20-year-old Pakistani squash star works to level the playing field for female athletes
Noorena Shams hopes to empower the next generation of young sportswomen.
At age 11, Noorena would ride her bicycle inside the house because it wasn’t acceptable for girls to bike in public.
At age 15, she cut her hair and disguised herself as a boy in order to play on a cricket team.
Now at age 20, Noorena competes around the world as a professional squash player and is using her profile to help other female Pakistani athletes: “I want to make sure that the next generation of female athletes do not have the same issues I encountered on my sporting journey.”
Noorena grew up in a remote village in Pakistan, which she describes as “one of the most beautiful places in the world.” Her brother exposed her to sports and Noorena discovered she had a natural talent, excelling in cricket, cycling and squash. After moving to Peshawar for her studies, Noorena competed on the boys’ national under 15 cricket team for a year before revealing her gender. In 2013, Noorena won a silver medal for cycling in the Junior Olympics.
Today, Noorena is pursuing a career as a professional squash player. She is currently ranked 154 in the world for women’s squash and recently competed at the Australian Open. Even though she plays alone, squash taught Noorena the value of teamwork: “You can only succeed with the constant cheering of the crowd, the encouragement from mentors and the examples set by fellow athletes.”
It is easier being a female athlete in Pakistan today than when Noorena first started playing. “Pakistan is slowly progressing to accept female athletes,” she acknowledges, “however there is still a long way to go.” Noorena hopes her example will encourage other young women to pursue their athletic ambitions — she now cycles openly and speaks at leadership events to empower her peers. “Nothing comes to you itself,” she advises other female athletes who face discrimination. “You have to go out, you have to chase it, you have to prove that the word ‘sport’ is not bound by any gender.”
Noorena is also passionate about ensuring that every girl is able to go to school, especially because she encountered a number of barriers to her own education. When war came to her village, Noorena’s school closed. Her older sister homeschooled her for two years. When her school reopened, her family had trouble paying for the fees: “As a student, I faced a lot of problems affording the quality education I deserve. Since I was helped by some people and now I know the importance of education, I do not want anyone else to be deprived of it.”
Pakistan has the second-largest population of out-of-school children in the world. Girls face gender discrimination, poverty, child labour, early marriage and lack of schools and teachers in rural areas.
Determined to improve girls’ access to the classroom in Pakistan, Noorena joined Malala Fund at the UN last year to advocate for girls’ education. She also uses crowdfunding on social media to help pay for the tuition fees and sporting equipment for other young women. Noorena does this because she believes in the power of an educated girl: “Education in every form — physical education, mental education, academic education, education of your soul — can bring a huge change in a society.”
Whether she’s beating opponents on the squash court or breaking down barriers at home in Pakistan, Noorena is a force to be reckoned with.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.