Noorena makes her presence known on the squash court — and in the fight for girls’ education

 Noorena and Gulalai in front of the UN — it was their first time seeing snowfall! (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Noorena and Gulalai in front of the UN — it was their first time seeing snowfall! (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Pakistan has the second largest number of girls out of school in the world. The 19-year-old athlete came to the United Nations to help change that.

When the girls’ cricket academy was too far from home, Noorena cut her hair and disguised herself as a boy so she could play for the boys’ team. A year later when she told them she was a girl, the team’s only response was to see if she could keep playing for another month — they needed her help to win an upcoming tournament.

Noorena is no stranger to obstacles — and no stranger to overcoming them.

When war came to her Pakistani village, Noorena’s school closed. She had to fight to continue her education. With her older sister as her teacher, she helped create a homeschool for her and fifty other students. They studied together for two years until their school reopened.

 (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

(Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

And when her family didn’t have the funds to pay for her education, Noorena took matters into her own hands. A talented artist, she began selling her comics and drawings to newspapers and used that income for school. She has been paying her school tuition since she was 16 years old.

Now, at just 19, Noorena keeps adding to her long and impressive list of accomplishments. She is a nationally-renowned athlete in Pakistan and ranks 212 in the world for squash.

Knowing firsthand the struggles of many out-of-school girls, Noorena uses her stature to help those in need. She asks her fans to crowdfund scholarships and sports equipment for student athletes. Noorena is also a member of Aware Girls, an organisation supported by Malala Fund, that advocates for gender equality in Pakistan.

This week, Noorena joined Malala Fund at the United Nations to speak about the challenges she overcame and the importance of 12 years of free, safe, quality education for every girl.

During her trip to New York, we interviewed Noorena to discuss her passion for education activism, what she learned at the UN and her dreams to become a Formula One racer.

 
 “I need the help of everyone in this room to help the millions of students who are out of school. Students who want to be lawyers, artists, doctors, teachers and dancers.” (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

“I need the help of everyone in this room to help the millions of students who are out of school. Students who want to be lawyers, artists, doctors, teachers and dancers.” (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

 

Tell us about yourself.

Noorena: I’m 19 years old and I’m from Pakistan. I’m from an area not too far from the village where Malala is from. It’s a remote area and one of the most beautiful places. I’m an international athlete. I represented my country at the Junior Olympics and won Pakistan’s first ever medal for cycling. I also play squash for my country.

Why is education important to you?

N: Education is food for the soul. When you learn new things, it gives you power you never had. As an athlete, I may be physically strong, but real strength comes in the power of my speech and the power of my words.

 
 

What do you like to do for fun?

N: When I was young, I developed a love for cars, which is why I want to be a Formula One car racer. This sounds really crazy to people in my country who think that a woman can’t even drive a car. I’m good at practical physics — you might call me a crazy scientist. I’ve added five or six gears to my cycle because I’m into mechanics. I actually made a small go-cart. It needs a lot of improvement so I’m working on it now.

What about Malala’s story inspires you?

N: I learned from Malala that no human being is made superior to another. Not by culture, race or gender.

Who else inspires you?

N: My mother is the biggest inspiration I have. In war time, she would always think about everyone else. She would think about our family. She would think about our community. She would think about everyone around her first.

What have you learned during your time at the UN?

N: I have learned about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were something really new for me. I have also learned more about how the United Nations works and how I can use my voice as a sportsperson to stand up for girls’ right to education.

What message would you give to other girls in Pakistan?

N: I would tell them they’re no less than any boy or man. If you think you’re powerless, you’re not. You just have to discover the power within yourself and once you do, you will see another Malala or another Noorena. You have to go out and fight for yourself.


 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.