also  friends, families, uncles, aunts and brothers, who all need to step up. “Gender inequality is not just a women’s problem to solve,” she said.

Sana Mir: “Women are set up to fail”

Differently abled athletes face an even more difficult struggle. “No one wanted to sponsor a blind runner,” said partially blind athlete Gulshan Naaz from Saharanpur, a small town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Athlete after athlete across the region, including Ruhmana Ahmed, captain of women’s cricket team in Bangladesh, highlighted the challenges female athletes still face when it comes to funds.

“Women must prove themselves in order to get funds,” while men are financially supported even if they don’t win, asserted Sana Mir, former captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team.

Even when women athletes outperform men in terms of medals, as in India, they still don’t get the same share of the limelight or funding.

Participants also spoke about the importance of breaking gender stereotypes. Olympian swimmer Nisha Millet from India, her little twin daughters by her side, urged women to get back into the game even after leaving competitive sport, to contribute to raising the next generation of sportswomen through coaching, mentoring, promoting and other such efforts.

“Group photo” from the Sapan webinar, 25 July 2021

Other athletes who spoke at the event included Ayesha Mansukhani, athlete and sports investor, India; Caryll Tozer, activist and former netball player, Sri Lanka; Champa Chakma, cricketer, Bangladesh; Mabia Akhter Shimanto, award-winning weight-lifting champion, Bangladesh; Roopa Nagraj, cricketer, coach, former India A team player, India/UAE; and Preety Baral, national tennis player, Nepal.

“I am struck by the grit and determination of these sportswomen in very difficult circumstances, and how smilingly they  narrated their ordeals,” said prominent analyst Najam Sethi after hearing them speak.

Besides the issues of leadership, funding, discrimination and fighting stereotypes common to women athletes around the region, he highlighted two further concerns: the objectification of women and sexual harassment, which deserve more attention.

Sethi, who also runs a publishing house, said the stories he heard at the discussion deserve to be in a book. The Sapan team agreed to work on the project. 

The idea of a South Asian women athletes’ association floated at the event also found traction among participants.

Noted educationist Baela Raza Jamil read out the Sapan Charter calling for a visa-free South Asia with ease of trade, tourism and travel during the event. She invited attendees to join the growing list of people across the region who have endorsed the Charter.

As in previous webinars, Sapan paid tribute to those whose ideals the organisation  strives to take forward, like I.A. Rehman, Asma Jahangir, Nirmala Despande, Dr Mubashir Hasan, Madanjeet Singh and others. Participants also commemorated prominent South Asians who  passed away over the past month and condoled with the families of those lost to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The seminar also featured a short satirical skit on women in sports, “Captain Samina,” by Shoaib Hashmi. Performed clandestinely with well-known actor Samina Ahmed in the 1980s in Pakistan under the repressive military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq, it had never previously been recorded due to the dangers involved.

Samina Ahmed, Mira Hashmi, Shoaib Hashmi. Photo by Tapu Javeri circa 1997

Things have changed greatly since then but the issues highlighted in the skit, about the way women’s sports are suppressed, clearly remain relevant. Participants agreed that the way forward lies in unity, solidarity and regionalism.

Website: SouthAsiaPeace  

Social media links @SouthAsiaPeace: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn

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