A hero in times of fear

18 Jan 2011


WE all need heroes, if for no other reason than to inspire hope in our future. Heroes are also important for our self-esteem, especially for young people who are at that stage in life when they are full of dreams and vision — or should be, if a society is to grow and develop. They need a role model to translate their dreams into reality.

But for heroes to inspire they must be more than celebrities. They must have achieved something tangible to which their admirers can relate. They must also possess qualities that help the public identify with them. That means they must emerge as humans having risen from the rank and file and being like them in every way. The only exception should be the achievement that has made them larger than life.

Pakistan’s greatest misfortune today is the near-absence of such men and women who lead by example. We have many celebrities amongst us but they are hardly the people whom our youth can idealise.

In this context it was a happy experience meeting a hero (it would be sexist to call her a heroine) in real life and to see that she is not an unsung hero. That is Naseem Hameed, Pakistan’s ace sprinter, who has been billed South Asia’s fastest woman after she won the gold medal at the Saarc games in Dhaka in February last year. She collected more laurels at the recently held National Games in Peshawar, from where she walked away with three golds.

Why do I consider Hameed a hero that Pakistan needs? The context in which I met her could not have been more appropriate. It was at the annual sports day of a school in Korangi — Educators Darus Salam run by former journalist Naushaba Burney, whose brilliant idea it was to invite Hameed as the chief guest. Located in the vicinity of the industrial area, the school provides education of a high standard to the children of the locality, albeit at a price. Considering the fact that the enrolment has grown in the six years since it was founded (it has 1,600 children studying there today), the institution has the capacity to meet the growing demand for quality education among the not-so-affluent classes.

What strikes one is the transformation that is wrought by good education in a child. All he needs is the human touch to bring out the best in him. Organised at the Korangi stadium, meticulous planning had gone into the sports day. The physical training display, the races, the tug of war and other items gave all the children the opportunity to participate, doing their parents proud. Their interest in their offsprings’ schooling — and that includes the fathers who had taken the afternoon off from work to attend — is a relatively new phenomenon in a society where millions are illiterate. Whether a child won a prize or not was not so important, but participation was.

Hameed was no doubt a positive feel good factor in making the day such a success. Apparently, she needed no introduction. Children with their mothers came up to her to shake hands, get an autograph or have themselves photographed with her. They say that heroes thrive on the adulation of their fans. Of course Hameed enjoyed the adoration. But the limelight, the publicity, the mobbing by her fans, the attention from the highest quarters (she was invited to the presidency in Islamabad to be appointed the ambassador for sports) and monetary awards have not robbed her of her simple warmth that has endeared her to the masses.

Why is she a real hero? She is from Korangi and identifies herself with its people. She has remained firmly planted in their midst. Having studied in a government school and college in Korangi she has not forsaken the people of the locality from where she rose to fame. “If she can do it, why not me?” is the question many young girls ask. Expectedly, more girls are taking to sports, Hameed told me. Of course there is need for greater coaching facilities and more grounds. And government schools will have to adopt a more inclusive approach to sports. Family support is yet another essential factor.

Hameed’s victory and her continuing commitment to sports and her people have two implications of great significance.

One, she symbolises a big step forward for women in a country where women’s participation in sports was taboo under General Zia’s Islamisation agenda, and where the struggle to get the ban on women’s hockey lifted was a top priority of the women’s movement in the ’80s. Today, when religious extremism is rearing its ugly head, Hameed’s success and recognition comes as a beacon of hope for the women of Pakistan.

Two, sports have always been regarded as a peaceful activity by sportsmen. In ancient Greece a temporary truce used to be announced to hold the Olympics if city states were at war. For Hameed, the recently concluded National Games in Peshawar also sent a powerful message of peace. She spoke with great passion when she described to me how the games had to be put off for three years because of the threat of militancy. But ultimately it was a victory for peace when the games were held, albeit amid high security. She admitted that fear stalked the air — the militants had threatened to attack — but looking back at the games she feels happy to have participated because now the world knows that Pakistan wants peace.

So heroes also have to be brave. After all, they defy many of the norms that often hold back a society’s progress. It needs courage to set a new trend, especially when it flies in the face of retrogressive conventions and blind prejudices. Nothing is more retrogressive than bonds imposed on women and violence unleashed on a people in the name of religion. Kudos to Naseem Hameed for showing the courage to take on both.