"During Basant when I would look skywards from the rooftop of our place in Lahore, there would be so many kites there … they made it difficult for me to see the sky. And the best part was my kite being a part of that colourful cover,” remembers Umpire Humaira Farah, Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) senior-most female umpire, while sharing some sporty memories of her schooldays.
The PCB Panel Umpires and Match Referees Annual Workshop last month brought forth some nine women umpires belonging to both rural and urban centres of the country. Pakistan’s women cricketers have by now become household names but few here have heard of these women umpires, who also happen to be at the forefront of the drive to ensure women’s representation on the cricket field in the country.
Humaira’s journey to becoming a cricket umpire is a fascinating insight into how women get into such professions in a society such as Pakistan’s.
As a kid she enjoyed flying kites and riding bicycles. In college she won awards for playing hockey at the national level. So how did Humaira Farah end up becoming Pakistan’s senior-most female cricket umpire?
“I also enjoyed riding bicycles,” she continues with her story. “I would beg people to let me borrow their bicycle, which I would then ride all around town on.”
Both kite-flying and cycling often landed her in trouble with her mother. “Learning of my escapades, my mother would start telling me that such things suited boys, not girls, that I should concentrate more on my studies while also developing an interest for household chores.”
But things went from bad to worse when she started college and discovered organised sports there such as hockey, cricket, basketball, volleyball, table tennis and badminton. “Of all these, hockey offered more opportunity and coaching,” she says, adding that she hardly ever attended classes in college.
“The Government College for Women, Baghbanpura Lahore, from where I did both my intermediate and my graduation, had a good hockey team. There was a tournament happening in Hyderabad and many of my college friends and I were selected to play in it as members of the Lahore Board women’s hockey team. But in order to go we needed permission from our homes. None of my friends were allowed, but on my continuous insistence, my mother said that she would allow me to go on the condition that I pass my intermediate exams. Otherwise, she’d just make me sit at home. She believed that it was no use going to college when I didn’t even study and at home she could teach me how to cook and sew. I said ‘fine’ and headed off to Hyderabad to play.
“I was declared best player of the tournament in Hyderabad and, by the time I returned, there was only a month left before the exams. I spent that entire time locked in my room, cramming for my exams. I couldn’t afford to fail and be made to sit at home. College for me was an opportunity to indulge in sports. I didn’t want to lose that. I systematically divided and gave time to all my subjects and then, when the results were announced, I had passed, though only barely. Meanwhile, my friends who had not gone to Hyderabad to play, and who had more time to study, had to sit for the supplementary exams in order to pass,” she laughs at the memory.
Playing for her college and the Lahore Board teams, meanwhile, got her noticed. “In 1985, I was picked to represent the Pakistan Railways women’s hockey team on a stipend of 300 rupees a month. It was a big amount for a student in those days. I didn’t even know how to spend this money,” she says.
“Simultaneously, I also played cricket in college but, since women’s cricket had not quite taken off like it has now, I was only able to excel in hockey,” she says. Playing hockey at the national level, it was only a matter of time before she got selected for the national women’s team. Sometimes she played as the full back but most of the time as the goalkeeper. She laughs: “The goalkeeper is the one facing the ball after 10 players have failed to stop it. Then all the pressure is on the goalie and, if she also fails, she gets to take all the flak too.”
She says that her playing for the national women’s hockey team was during the Ziaul Haq era when the women’s team never travelled abroad, although she remembers the Malaysian women team’s visiting Pakistan.
After graduation, she had an offer to join Railways full time but opted to join the Punjab University for a Master’s in Sports Sciences. “I had been thinking of an MA in English, but then both my coach from college and my eldest brother encouraged me to follow my aptitude and go for Sports Sciences. My eldest brother was like a father to me. He would always be so happy to see my picture in the newspaper, he had no problem with my staying out late for practice. Sometimes, I would only return home around the time of Isha prayers but he said it was okay, that it was all going to pay off one day. And it did! I topped in Punjab University to make him even more proud of me,” she says, adding that on the academic front she also has a B Ed from the Allama Iqbal Open University.
“After university, Baghbanpura, my old college, offered me the position of sports teacher, a great honour. But this was before my results were announced. Later, I noticed an advertisement for the post of director sports at Garrison College, which is Lahore Garrison University now. I applied and got the job,” she says. She has been there for 28 years now and is also doing her PhD in Sports Sciences from there.
Meanwhile, she attended all coaching courses that she could lay her hands on. “Badminton, athletics, volleyball, hockey, table tennis, basketball … you name it and I would attend it. However, since women’s cricket was not that developed around the time, there was no cricket course to take,” she says.
So how did she end up with the PCB? “Well, when the PCB set up its women’s wing in 2005, Shamsa Hashmi was heading it. Shamsa was someone who used to play hockey with me in the Pakistan Railways team and she had also done her Master’s in Sports Sciences, although she was my senior at university. But she was my friend, too. And she asked me one day to bring my students for the women’s team trials at the Gaddafi Stadium where she had also invited the then PCB chairman Shahryar Khan.
“When I went there I was also briefed about the work of the Women’s Wing and asked to work for their talent hunt programme. That was in February or March of 2005. By October or November of the same year, Shamsa informed me about their coaching and umpiring courses. I was interested in cricket and had played inter-collegiate and inter-university tournaments along with a few club matches too. I decided to go for it,” she says.
Umpire Khizar Hayat was then manager of the PCB Women’s Wing Umpires’ Department. Around seven female and 30 to 35 male umpires attended the five-day course before appearing for the exam. “Only four females — Nabila, a girl from Karachi, Mehwish, a girl from Lahore, Shamsa and myself — were among the females who passed. But only one among them, having passed both her PCB Panel-1 and 2 umpiring courses, entered the field of umpiring,” Humaira beams referring of course to herself.
“Standing on the ground all day and taking decisions on every ball isn’t as easy as it seems to be. There is pressure from players, from the team officials such as coaches, the manager and also the match referee. You need to focus on the ball, whether in play or not,” she says.
Now having umpired more than 150 matches, Umpire Humaira Farah has her sights set on going international. “None of PCB’s female umpires have done any international umpiring. I have worked very hard to reach where I am today and I dream of being on the Panel of ICC Umpires. I want to be able to do that too very soon,” she says.
The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 29th, 2019