On June 19, an Instagram blogger posted a picture of the Karachi United (KU) women’s football team on his account. Subsequently, the picture was shared by another account with access to a larger audience, Diva Magazine Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, the comments section was a cesspool of negativity and hatred. Instead of recognising what an accomplishment it is for women to play football in a society knee-deep in patriarchy, people chose to focus on the girls’ attire.
The fact that the girls were wearing shorts, a universally-worn football uniform, drew much ire from commenters; the moral brigade deemed their uniform 'un-Islamic', while a few others concluded that the girls were porn stars.
Apparently, that’s all that it takes to become a porn star nowadays — donning on a pair of football shorts.
Though most people might marvel at the absurd nature of these comments, for me, sadly, they were not surprising.
A few years ago, I had the privilege to play as the goalkeeper on the KU women’s football team and hearing such comments was commonplace for me and my teammates.
During the time I played for the team, my family's primary concern was that I would tan in the sun. To them, it did not matter that I had an outlet for the pressure I faced during five stressful years of medical school. For them, the colour of my skin took precedence over my mental health.
When I fractured my ring finger, I was told that no one would want to marry a girl with a broken ring finger since the groom would not have a finger to put a ring on, as if my nine other fingers ceased to exist.
A recurring theme I faced during my time on the team was being minimised to one silly stereotype after another by society. I was either too dark or too masculine for liking football. Not a porn star though, since I chose to play in track pants.
Though, on a serious note, it’s frustrating to see my former teammates, all of whom are very talented athletes, being defined by their choice of clothing.
Yes, choice of clothing.
You see, while playing, we do not see ourselves as the sole example of how women should dress. We just choose what’s most comfortable for us to play in. That can be anything — a pair of shorts, track pants or even a burqa.
Furthermore, we do not choose to play football to draw attention to our bodies or seem more appealing to men who might look past our dark complexions and broken limbs. No, we play because of our genuine love for the game.
A lot of the girls who play for KU venture from different corners of the city on any mode of transport available to them, be it rickshaws, bicycles or motorbikes, to come to practice, and that too despite opposition from their families.
Like me, some of the women play to let off steam and release the pressures of work or studies. Others play simply to keep healthy, a chance afforded to them by the grueling bi-weekly practices and weekly football games against the men's side.
But for many, the drive to play comes from the qualities the game instills in us, be it the discipline that comes from rigorous practice, the confidence that comes from being a valuable member of the team or the social skills we acquire by working together as a group.
For a lot of my former teammates, football has evolved from just a hobby to better career and academic prospects.
Two of them have gone on to be accepted into masters programmes at Harvard based on their participation in the KU women’s football team.
The co-founder of the team recently became the first female footballer in Pakistan to earn a spot in the prestigious FIFA Masters Course, an exclusive programme that allows its graduates to study sport in three major cities.
Most of them have accepted these opportunities with their primary aim being to return to Pakistan to further expand the scope of women’s football, and to create a better environment for current and future female football players.
So, if the next time you see girls playing football and your first instinct is to criticise their 'morals' and 'values', here is a cheatsheet of things you can think of instead:
- how hard those girls work
- the uphill battle they have to fight just to play
- how playing football allows them to become better functioning members of society
- how they can avail better career or academic opportunities through football
If you’re still intent on criticising, then look past their clothing and see them as what they simply are — football players, and maybe discuss their game instead.
By doing so, together, we might be able to break the barriers that prevent women from progressing in our society, and maybe young girls in the future might be able to play football without worrying about what their uncles, classmates, parents or random people on the internet will say.
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