"The endgame is to make football into not just what cricket is today but more than that."
With skilled kicks and tackles, a budding crop of women’s football teams is breaking new ground in Pakistan. One such team is the Karachi United’s Women’s Division.
Most recently, the squad finds itself in the limelight because of a video of them taking on the 'mannequin challenge' —the latest social media trend where people freeze mid-action while a video is recorded. As the Karachi United team members pause, their posture and control is a testament to their athletic abilities.
This is far from the squad's biggest accomplishment though. In September, members of the team went to Berlin, Germany, to represent Pakistan in the International Women's Football Cultural Festival.
They took part in panel discussions and brainstormed ideas relating to women's football and its challenges.
The girls then participated in a tournament with women from nine other countries. The goal of the tournament was to promote fair play and integrate different communities to encourage collaboration.
If that was not enough, they also got to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel and the Pakistani Ambassador to Germany, Jauhar Saleem.
It is a typically hot Karachi night. The stage is set for one of Karachi’s biggest futsal tournaments. An expectedly large crowd has gathered around one of the pitches; but they are not here to see just any another match — these enthused spectators are about witness something groundbreaking. This year Karachi United’s futsal tournament is host to 33 men’s teams and one women’s team.
An intense match is underway between a men’s team and the sole women’s team.
The passion with which the women’s team is holding on to a goal-less draw is a sheer delight to witness. The crowd cheers and chants with each tackle or attempt at goal from the underdogs.
Contrary to their male counterparts insistence, the women’s team has chosen to compete in the tournament dominated by men.
They put up a tough competition with precise tackling and tireless work ethic. Even though the final score is not in their favour, by the end of an exciting night, there is a general consensus that these women are a real force to be reckoned with.
The Karachi United women’s team has made a mark in a big way, one that transcends score lines and medals. The team was officially founded in October 2010 under the banner of Karachi United, a football club that has been operating and promoting football as a sport in Pakistan since 1996.
In a country where female participation in sport is not given any serious consideration, the Karachi United Women’s Division is looking to set a precedent that would bring women’s football to the forefront of the conversation on female empowerment and equal opportunities for both genders in the field of sport.
On another humid afternoon, the young athletes are busy with some high-intensity fitness drills.
Mashal Hussain, co-founder of the women’s division, tells Dawn, “What began as just me wanting to play football kind of spun into creating a youth program for younger girls. Six years later we’re standing here, happy to have our own squad.”
“I have the best job in the world,” she exclaims.
Co-founder Khadija Kazmi, another key figure in the team, says, “It [football] is not just about being on the pitch; it is about time management, about dealing with people, the discipline; you can learn to be a better person by being involved in a team sport.”
“The endgame is to make football into not just what cricket is today but more than that,” Mashal enthusiastically adds, “It is a lifestyle [that] we want to promote”.
Over the years Karachi United has significantly evolved as an organisation; it now includes both the men’s and women’s teams, each with their own dedicated youth programmes.
The primary goal of the women’s youth programme is to encourage girls to participate in competitive sport from a younger age and develop the necessary skills required to pursue potential career opportunities both in Pakistan and abroad.
Suha Hirani, an 18-year-old product of the youth programme has recently been promoted to the senior team.
“In Pakistan there is barely any competition, people come and go,” says Suha. Recognising that it is difficult to sustain oneself by playing football the young player explains, “people eventually move into other jobs, they start working in different sectors and they leave sports”.
Sahar Dawood another member of the youth programme considers herself lucky to have a family that supports her passion for football — something many Pakistan women cannot rely on.
“If you look at our society people are not very open to the idea [of women playing football].”
The issue of difference in parent’s attitudes is a tricky one to navigate for the club, which deals with girls coming from a wide range of social backgrounds and levels of acceptability.
As part of their push to make women’s football more acceptable in society at large, Karachi United operates its youth centre in areas including Clifton, Lyari, Orangi Town and Shireen Jinnah colony.
While one might expect girls from an upper-class background to find it easier to convince their parents of a career in football, this is not always the case. Many parents already have set views of what their daughter’s career, education and future would look like.
According to Karachi United CEO, Imran Ali, it is the young girls from some of their camps in Lyari, Orangi and Shireen Jinnah Colony that show the potential to adopt the sport professionally.
“We run our centres of excellence all over Karachi, over 200 girls are playing football with us. We expect that the talent, much like anywhere else in the world, will come from those girls.”
Whatever the future holds for these particular sportswomen remains to be seen. But their commitment to improving the structure and acceptability of women in the world of sport is sure to bring about a change — even if it is one that is not easily quantifiable.
Photographs and videos by Kamran Nafees and Aamir Baig