Karachi: The delicious aroma of freshly baked cakes enveloped me as I entered the bakery in a posh Karachi neighbourhood. The building, with its gleaming red exterior and gold lettering at the side of a busy street, was hard to miss. Inside, the decor was thoughtful and comforting. A couple sat on one of the many sofas, sipping coffee from large colourful cups. Customers want to not only buy their cake here, but eat it too.

But this bakery is more than just a place to buy tasty snacks from pastries and pizzas to samosas and wraps. For me, the main attraction was Bushra Haider, the bakery’s owner, head baker, and Pakistan’s former squash champion.

Given Haider’s former life as a fierce competitor both in Pakistan and internationally, I expected to come face to face with a tall, loud, muscular woman. But I found the opposite as she smiled and warmly shook my hand.

Bushra Haider’s life is instructive. By all measure she had a successful athletic career in a country where women are typically discouraged from playing sports. She achieved success both nationally and internationally despite very little institutional support. Since Haider’s time, much has changed for Pakistani women including athletes. But the challenges Haider faced — both personal and institutional — are still widespread. Despite some high-profile successes for women’s sports, the same challenges that were barriers for Haider continue to be barriers today.

Bushra Haider’s playing days are long over. It has been more than two decades since she won her first title but when she talks about that match, she is transported back, living those moments again. “I can still vividly remember the nervousness I felt while prepping for the final match. I was just 14 when I was competing for the title of Sindh Champion and I must admit I was overwhelmed at the thought of playing in front of so many people. The only thing that saved me from caving in to my fears was probably that my large extended family had turned up to support me.”

“The game proved to be a tough one but I remember thinking that though this is just a game, it is one of the most important games I will ever play as it will determine my future as a squash player. I have vivid memories of the match but the one that stands out the most is the love and pride that shone on the faces of my parents – especially my mother.”

Bushra won the championship that year, 1995, to became the youngest female Sindh Squash Champion. Two years later she won the national title and held onto it for four years. She went on to reclaim the national title in 2005 and 2010.

Bushra Haider was a reluctant athlete. “None of the girls I knew played any kind of sport outside school or college. And I had no idea that I would pursue a career in sport. It just wasn’t something we consider a professional pursuit in Pakistan. And absolutely no one went to play at a sports venue at the time. My siblings and I were kind of a novelty since our mother dropped us off several times a week at KMC Sports Complex in Karachi.” Haider’s mother was a big believer in playing sports to stay healthy and Haider and her siblings swam and played tennis.

Haider’s foray into competitive sports was not only reluctant, it was accidental too. One day at the sports complex her tennis lesson was rained out. She was bored waiting for her mother to pick her up and needed a distraction. Haider took out her tennis racket and began whacking the ball against the wall in one of the empty courts. She hit it with all her strength, over and over. A coach watching from nearby came over and began playing with her. It was soon clear young Haider had a powerful arm. The coach suggested to Haider and her mom that instead of tennis, the young athlete should play squash. And so, it began.

Squash was and still is an expensive game, especially in a country like Pakistan where funds and sponsors for sports, other than cricket, are scarce. For women’s sports, the situation is even more bleak.

Haider realized early in the game that she had to prove herself as a woman squash player if she wanted to get any support or sponsors.

“My coaches had trained me well by pitting me against stronger players, mostly men. So, I knew my game was quite good. However, soon I realized that I needed a sponsor to be able to continue playing squash, especially since there was little or no interest in women oriented sports.”

Haider has a powerful arm, passion, and support from both family and coach. But the system was not open to her. Pakistan’s squash federation ignored her, the male players taunted her, and she had to fight to be selected for both national and international games. “If it wasn’t for the support of my family and coach, Aftab Jawaid, I wouldn’t have continued playing. I remember how other squash players mainly men would crack jokes about a girl wanting to compete in professional squash – these remarks did hurt me sometimes but they actually fuelled my passion more.”

Haider’s story is familiar to Pakistan’s current crop of female athletes dealing with both a system and a culture that discourage them from participating in traditionally male pursuits. Rishad Mahmood is a long-time sports editor with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper says Haider’s experience is, unfortunately, typical. But Mahmood says he also see a glimmer of hope. “For far too long, talented women aspiring to take up sports as career in Pakistan have been forced to underplay their success to keep the ego of men intact.  However, since the turn of the century, things have begun to look up for them,” he says.

Mahmood notes the number of international successes is growing and these young female athletes are receiving positive attention. He says young women are excelling in sports as diverse as hockey, boxing, martial arts, mountaineering, and even rugby. Mahmood notes the more they succeed, the more young girls will be encouraged to break gender stereotypes.

He points to Pakistan’s women’s cricket team that has played in three World Cup tournaments and includes players with individual “best of” records. The team continues to receive widespread attention from both men and women. Pakistan also fielded women athletes at the 2016 Olympic Games in shooting and track. But, Mahmood adds, there is still a lot to do in women sports as the achievements acquired so far are “not significant enough to stir a revolution, or as much as alter the social dynamics of this society.”

Mahmood says a key problem is Pakistani girls are simply not supported if they wish to compete in any outdoor sport. “It becomes a struggle for her with stiff opposition being raised from her family, her teachers, even her colleagues, not to mention the discriminative attitudes of sports organizers and exploitation by coaches. Such trends, and attitudes, surely need to change as they have contributed to the perception that the urge to compete, in sports or otherwise, is unfeminine and largely influence the tendency of girls and women dropping out of their pursuits.”

Bushra Haider remembers that challenge well. She was able to partially overcome them once she reached university. Her school, SZABIST, awarded her a full scholarship and allowed her to defer exams if she was competing. Travelling for tournaments became easier since she wasn’t always scrambling for funds to pay for both studies and athletics. Even at that stage when she already held a national title, Haider says official support was elusive. “I remember one incident when I had to save up money from my salary so that I could participate in one international squash event. Despite having made a place on the local scene, no one bothered to suggest my name officially.”

Mahmood says achievements in women’s sports are often downplayed, if not completely ignored. “Pakistan’s women’s football team, for instance, is ranked 162 out of 185 in the FIFA rankings despite the meagre opportunities coming its way, but the national men’s football team which is ranked at a lowly spot of 201 out of 206 is perennially in the news.”

He thinks that the government’s patronage and those of the sponsors would have given great impetus and new dimensions to women’s sports in the form of better training, exposure and facilities. “Unfortunately, both government and private sectors have not been forthcoming and found woefully wanting in their response to women’s sports.”

One small but glaring side effect is that female athletes who show extreme promise end up leaving Pakistan to seek better training and support elsewhere. Maria Toor, a world-ranked squash player, eventually outgrew support in Pakistan and moved to Canada to improve her game. But for many women, leaving is not an option and if they can’t find a reliable coach, they often just give up.

The coach-athlete relationship also presents problems for coaches, most of whom are men. Female athletes with a promising future fade away before they can be trained properly because of cultural norms that frown on men and women having any kind of connection outside a family context.

Coach and former professional boxer Javed Jan from Karachi’s Lyari neighbourhood, trains aspiring boxers and footballers. “There are no proper facilities for either boxing or football in Pakistan for anyone. Look at the state of football players of Lyari. They are great at the game but they have no proper place to play, so they play on the streets. Keeping our society’s conservative temperament in mind, we can’t expect girls to play football on the streets. So, most of those I train, especially for boxing, take private lessons,” says Jan.

Coach Jan said that that in a country where cricket is the only game that gets any attention, other sports are dwindling and some of them are on the verge of extinction. “Those training in other games do so because they are genuinely interested in them, not because they have hope to represent their country in the world of sports.” He added.

“Only girls from an affluent background can hope to compete in some sports – but usually individual sports – at national or international levels. Girls from lower income groups can hardly hope to pursue sports professionally, mainly because they have no access to the elite clubs which have sports options and facilities for women.”

“The government really has to do something seriously for sports overall, so that women can also take the big step to partake in sports.” Jan said. “Leaving the comfort of their lives – as most women believe – they need to have a good incentive to go into sports. And the few who are motivated lose hope very soon.”

Add to the day-to-day barriers women and girls face in accessing sports, there is the larger context of the place of sports in Pakistani culture. In general, athletics are not considered an important or a necessary part of a young person’s education. That perception is built into the education system right from day one. Those who excel, particularly girls and women, have always pushed against those prevailing customs.

Dr. Sofia Rahman has more than a decade of experience as an educator and runs a private school in Karachi. She says parents often see time spent on athletics as a waste and prefer their children study instead. She says it can be especially difficult for the girls.

“Sports and girls – it is almost unnatural for us.” Rahman added. “I have seen people refuse to allow their girls to participate in sports in school for no real reason but just because! It infuriates me that girls who are now flying jet planes in Pakistan, are not allowed to play sports which is in fact good for them.”

“How many sportswomen do we have? And how many do we know? And how many of these sportswomen come from low income group families? To tell you the truth I only came to know about Naseem Hameed after she became the fastest women in South Asia in 2010 and that too because the media gave her so much attention,” said Rahman. “Do we know where she is now?”

Even though there is a small but growing acceptance of girls and women pursuing athletics, Pakistani women still have a long way to go. Back at the bakery, Bushra Haider also laments that Pakistanis have a short memory when it comes to women athletes. “Who remembers Pakistani squash player Carla Khan – born in the UK – who became a great squash player and won many laurels for Pakistan? Not many people will remember her or even know what her achievements for her country were.”

She says even though Pakistan produced two of the greatest squash players the world has seen — Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan – the sport still holds little value in the country. “The lack of interest in women’s sports in Pakistan was an important challenge for me. It was tough to convince people to put their money behind women’s professional sport – even if I was the National Champion.”

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