Meet Nadiya Nighat, Kashmir's first and only female football coach who has an eye for goals

Kashmir's first female football coach has an eye for goal
7 min read
28 September, 2023

"Goal!" A young woman yelled as the ball made its way to the top corner of a playground goal. The ground, naturally outlined by Kashmir's Chinar Trees, is splattered with yellow leaves as Autumn makes its entrance. 

There aren't many watching today's game, but the energy of the woman who shouts instructions is infectious. Wearing seven on the back of her jersey, Nadiya Nighat, Kashmir's first female football coach and professional football player, dribbles the ball towards the goal of the opposition once again.

Her nimble body movement, and her pony-tailed hair flicker in the breeze. A hawker selling the popular Kashmiri snack masala choet watches on. The match draws to a close. 

Nadiya's life is a metaphor for football.  Hers is a story of determination, grit, and destiny. 

"Sports are an expensive proposition for many girls in Kashmir, but I want to let them know that I am here, and football is more than just a sport"

The next day, The New Arab sat down with Nadiya over a tall glass of coffee at one of Srinagar's oldest photo studios. She begins by reminding us of another Nadia, Elena Comăneci Conner, popularly known as Nadia Comăneci — the Romanian gymnast, five-time Olympic gold medallist, and an icon in global sporting history.

Her namesake has intriguingly similar lives unfurling at a tender age. When interviewed, Comăneci’s mother said that she enrolled Nadia into gymnastic school, as the kid was too energetic and wasn’t easy to handle, our Nadiya had a similar temperament – all she loved was moving her legs as a nine-year-old, nothing was more pleasurable than a ball.

"The idea of speed enticed me as a child and the first ever goal I scored at the Junior Nationals at Jammu was, in retrospect, a turning point in my life. I decided to pursue football. Little did I know that I would face challenges from my family," Nadiya explains in a zenish tone. Kashmir's first and only female football coach has acquired a knack for determination which has come at a cost.

Nadiya manages the sidelines as a lineswoman in a local match [photo credit: Irfan Nabi]
Nadiya manages the sidelines as a lineswoman in a local match [photo credit: Irfan Nabi]

"Unfortunately, faces frowned when I began playing football at Srinagar's Amarson College. I was the only girl, the other 47 were boys. We were trained by Mohammad Abdullah who was a veteran coach of Kashmir, now 82 years old. I live close to the college grounds and within hours the news began to spread.

"The neighbourhood girls would no longer speak to me and their parents criticised me a lot. There was a huge furore at home, surmounted by social pressure. My mother began to turn against me, she began to hit me. She said that this would spell trouble for me and would mean I wouldn't get married and wouldn't have a future," said Nadiya.

For a lower middle-class Kashmiri Muslim family, Nadiya's decision was a big thing. Nadiya's mother was the only breadwinner in the family so letting her daughter play football was not even a discussion. 

It was a humid day outside, and Nadiya's small, petite frame was perspiring despite the cool air conditioning inside. Her luminous eyes seemed to have more to say.

We take a break from our conversation to talk about the weather — the sudden rise in humidity in the naturally endowed city surrounded by high mountains. Then we jumped back into discussing football as she took a long, purring sip from her cold coffee.

"My dad came to my rescue," she said. "He convinced my mum to let me play for now. This was around 2010, and I was about to play in my first Junior Nationals. Dad travelled all the way to Jammu with my documents so that I could participate without any troubles."

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It felt like a glimmer of hope, and yet it was hopeless all at once. Life post-Nationals surprisingly did not change. The local shopkeepers and neighbourhood continued to taunt and speak ill of Nadiya for leading a 'boy life,' smashing gender norms.

“Then one day I did something extreme. I pulled out our big-size scissors from the drawer and erratically chopped off my long hair. It was an outburst of discrimination that the society was lashing out at me. Within minutes I became a ‘boy’. The impulsive decision felt like the only way out from what I was going through because I wanted to pursue professional football,” Nadiya said smiling.

The drastic decision nonetheless brought her mother closer to her again, she heard her out and got Nadiya a proper haircut. Strangely the new styling in a boyish avatar confused her critics and onlookers.

There was a palpable interest from all corners; from her coach to her family, friends and neighbours. Everyone seemed to be attentive to Nadiya.

This was the long-due turning point or so it seemed but it came about with a caveat. Her coach set a condition that he would only train Nadiya if she was able to get in more girls to be coached, a proposition rather daunting for Kashmir. Obviously, Nadiya could not meet the conditions set.

The following year proved fruitful as Nadiya participated in multiple state-level championships and the prestigious National Senior and Indian Women’s League.

Life was moving forward at a fast pace, much like a football match. One day, she came across a Facebook post calling for trainees interested in becoming referees. She immediately reached out, but they refused to train her because she was only fifteen years old.

Undeterred, she started her own grassroots football centre affiliated with the state football association (Jammu & Kashmir was a state then – before the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution after which Kashmir was transformed into a Union Territory).

The academy was named JJ7, and initially, her little cousin, a four-year-old boy, was her only student. Over the next few months, more boys enrolled, but girls stayed away from football.

Nadiya had a breakthrough when she decided to coach an under-19 boys' team that participated in a state-level championship called 'Khelo Kashmir.'

Nadiya's team was a runner-up in the championship. "Being a runner-up in Khelo Kashmir drew immense attention, as it was a true win led by a woman coach — something unheard of," a confident Nadiya shares.

The chuffed football coach enrolled in the coach certification course at the Sports Authority of India's institute in Patiala, Punjab, even though it was expensive. "With an AFC 'C' Licence, I became the first female football coach of J&K. I could now train other teams in different states. My aim was to be both a player myself and a mentor for others. You may wonder why. Because I wanted to stay within the football circuit."

Nadiya practices a shot [photo credit: Irfan Nabi]
Nadiya practices a shot [photo credit: Irfan Nabi]

She had hoped that the good spell would continue, but unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be.

There wasn't enough interest in professional women's football and, as a result, a state women's team couldn't be established, resulting in missed opportunities for Nadiya. In contrast, a women's team from Kashmir had been fully established as far back as the 1980s, playing for one of the well-known colleges of Srinagar commonly known as Kothi Bagh.

Eventually, the Jammu & Kashmir Women's Football Team was formed, and Nadiya started playing with them in 2018. With a state team established, more women started showing interest in football, but often with the precondition that their daughters and sisters must be trained by a woman. Nadiya directed her energy towards training the new aspirants, a role she loved as well.

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As she trained batches of girls, she realized how perceptions had begun changing, with some parents letting their girls play football. Nadiya added, "Perhaps they saw a role model in me. They felt that a career in football could secure their future just like a teaching job or any other profession." Offers started pouring in, and Nadiya began training clubs in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, and elsewhere.

"I really want to complete the coaching certification course in Patiala and plan to look out for offers in UAE and the Middle East, where women's football is gaining momentum. On the other hand, I want to resume my Academy of Football. It has been lying dormant due to financial constraints. Sports are an expensive proposition for many girls in Kashmir, but I want to let them know that I am here, and football is more than just a sport. It's a leveller of sorts that empowers girls."

Being compared locally with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the twenty-six-year-old is undeterred, having lined up her priorities.

Time has flown by, and it's nearly late afternoon; the chinar leaves are falling on the ground slowly. The speed at which they are withering reminds us that in nature, everything is a combination of time and balance. Nadiya is just about to take that giant leap, and her time is now.

Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author, and columnist

Follow her on Twitter: @Peachtreespeaks