The story of Fatima Zehra, a fine right-out in the national women’s hockey team is the story of every other woman player of Pakistan, who is involved in some other sport than cricket here.
Besides hockey, Fatima plays throwball, too, now. She is also doing Bachelor of Science (BS) in Physical Education and Sports Sciences from the University of Karachi. “But of course, hockey remains my first love,” she tells Eos.
Fatima Zehra’s parents always wished for a daughter, but when their first-born turned out to be a boy, they fell down in prayer again for a girl. In doing so they also promised God Almighty that if He blessed them with a girl, they would name her Fatima Zehra.
And then, 11 months after their son Abdul Moiz Khan was born, the baby of their wishes arrived, their little princess Fatima Zehra.
As a kid, Fatima always felt more drawn to sports, with the attraction growing manifold in college. “Our college, the Government Degree College for Women in Block M of North Nazimabad, encouraged students to engage in all kinds of sports. I played cricket, table tennis, netball, football and volleyball there, too. But hockey I really enjoyed playing, especially after beating PECHS College in the final of an inter-colleges hockey tournament in my first year,” she says.
Although she loves hockey, national team right-out Fatima Zehra says there is not much scope for women’s hockey or any other women’s sports in Pakistan other than cricket
“There was also an inter-college cricket championship that year, in which our college lost. So, naturally, hockey for me at the time held more importance. Our college sports teacher Ms Saeeda Khanum was also a national-level hockey player, so maybe she too had something to do with my love for the sport,” Fatima muses now.
“I was the centre-forward for our college hockey team, though now I play as the right-out in the national team,” she says.
For two hours a day, five days a week, Fatima can be found at the Karachi Hockey Association ground with the nice blue turf where Olympian Hanif Khan offers free hockey coaching to girls. “So many girls come to train there,” she says.
“Hanif Khan is one of this country’s finest hockey players. I have watched so many of his old matches. I have also read articles about him. He is a very good coach. It’s really big of him to be offering his coaching services to us for free. He helps us with getting hockey equipment, too. At the KHA ground, we have a place to play and train as well as get free coaching,” says Fatima.
Asked why turn to throwball when she loves hockey so much, Fatima says that she discovered throwball recently, in university only. “See, though we are keen on playing hockey, the reality is that there is not much scope for women’s hockey here,” she points out.
And is throwball doing any better? “Well, yes and no. It’s an indoor sport and only needs a net and a ball to play. Also, because it is an indoor sport, lots of girls play throwball.
“Hockey is played outdoors in the open. You need a big ground to play hockey, you need a hockey stick and prices of hockey sticks start from ten thousand rupees. The shoes needed there also require having proper grippers and prices for those start from four thousand rupees. Then there are other things too such as shin guards, etc,” she says.
“Actually, people tell me that I made a mistake. Being so inclined towards sports, they say I should have opted for cricket instead of hockey from the start. At least then I would have been somewhere. But at 24, it is too late for me to switch sports now,” she says.
“Some people love to play and some play for achievements. I guess I come in the former category,” she says.
“Hockey has taken me all over the country. We play regional tournaments, we play national-level championships, too. It is fun travelling and playing at different places and meeting the other players,” she says.
“The only thing that’s left now would be touring abroad. I am yet to play in an international event,” she sighs. “Too often, the Pakistan Hockey Federation is short of funding. When they have to think about how to send the men’s team abroad, then the women’s team should not expect much,” she adds before sharing something that has not even been reported in the media.
“Do you know, the national women’s hockey team was even suspended from playing international hockey by the International Hockey Federation, for failing to show up at an international qualifier due to lack of funding?” Fatima looks sad. So I try changing the subject.
I can’t help but notice her straight long hair and as many as five piercings in each ear. She catches my eye and smiles. “There are times that I feel like cutting my hair short because it does become difficult to manage sometimes, especially when you are so much into sports,” she says.
“But my parents don’t want me to cut my hair. I like it long too so I tie it in braids when playing. The ear piercings are another issue, especially while playing. I’m often asked to take off the extra earrings by match referees. You can also cover your earrings with ear tape, which is just like band aid covering the earrings to prevent injury to others,” she shrugs.
Talking about her parents, Fatima becomes sentimental. “All along, my father has been my greatest support, taking me to matches, practices, etc. But he, along with my mother, has always wanted me to concentrate more on my education. And I have been doing that,” she says.
“Now I have also found middle ground by going for a BS in Physical Education and Sports Sciences,” she says. “That way I would at least remain connected to sports in some way or the other.
“Actually, there is a lot of scope for men as well as women in this line as, with a degree in Sports Sciences, which takes four years to complete, I can look forward to coaching or managerial jobs under the Directorate of Physical Education, the Pakistan Sports Board or any other sports federation or association,” she says.
“Though I am still in my second year of BS, I can raise a good team in any sport even now,” she says. “So all isn’t lost.”
Fatima also has a younger sister, Mehak Khan, whom she wants to see enter the sports field, too. “She is six years younger. But though she does dabble in a bit of hockey and throwball, she is too much into her studies,” she says.
“If you think about it, it’s quite funny that way,” she adds. “My parents want me to concentrate on my studies more but I am more into sports and I want my younger sister to think about taking up some sport but she is more into her studies.” She is smiling again.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2023