“She wants to play. She really misses her time that she spent in China. She wants to play football, study, but she can’t,” Babumal, the older brother of one of the footballing talents from Tharparkar, Devi Kumari,13, expresses his frustration, with part resolution to keep Devi at home and part longing for more resources.
The first time I met Devi, she was a sight to see. Clad in bright orange uniform and adorning a red lipstick, she was 11 at the time, had her hair tied in a ponytail, ready to take on the world. However, the world works differently for people who are coming from desert areas like Tharparkar and the ones who live in the cities and have supportive families who let them play.
Devi had been a star talent back in December 2018 when Tharparkar saw their first all-girls football tournament. It was organized by Thar Foundation in collaboration with Diya Football Club for the girls studying in schools. She had picked up football in a matter of months and was playing for Tharparkar Terminators in the tournament.
Soon Diya FC took her and her fellow player Jamna Bai in the camp and the two went on to take their first journeys outside of Tharparkar. The younglings were happy and so were their families. At least Babumal was expecting big changes, something that can translate into having a job for himself too, but The Gothia Cup in 2019 turned out to be the last time Devi played football properly.
“I stopped,” Babumal told The Express Tribune. “There are odds stacked against us. I know Devi wants to play football, she loves it and she can’t stop thinking about her time in China. She still reminisces about it. However, I can’t let her go. There is a community part as well because she is growing up and we have to keep our daughters at home. We got her into a school in our village some time ago, but I stopped her because it seemed that nothing changed much after her 2019 tournament.
“I am unemployed, my father is unemployed too, we have a family of 12 people, so now you tell me, what do we do, who do we trust? Devi plays football at home now, she goes to school too, take an exam maybe, but we kept her home after 2019.”
Babumal communicated on behalf of Devi as she does not understand Urdu or English much, but she loves football and wants another chance at playing her favourite game.
Babumal says he wants better opportunities for his family and even though Devi went to China and loves football, looking at their current situation, he may not allow her to play.
Compared to Devi, another player Ashmunnain Muhammad Amin, 17, feels that girls need to keep themselves motivated one way or another, and it is essential for the families to support. Living in Karachi, Ashmunnain began playing football in school in 2015-16. She had a star junior player Shumaila Gulab Hussain as her friend, who inspired her to pick football seriously.
She went on to play a tournament, her first international tour in Norway, from the start of her footballing career four years ago. She now has a C License in coaching as well through Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
“Football is my passion and I want to make my passion my career, along with going for software engineering on the side,” she explains, but her message is that girls should focus on what they want.
“It is important that we don’t give up, we understand what we want in life and focus on getting it,” said Ashmunnain, an all-round player on the field.
She also feels that the Pakistani society needs to change. “Pakistan is a male-dominant country, but we need equal rights and just the people around girls need to not stop them from playing. It is a hard thing to be a girl and an athlete in our country,” said Ashmunnain, a Lionel Messi fan.
Meanwhile her teammate Zunaira Shah, 16, believes that there is a need for safe environments in Pakistan and even if circumstances look bleak, the girls and women footballers should not stop. “If we carry on, then opportunities will present themselves. The key is to not give up. My family had been supportive, but it is the environment. Even if we’d play in veils, people will find an issue with that too.”
Society plays a huge part in the decision whether a girl child has a chance at a better life, which equals to giving her basic rights to education, medicine, or to play any sport, besides equal opportunities. Diya FC founder and coach Sadia Sheikh feels it is absolutely necessary for the people to change their mindset.
“Without girls and women no nation can prosper,” said Sheikh. “In our culture and society, they want women to be a certain way, stay in stereotypical roles, and if any girl tries to be different it becomes a threat.
“It is a high time for Pakistan and its people to change. Women need to unite, from all walks of life, make policy changes, cultural changes, because daughters are very important.”
Sheikh also touched upon child marriages in interior Sindh and spreading awareness through sports. She feels with sports many girls can have a chance at a better life.