London - At a time when many Pakistanis think that not much seems to be going right in Pakistan – floods, suicide bombings, a weakened democracy, charges of corruption and game-rigging against the once beloved national men’s cricket team – the country’s national women’s cricket team and their win at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China has made it possible for many Pakistanis to see a silver lining surrounding their problems. As one commentator in the media put it, they are the “golden girls” of Pakistan.
The nation has responded to the women's cricket team's win with great joy and pride, evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive media coverage and congratulatory statements from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, marking a shift from how female sports was treated earlier in the country on both the popular and institutional levels. In fact, at a recent reception celebrating the team, Zardari voiced his hopes for Pakistani female athletes to move forward in the realm of sports and called the cricket team’s gold medal a “gift to the nation riding a series of crises.”
This win has brought the women's cricket team out of the anonymity from which it suffered, especially in relation to its illustrious male counterparts. It suggests changing times and narratives in Pakistan. This very concept – an all-female cricket team – was previously met with vehement resistance, including legal cases against and death threats to Shazia and Sharmeen Khan, the two sisters who tried to introduce the team in 1996. The Khan sisters were behind the efforts to put in place the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Control Association (PWCCA), a body that was founded in January 1996.
Later the same year the PWCCA became affiliated with the International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC) as an associate member. The government under then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif repeatedly refused them permission to play, claiming that religious reasons barred them from playing in public. In 1997, however, the team was finally allowed to play opposite New Zealand and Australia, their first appearance on the field.
Indeed, the women's cricket team has dealt with its fair share of controversies: at one point, the Pakistan Cricket Board, the primary sporting organisation responsible for governing all professional cricket in the country, refused to even consider them a national team. It was only after a lengthy legal battle led by PWCCA that in December 2004 the Pakistan Cricket Board finally recognised the women's team.
Female athletes in Pakistan have often had to climb uphill battles. Once, for example, the local Punjab government vowed to ban an all-female marathon. One of the region’s religious leaders supported the ban, saying, "In our culture, no parent would like to see their daughter running on the roads along with the boys and that, too, in shorts." Professional female sports have long been a contested issue in Pakistan. In a country where men often dictate how culture and religion should govern the lives of Pakistani women, sports – particularly games that are played outdoors – are considered an act of transgression by those on the conservative end of the religious spectrum.
But these women are pushing the sometimes highly regulated and limiting boundaries with admirable courage and phenomenal results.
These female cricketers come from all parts of Pakistan: Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All of them likely have their own personal stories of struggle, resistance and encouragement to share, contributing to changing the narrative of Pakistani women – away from victimhood and toward strength and fortitude.
While growing up, many of us Pakistani girls couldn't really publicly share our desire to be a part of any sporting team without fearing jeers and mockery from our counterparts. But these women’s victory has provided Pakistani girls with so many more options for their future. And, despite all the media hype and public excitement, these golden girls who have banded together for their love of sports might not yet realise in what ways they are opening up avenues for other Pakistani women. As one of the winning players put it, “We are not the pioneers. We are just following in the footsteps of the strong women of Pakistan.”
* Sara Khan is a post-graduate student at London School of Economics and Political Science in London. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 November 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
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