Tackling barriers to women’s football in Pakistan
Hajra Khan, captain of the Pakistani national women’s football team, fights to empower girls through sport.
Hajra Khan is no stranger to adversity. Her team has been inactive for the last three years. Her teammates often face discrimination, underfunding and lack of facilities. Her country lacks the national structure and platform to develop female footballers. But that’s not stopping Hajra from fighting every day to promote the game she loves.
“I will do anything in my capacity to be the voice of women and girls playing football in Pakistan,” Hajra says. “I have immense hope.”
Hajra’s football career began in 2008 when well-known female coach Sadia Sheikh discovered her. Hajra quickly progressed and began competing at a national level. Although she always enjoyed the support of her family and friends, she admits that “it’s been a tough journey.”
“Girls in Pakistan face many obstacles, including lack of access to quality and affordable education, and cultural barriers,” Hajra explains. “Consequently, their freedom of movement and pursuit of their dreams is restricted to a great extent.” As a result of this, most girls are not given the opportunity to pursue sports.
Further limiting their ability to play is lack of available facilities: “For many girls, especially in dense urban environments, it means traveling to facilities through unsafe neighborhoods or lacking the means to get to a good facility miles away. And if there isn’t a safe option, the only option for a girl and her family may be to stay home.” If a young woman has the opportunity to play sports, she often experiences bullying and social isolation.
As Hajra knows, when a female player makes it professionally she faces even more challenges: “Players need exposure and deserve a chance to be able to take their game to the next level but there is lack of sufficient avenues for football skill development and competition on a professional level.” Due to a lack competitive football at home, Hajra takes to Twitter to appeal for friendly matches abroad. She sees examples of other South Asian countries “more opportunities to grow and hone their talent” and hopes that her country will follow suit.
Hajra is determined to champion women’s football in Pakistan because she knows firsthand how women benefit when they play sports: “Participating in sports, such as football can provide an excellent platform to encourage education for girls, enable them to express themselves and give them a voice within their families and society. It can help girls gain respect for their bodies and develop self-esteem while also building on their interpersonal and leadership skills.” Female athletes participating in “a physically demanding sport like football challenges the stereotype that girls are weaker than boys and gives them a sense of achievement that they can attain any targets in life.”
As captain of the Pakistani national women’s football team, Hajra takes being a role model seriously. In addition to advocating for women’s football, she also works as a UNICEF Menstrual Hygiene Champion to reduce stigmas regarding menstruation. “I believe with my athletic success, I am able to engage and empower adolescent girls to bring the taboo subject of menstrual hygiene into the public discourse,” Hajra says of her work with UNICEF. “The most vulnerable populations, including women and girls, are highly responsive to sport-targeted programs. Sport can also effectively assist in overcoming prejudice, stigma and discrimination.”
While balancing her training and advocacy, Hajra is also pursuing her degree in international relations and politics from the London School of Economics (LSE). She hopes to use her education in order to “try and provide opportunities for young women in Pakistan to empower themselves and exercise their rights to and through sport.”
Looking to the future, Hajra is hopeful: “From my experience as one of the pioneers of women football in Pakistan, I have witnessed an increase in the appeal and popularity of the sport among girls and young women.”
Hajra knows that the next generation of female footballers will have an easier time thanks to her accomplishments: “I’ve proved that a Pakistani woman can achieve what any Pakistani man has in this ‘male-dominated sport.’"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.