Against all odds, Pakistan's women's football team has a bright future ahead

Pakistan's women's football team
5 min read
19 July, 2023

“As a kid, I started playing football because I saw how proud my parents were of my brother playing sports,” shares Eschal Shaikh.

Today the 15-year-old footballer is part of the Pakistan national women’s team camp and has come a long way from the little girl who wanted to impress her family.

Now she’s focused on making herself proud and she knows she has a long way to go. But the last year has shown that Shaikh and other players like her seem to have a bright future ahead of them.

"To be able to hold their own and even score the goals they did against World Cup-level teams despite not playing for years before this - and only playing 14 matches in their history — shows the team's potential"

After a break from 2014-2021 forced upon women’s football by a constantly changing and unstable political landscape, the team has gone from strength to strength this past year. In January this year, the women’s football team were runner-up in a friendly 4 nations tournament in Saudi Arabia. 

Sports Journalist Shahrukh Sohail points out that the team’s performance in Saudi Arabia and the Olympic qualifiers they’re playing in should also be seen in the context of the team's history.

To be able to hold their own and even score the goals they did against World Cup-level teams despite not playing for years before this — and only playing 14 matches in their history — shows the team's potential.

But their journey hasn’t been easy. Just this week, the team is finally ready to leave for friendlies in Singapore after almost having to miss their fixture because the Sports Board established a new rule where teams travelling need to apply for a NOC (No Objection Certificate) and then wait for a 6-week processing time.

“But this fixture was only confirmed on 26th June and that’s normal for Asian fixtures, this isn’t like European football where fixtures are confirmed months or years in advance,” Sohail says, adding that such a policy will choke a lot of sports in Pakistan. 

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Women’s football in particular has faced multiple obstacles recently, and even now their victories aren’t being broadcasted to the mainstream by media - but fans are finding a way to connect anyway. Partly because of their tumultuous history and partly because it’s been such a niche interest outside of sports circles, women’s football has begun to mean much more than just a sport.

Sahiba Sherdil, who represented Pakistan in the 4 Nations tournament in Saudi Arabia shares, “Despite the results, I felt so proud wearing the green jersey and playing to my fullest abilities. Also when I came back home, so many girls from my area were looking up to me and wanted to be like me, I felt proud that day.” 

Shaikh has had similar experiences which she credits to mindsets changing. Whereas previously women in sports were not taken seriously or even discouraged from taking on sports as a career in favour of more ‘feminine’ pursuits.

“People are always congratulating me, especially little kids, which is so important,” Shaikh shares as she points out how important it is for young children to be able to see women in football as well and know this sport is as much for men as it is for women.

Much of this change can also be attributed to spaces like Karachi United, a football club promoting interest amongst both young boys and girls who are focused on challenging these stereotypes as well. Sherdil and Zoya Zeshan, who also represented Pakistan as part of the team in the Saudi tournament are both part of the club as well. 

“Being a woman I chose KU because I found it a more inclusive and supportive organisation that encourages us to play all year around. Providing us with professional coaching, it also helps us financially so we can eat healthy and provides transportation for our training sessions, none of the clubs in Pakistan are investing this much in women’s football,” Sherdil says. 

Zahmena Malik scores for Pakistan against Tajikistan in the 2024 Olympic Women's Qualifiers [Samaa English]
Zahmena Malik scores for Pakistan against Tajikistan in the 2024 Olympic Women's Qualifiers [Samaa English]

But for football to truly become a space where women can move past the social restrictions society imposes on them, it also needs to be appreciated in the same way. We need to use the national team’s victories as a jumping-off point to look at how football can be promoted beyond the national level.

“We’re now playing friendlies as well, we’re playing regardless of competition and that is the only true way to build a national team,” says Sohail.

Efforts like Gilgit Baltistan Girls Football League, known for its high-altitude football team are actively changing mindsets in areas where just a few generations ago many couldn’t even imagine women being in such a public setting. These efforts give women and young girls an outlet beyond the scope of what is expected for their everyday life — and yet the media does little to focus on it consistently. 

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Taha Alizai, Head Coach of the women’s team at KU connects this lack of media attention to a general lack of support as well. “A role has to be played by the public and private sectors by investing in sports in general and women’s sports in particular, by the former investing in infrastructure and the latter in sponsorships and CSR initiatives. If this enabling environment is created, then I am sure the media will continue to play its role in supporting women’s sports,” he shares. 

This year, women's football in Pakistan actually seems to have more potential than men's, and as their successes inspire more women and girls to pick up the sport and be able to consider a future in it, women’s football will need a lot more support both structurally and socially.

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, and The Guardian among others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22