Balochistan’s female footballers can bend it like Beckham, but will society let them?
A 17-year-old girl with short hair, donning a T-shirt and trousers, rides a motorbike through the streets of Quetta. With wind in her fringe and determination in her eyes, she heads downtown to the national sports complex where she trains 15 aspiring footballers.
She has never been one of an archetypal girl's nature, and while playing on the streets, she resembles the boys she routinely shares a company with.
Aqsa Pervaiz is a college student residing in the capital of Balochistan, a region where female mortality rate is the highest and the per capita education ratio of female education is the lowest in the world.
For the last three years, Aqsa has been a professional athlete representing Pakistan internationally and her hometown of Quetta nationally. Putting her activism skills to use, she is also volunteering as a sports ambassador for the Pakistan Army. Additionally, she earns a living from solely running a football club dedicated to involving girls in sporting activities. Aqsa hopes to one day be a football champion of Pakistan.
Sitting in Ayub National Stadium, divulging in untold episodes of her life, Aqsa reveals the barriers she has had to overcome to carve out space for herself and other girls like her in a rigidly patriarchal society such as ours which often dismisses the ambitions of sportswomen.
“I no longer think about my gender when I leave home to play football in the ground amongst boys. I share their company and we have tea and meals together. My friends call me by a boy’s name, Hamza, and I feel comfortable in that circle.”
However, she goes on to share how there are still some people who make her feel unaccepted.
“Some people taunt my boyish style, but being bullied by passers-by on the streets and the at the ground now seems common. I have grown to tackle such misbehaviour and discriminatory remarks, unlike in the past when it was difficult for me to face ugly gestures and rude voices.”
Sharing stories of her family, Aqsa and her brother journey to the scenic mountains located at the outskirts of the city on a motorbike on weekends.
“Playing football and riding a motorbike are my passions, and I am thankful to my parents who have always supported me in my struggles to achieve my goals.”
Talking about societal pressures, Aqsa recalls how her relatives would discourage her parents from supporting her ambitions and would strongly advise them to get her married when she turned 17.
“Early marriages is one of the crucial problems faced by young females and children in Balochistan, as it forces them to forego education and goals, leaving them without any hope of a better, brighter future. I wanted to break the cycle, I had to if I wanted to achieve my goals.”
Girls as young as nine-years-old are married off to men twice or thrice their age, spending the remainder of their lives bearing children and serving their husbands, unaware of the world outside the four walls of their homes. In such a society, Aqsa’s journey serves as an example for other girls to fight for their rights and the norms that hinder their choices.
Aqsa’s parents continue to support her dream and cheer her on. Feeling extremely proud of his daughter, Aqsa’s father, Pervaiz Faiz, applauds the brave choices his daughter has made in the face of a deeply patriarchal society. Despite having to bear certain economic challenges, he is confident in Aqsa’s choices and wishes to see her become a football champion from Balochistan. He says,
“Earlier we were apprehensive and did not fully support her, but she has shown us that she can face these challenges. I am happy to see her succeed.”
Pervaiz encourages his friends and colleagues to support their daughters in getting an education and following their own choices and dreams. He wishes all fathers would follow suit.
He recalls that from the moment Aqsa learned to walk, she was always the child who ran the furthest without looking back, would climb to the top of the tallest tree and hang upside down 15 feet from the ground, which would terrify her rather more risk-averse mother.
Sharing his opinion on Aqsa’s current boyish attire, he says,
“Until a few years ago, Aqsa’s wardrobe was still crammed with the outfits of Disney princesses. When she was younger and heading out to her nursery classes, clad in frocks yet physically fearless, she reminded me of a dauntless lady explorer!”
Upon a glance, most people refer to Aqsa as a ‘tomboy’, a term used quite callously in our part of the world. However, it is important to try and gain a more nuanced understanding of it. Nasreen Samar, a professor of gender studies at the University of Balochistan, explains that ‘tomboys’ often feel differently from most girls who have stronger feminine desires and traits.
When the term ‘tomboy’ first appeared in the mid-16th century, it was used for male children who were rude and boisterous. But by the 1590s, the word began to resemble its current usage: ‘a girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys’. Girls and women who are sporty and like to engage in activities associated with boys such as playing video games or wearing certain colours are labelled as tomboy, misconstruing the term with gender.
“The key distinction, of course, is that this term refers to a lifestyle and aesthetic, often confined to childhood and adolescence, whereas gender is an identity uncoupled of a specific age and interests. It would be irresponsible to retroactively assign a gender to a term like ‘tomboys’, but it’s worth acknowledging that there may have been deeper questions of identity at play for them than the term itself accommodates.”
Given the reality of the society around her, Aqsa has had to learn and develop the ability to protect herself from those who may intend to harm her or harass her on the streets due to her ‘boyish’ appearance, a scenario she has experienced many times.
“I have to tackle whatever forces may attempt to stop me from pursuing my professional career. Playing football is something very close to my heart, I love to be there on the ground with my students, training them and also practicing myself,” she says.
Despite facing an abundance of stereotypical attitudes and judgement due to her gender unconformity, Aqsa is determined to let nothing come in the way of achieving her goals and dreams. She is convinced that mainstreaming girls in the field of sports will not only create socio-economic opportunities for them but will also help tackle the patriarchal mindset which continues to plague the country.