Karachi, Pakistan – Sughra Rajab, 19, and Shamsia Ali, 21, were just two of the young footballers who represented the Hazara Quetta team at the National Women’s Football Championship in March this year.
The couple traveled hundreds of miles from Quetta, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, to the southern coastal city of Karachi.
For Ali, coming to Karachi and playing at that level was a “dream come true.”
Meanwhile, Rajab described it as “a lifelong opportunity”, adding that “the exhibition here is amazing and I really like it”.
Playing the sport they like best without fear and worries off the field seemed like a good relief not only for the couple but for the whole team.
The girls belong to the Hazara minority community in Pakistan. Most Hazars live in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s largest but poorest province. The Hazares have long been persecuted for their attacks and bombing.
Since 2005, nearly 2,000 Hazaras have been killed in protracted sectarian violence against the community, according to a report released by the National Commission on Human Rights in Pakistan in 2018.
Amid sectarianism, violence and fear, football has become a beacon of hope for the community, especially for girls.
The use of black scarves and shorts with black leggings under the scorching sun makes them restless and their memory of life in the Hazara Town enclave in Quetta is tinged with their own set of discomfort and trauma.
“We try to move on with our daily routines, visiting friends and family, playing sports,” Rajab said. “But when the security situation worsens, we stay at home. Security is our biggest concern. “
Given security concerns, traveling to Karachi for the tournament was not an easy decision for the players or their families.
“I lost an uncle in specific attacks two years ago. Mentally, I feel very upset all the time, ”Rajab said.
For Ali too, it was a struggle to convince his family.
“My father said that if the men in our community can’t be safe, how can we expect women to be safe,” Ali said.
But it was Saba It, the team’s coach, who managed to convince the parents after countless consultations and advice for months.
“Our community is the victim of constant persecution and murder. I had to plan and start convincing families a year in advance of the tournament, ”said Saba, a former footballer who represented Baluchistan.
He added that targeted killings have deprived Hazaras of so many opportunities that a safe environment offers.
“Trauma and fear are so prevalent in everything we do, that it is rooted in every decision we make in our lives,” he said.
In January this year, 11 coal miners from the Hazara community were abducted and killed in Machh, Baluchistan, in an attack claimed by a group of ISIL fighters (ISIS).
Community members staged a protest to do justice. They insisted on not burying the dead until Prime Minister Imran Khan visited them.
While Prime Minister Khan initially called the application blackmail, he withdrew and visited the families on 9 January.
After the attack, Saba’s year-long struggle to persuade parents to let the girls travel was severely affected.
“Convincing them again was a big struggle once again. After the attack, some parents withdrew. The girls were constantly calling and crying, ”he said.
Initially, it was Saba’s commitment to helping the Hazara women and empowering them that motivated the young women to take an interest in football and later led to the formation of the team.
In 2017 she set up crafts and a sewing workshop in the city of Hazara, where everyone settled in, including young Hazara women who have lost relatives in the attacks.
Seeing the colorful photographs of their play days hanging inside the workshop, attendees were intrigued.
“We saw the photo of Saba as a footballer and he fascinated us,” Rajab said.
Initially, Saba did informal football workouts. But that was not easy.
“We would leave before dawn so that no one would see our formation. We trained weekly in the open field. At that time, we could not afford to get the right football.
After a year, the ambitions grew. They wanted to form a proper team, play regular football and represent their community on a professional level.
With these aspirations, Saba asked permission from the Hazara Football Academy to use his field.
Initially, he made fun of it. People questioned women’s participation in sport. But persistence paved the way as they were approved.
“After constant requests, the academy allowed us to use its land. We paid 15,000 Pakistani rupees [$98.5] a month and would train three times a week, ”said Saba.
A 2018 Human Rights Watch report described the living conditions of the Hazara community in Quetta that reflected an open prison for violence. The frightened atmosphere has fallen on all generations of the Hazara experience.
Jalila Haider, a human rights activist and advocate, said specifically for women that “there is a double danger in society.”
“In the beginning they are marginalized because they are women. Marginalization doubles as it comes from the Hazara community, ”Haider told Al Jazeera.
“The problems of sexist society and the cycle of fear in the community further subjugate Hazara women. They are already in trauma because they have lost their uncles, siblings or parents. The lack of professional skills and release in a turbulent environment, surrounded by violence, leaves them traumatized.
Saba, and many girls on the team, also continue to be psychologically altered.
“Every home in Hazara has experienced bloodshed due to terrorism. The girls are always in a state of shock and worry, ”said Saba. “Some players would break constantly. Sometimes the pressure made them faint. ”
Saba has a brave face as a coach, but sometimes, being human, she would fall into depression out of fear.
“Sometimes I don’t understand what to do. I took responsibility for these young girls. ”
“During the first two weeks I cried a lot all night. There is a lot of fear for security. “
Back in Quetta, Saba began counseling sessions for families, with the goal of getting them off the blanket of fear and allowing the girls to play.
The sessions were organized with the principal of the girls ’school and, through a systematic approach, parents understood the important position of football in their daughter’s life, Saba said.
“I told them that these girls are upset and need to go out. They have to play football and have experience outside the confined spaces to feel better, ”added Saba.
In Karachi, Ali said the change in environment gave him a boost of confidence.
“I’m meeting people from outside, I’m learning a lot from the other players and the motivation they have for the game. Mentally, I feel that now I want to excel more in football at all levels, ”he said.
Ali Hunardost, 40, is the father of one of the team’s players. Unlike most families who are reluctant to let their daughters travel and play, Hunardost was eager for her daughter to put pressure on her.
“People are afraid of their lives, but I think we should not live with this negativity. Progress will only come if men and women are given equal opportunities, ”said the father of five.
Hunardost’s 20-year-old daughter has been playing football for two years.
“She was very quiet at school, but she always did sports, so I encouraged her to start training for football. I want to support her in all her successes. My other daughter does martial arts.” .
Violence and attacks on hazars in Baluchistan have continued despite the existence of checkpoints and the provision of security throughout the province. According to Haider, the situation remains unpredictable.
“We cannot predict whether the situation has improved. Sometimes we feel relieved that nothing is happening and suddenly something happens.
“Hazars need to feel safe and investing in human capital is essential at all levels. We need empowerment and equal opportunities, so we can also contribute to the country’s economy, ”said Haider.
Meanwhile, Ali and Rajab want to pursue and play football internationally.
“Everyone is ambitious, so are we. I’m sure if we could be in Karachi after so many hardships and lack of resources, imagine how we will overcome if things are made easier. “