One day in the summer of 1977, not long after he had deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup, General Ziaul Haq watched a women’s tennis match in Islamabad. The players on show weren’t Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert; they were two teenage girls from London named Mahmuda Jafarey and her sister Rehana Jafarey.
“We came out in our tennis outfits and I can never forget the expression on my khala’s face at what we were wearing,” recalls Mahmuda. “There was a tennis fashion at the time, where the underwear beneath the tennis skirt — for lack of a better word, they are like ‘knickers’ — had this frill with red piping. My khala with whom we were staying thought that people would think that I was on my period! She said people will be horrified at the idea of this girl bleeding while performing.”
Dogged as they were, the two sisters ignored the aunt and went to play before the new military dictator. Despite her aunt’s fears, however, the match was received very well. The sisters were invited to the VIP enclosure after the match, introduced to General Zia, and the winner (Mahmuda in this case) was offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida to represent Pakistan in a major international tournament for juniors. Mahmuda went on to play for Pakistan at several other junior tournaments, becoming the first to represent the country in international tennis.
How two sisters overcame family pressure, fatwas and racism to represent Pakistan during Gen Zia’s rule
Without a doubt, Mahmuda and Rehana Jafarey were treading a path not taken before. But today, there are very few women tennis stars to have become household names in Pakistan. Part of the reason is that little is known of the sisters’ journey and how they overcame barriers in both worlds they inhabited: the financial hardship of an immigrant family and xenophobia in England, as well as Pakistani social and cultural conservatism at home.
Mahmuda and Rehana’s parents were first-generation Pakistani immigrants struggling to make a life in Britain. Resources were tight but the girls had passion in abundance.
“We began playing tennis after watching and really enjoying Wimbledon,” says Mahmuda. But since their parents couldn’t afford equipment, club membership fees, travel and other expenses required to play tennis, the two had to look for alternative options. “We were very lucky that in spite of having no money, a coach took us under his wing,” she narrates.
As their interest in the sport grew, the girls found part-time work to finance it. “Rehana must’ve been 15 and I was 12 or 13, and we got jobs as cleaners at a bingo hall. For about four years, three days a week, before school, we would go to this bingo hall and clean it up, until we were old enough to start coaching; that made us better money.
“My sister and I went and played in competitions and we represented Middlesex County. Both of us did quite well. By the time I was 16, I had earned quite a reputation.”
The sisters faced stern opposition from their mother, who viewed their potential tennis careers as an impediment to their marriage prospects. “I remember her saying, ‘No one is going to want to marry a girl who plays tennis or doesn’t know how to make chapatis or is masculine. You will never get married,’” recalls Mahmuda. “That was the future she saw for her daughters, which for us was very limiting and not very fun.”
“It was a cultural thing, because girls from India and Pakistan are meant to be married and be good girls who go to school. Not go to a foreign country and play tennis,” says Rehana. The saving grace for the two “deviant” sisters was their father. “He believed that girls as much as boys were entitled to having the experiences they wanted for themselves.”
While the two sisters fought within their family and community for their right to play, they’d soon realised that racism was a different beast altogether. 1970s’ England was not as socially inclusive then and the sporting authorities did not seem too keen on them.
“We were competing in a tournament that was to lead to selection for Wimbledon Juniors, and the top four were to be selected. I made it to the top three, but was still not selected,” says Mahmuda. “My sister and I felt that we weren’t really taken in to the bosom of the playing community. And it took time before we realised what had happened.”
“We had faced resistance from our mother, our community, but this was a moment of realisation,” chimes in Rehana. “We were entering a dominantly white, upper-middle class environment and playing there, but never really belonging.” She argues that there was a noticeable lack of diversity in the sport in England. “It’s the mindset that we are going to help our own rather than someone else. When I went for the tournaments to Europe after Pakistan, it was always very white. I think I was the only one with dark skin. I knew I was different because I looked different.”
It was at this moment, with the sisters disgruntled about their lack of progression in Britain, that they received an invitation from the All Pakistan Lawn Tennis Association (APTA).
“We had never been to Pakistan,” says Mahmuda. “It was enthralling, the prospect of travelling to Pakistan for the first time, and playing for Pakistan.” The sisters bid farewell to their parents and went to Karachi where they were welcomed by the APTA.
“We played for three or four months in Pakistan. We competed in a Karachi hard court tournament, the clay court national tournament in Islamabad, and the grass tournaments in Lahore,” says Mahmuda. “We were very struck by the interest that locals took in us.”
That Islamabad exhibition match watched by General Zia followed soon as did the offer to represent Pakistan. “It was a great moment for me, as it led me to play in many other international tournaments,” says Mahmuda. “I sort of became a celebrity in the US. People couldn’t believe that Pakistan would send a girl to play in these international events unescorted.”
Mahmuda went on to play at international tournaments, including grand slams in France, the UK and US, as well as the Asian Games in Thailand, representing Pakistan.
FATWA LOBBED, AND SMASHED
The sisters were now making waves for being women tennis players in a male-dominated country, but not everyone was comfortable with Pakistan’s newest stars. Mahmuda, now 57 and a tennis coach in West London, recalls a confrontation with a Muslim cleric in the 1980s. Her father told her that he had heard in the news that a cleric had issued a fatwa against the sisters for “cavorting in skirts, showing their legs and arms.”
The British Broadcasting Corporation subsequently approached the sisters and the cleric for a three-way discussion on a radio show. “And I remember, I told the cleric that the truth is that guilt lies inside a man’s mind if he is thinking deviant thoughts when looking at girls and women,” says Mahmuda. “If that’s any issue with you, then we leave it to you to resolve the issues you have in your minds, but don’t ask us to stop what we are doing, just because of the dirty thoughts going on in your minds.”
Rehana felt affronted by the cleric’s objection to the tennis uniform and assertion that the sisters would be damned. “The maulana said to us that you are going to hell, and I told him off. ‘Who knows where hell is, have you been there?’ I asked him.”
TWO WOMEN, TWO CAREERS
Mahmuda then suffered an unfortunate injury which kept her out for about eight months. But while she was figuring things out, she received an unexpected call. “I was approached by the women’s tennis coach from the University of Houston in America,” she recalls. “She offered me a full scholarship to come and play for the women’s tennis team there.”
This was a primrose path that she never believed she’d walk on one day.
In retrospect, Mahmuda admits that playing for Pakistan offered a level of opportunity she would not have had in the UK. “While the depth of sport was greater here in the UK, I would have needed more support to be able to achieve from here what I achieved by participating from Pakistan. I don’t think I would have had the same opportunity or success in the UK.”
Meanwhile, Rehana, already 19, was too old to play juniors’ tournaments for Pakistan and took a different route in her career. Having started the sport relatively late, she was told by her coach to play as many tournaments as possible to raise her level in order to become a nationally ranked player in the UK.
“We weren’t good enough to represent the UK,” she says. “We were trying to find our way.”
Rehana took a job coaching at the Holland Park Tennis Club in London, saved up some money, and then embarked on tennis tours of Europe. “I bought a Volkswagen van and travelled to France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, just to participate in tournaments,” she says as she explains how she’d park the van at the club hosting that particular event and cook and sleep in it. “I did it for nine years, going away for two to three months at a time. My mother was horrified. It was just a culture shock for her, but she eventually gave in when we were mentioned in the newspaper and some friends and relatives praised us.”
Despite such cultural experiences familiar to many Pakistani women, Rehana never quite felt like a Pakistani. “I was a year old when I moved to the UK and did not go back until I was 20, 21. When I went to Pakistan, I was not considered a Pakistani, and when I was in England, I was never thought of as an English person.” She eventually moved to Australia with her husband and two children and took up coaching in the Gold Coast.
Mahmuda, too, would end up coaching. After completing her studies in the US, she enrolled for a postgraduate degree in social policy and development planning in third world countries at the London School of Economics, and then worked in a shanty town in Karachi for a year for a sanitation project. She returned to London and was certified as a tennis coach.
She now coaches at a club in West London, but “had to break a lot of glass ceilings.” Mahmuda took the club to an employment tribunal to secure the job as coach as she was assured that her qualifications far exceeded those of other candidates.
“It has not been an easy road to travel, being a tennis coach, and being a woman and an Asian, in what is seen as a very male-dominated arena,” she says. “Anyone who thinks of a tennis coach will first think it’s a man, and then young, and then white, and that’s the stereotype I had to fight against all of my athletic life.”
The writer profiles interesting South Asian individuals living in the UK at akslondon.co.uk
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 2nd, 2017