Humaira Akhtar Ali, a 20-year-old student, was visiting her friend’s house a few weeks ago in Pakistan’s Swat district in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when she learned about an opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to play in an organised cricket match with other girls on an outdoor public ground.
Ali, who is currently in her freshman year in Islamic studies at a local university, has been a passionate cricket fan since she was just five years old. However, she had only ever played the game with her cousins and siblings in her house — never outdoors.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
When Ali was accepted to play at the organised match, she was thrilled. “I was overjoyed when I got the news. I immediately started practising with my sister and my uncle, who trained me,” Ali tells Al Jazeera by telephone. “There was so much excitement among my family and my friends.”
However, when Ali and the other girls arrived at the Charbagh Cricket Stadium in Swat Valley on October 1, they were in for a shock: the match had been stopped by local officials.
“We were told that they are not letting us play,” Ali says. “It was so upsetting to us. Were we doing something wrong by playing cricket?”
The match had been organised by a local sports coach, Ayaz Naik, who runs a taekwondo academy in the area. The 40-year-old Naik, a passionate sports fan who encourages his own daughters to participate in sports, says that he had been planning to hold a girls’ match in the area for many weeks.
Many of the girls who visited his academy were also interested in cricket, he explains, and they had requested his help to train them in the sport or organise a match. “So I thought I will do what I can,” he says.
Naik spent almost 100,000 rupees ($355) from his own pocket to purchase cricket equipment. For the match, he says he also worked to earn the trust of the parents of the girls who showed interest in playing cricket, guaranteeing that there would be no promotion for the event or video recordings.
Naik kept that promise: He did not go public with his efforts. However, some local social media outlets found out and “spread various kinds of disinformation about our match,” he says.
When the teams arrived at the stadium on October 1, government officials had stopped play.
Religious leaders also accused Naik of “spreading obscenity and doing something immoral by letting girls play in the open”, the coach adds.
“My girls were furious and very upset at the situation. But I told them, this is life, and they will face constant struggles, but the important thing is to stay strong and persevere,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice.
The match was cancelled over safety concerns, explains Ihsanullah Kaki, a local councillor. There had been increased incidents of kidnapping, he says, adding “We are definitely not against the girls playing cricket.”
“All we asked the organisers,” he says, “was to seek permission from police and other officials.”
Naik explains that he debated with the local government officials, who advised that the match should be played on the grounds of a local girls’ school instead of an open field.
So he made that happen.
On October 3, history was made in Swat: For the first time, a girls’ cricket match took place on the ground of Government Girls Higher Secondary School Kabal.
Students watched as a ten-over match was played between two teams.
Ali, who played the wicketkeeper, says it was difficult for her to express in words the joy she felt when she stepped on the field for the first time as she donned the keeping pads.
“I am a big fan of Pakistani player Muhammad Rizwan who is a wicketkeeper himself, but I never thought I would be doing that, too,” she says.
“But for me, the opportunity to play in a ground, it makes me want to emulate my real hero, Sana Mir,” Ali says, referring to Pakistan’s former women’s team captain. “I just hope we have more chances to play often.”
Eighteen-year-old Sheema Ghaffar was overjoyed to play in the game she says she loves more than anything else. She has played other sports at school, but cricket is where she wants to excel. Her dream? Becoming a spinner.
“I know our society is conservative and traditional. But it was something important for us to be able to play and pursue our dreams, and I am so glad I was able to play in this match,” she tells Al Jazeera.
The picturesque Swat Valley, situated some 235 kilometres (146 miles) from the capital of Islamabad, has been a hotbed of violence in the past. It was once briefly under the control of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group, before the TTP was ousted by a Pakistani military operation in 2009.
The valley is also home to global peace activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the TTP in October 2012 on her way home from school. She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize two years later.
Ghaffar, the budding spinner, says that Yousafzai has inspired her.
“Malala has been a big role model to me and many other girls, and my parents have seen that. They know that our culture is not very conducive, but they never stopped me,” she says, emphasising that her parents have always encouraged her to participate in sports.
Naik acknowledged that while Swat is a traditionally conservative area, women are gradually becoming part of the social fabric.
“Our people are starting to understand the need to have women in public. Many are working in banks, and other offices, and allowing such matches to take place will only help normalising their public appearance,” he adds.
Although no other matches have been planned at this time, Ghaffar and Ali both say they are eager to play more cricket should the chance arise.
“I wish there were more such opportunities to play, as I wish I could play for the Pakistan team and pursue my dream,” Ghaffer says hopefully.