My aim in life is women’s empowerment in Pakistan and I plan to do it through football,” says Sadia Sheikh, the football pioneer in Pakistan and coach for Diya Women's Football club. She is also the only FIFA administrator in the country.
Being a sportsman in Pakistan is not easy but being a sportswoman creates a whole new battlefield for anyone who wants to play a sport for a living. According to Sadia, one of the struggles of being a female sportsperson is that “males don’t like it if a female comes up. They get so scared that they start telling stories about you which are not true.” But it all gets worse when women turn against fellow women. That really hurts her. She feels that women need the support of other women to be successful. Sadia trains in Lyari in Karachi, where she has already coached about 2000 girls to date. “Fighting people’s cultural beliefs is hard. When I go to Lyari to train, the families feel that I am going to ‘spoil’ their girls or make them tread a wrong path. But I have realised that when someone comes from outside, the family is apprehensive and are uncomfortable. Once they get to know and trust me, they stop creating issues. They know I am there to help,” explains Sadia. To help create this trust, Sadia urges female family members to accompany their daughters to where Sadia coaches, so they can see for themselves what exactly she has to offer to their daughters and what kind of an environment they will be playing in. In these coaching sessions, girls are not just taught football; they also learn how to speak English, how to eat at a table and how to communicate with other people gracefully. So, what is offered to them is complete grooming along with acquiring the skill to play a sport professionally.
Raising funds to run a football coaching centre is yet another challenge faced by Sadia. As it is, very few organisations in Pakistan want to support sports but when it comes to supporting female clubs financially, that is rather unheard of. “It is still easier to get money for males. I want to have tournaments for girls. I want their capabilities to be displayed in front of the whole country, but it is difficult to find support. What pains me a lot is when some of the men sitting in big companies ask me if my girls would go out with them for dinner. For them, women are commodities. They can never see them as sportspersons.” Because of such setbacks, Sadia has to do with the support she gets from her family and friends – to have her girls play more internationally is a dream that for now, is far from becoming a reality.
At home, Sadia faced the same hurdles that any typical girl in Pakistan wanting to play sports professionally would face. “My mum comes from an Iranian background and has been very supportive of me and my ambitions but my father’s upbringing was very different. He came from a feudal background and he didn’t like females playing sports. He wanted me to do something more regular like getting a job in a bank.” Sadia’s father did not approve of the fact that to play football, she would have to play in front of men wearing sports attire. “My mother said you married me and my daughters are different just like me. You should have thought about all this when we got married!” says Sadia as she tells us about how her mother dealt with her father to safeguard her dreams. However, Sadia believes that deep down inside, her father is very proud of her but he has never said it and he never will. “Now when he sees my work and what I have been able to achieve, he appreciates it. He is happy that I help poor people’s daughters get training and then eventually jobs,” explains Sadia with a satisfied smile. She does understand where her father is coming from. “I work in areas such as Lyari, Korangi, SITE area and he worries whether I’ll get out of those areas alive!” Sadia laughs.
For Sadia Sheikh, her Miracle Moment is when her girls end up getting a job. “It really makes me happy because these girls were rejected by their parents and throughout their brothers were given preference since the day they were born. But when these girls go home with salaries and buy not just groceries but cars for their families, it brings tears to my eyes. This is what I strive for, to empower women and to bring their status to the level of their brothers in the eyes of their families,” says Sadia, with tears rolling down her face. Sadia’s Miracle Journey is surely inspirational. We talk about gender inequality in our drawing rooms but do little to wipe this menace off the face of our society. With women like Sadia leading the way, the day is not far when Pakistan’s female football team will bring the world cup back home amidst cheers.