At a rugby ground in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, a group of young women dressed in green shirts that read “Pakistan rugby” are practicing tackling. They tumble to the ground, not afraid of getting hurt. These are not just any players: They belong to the national women’s rugby team of Pakistan, and recently they returned from Brunei, where they played in the Asian Sevens tournament.
Women in Pakistan are still often judged by society when they choose to take up sports. This is especially true when it comes to rugby, a contact sport that’s considered manly, even though it remains largely unknown in Pakistan, where cricket and hockey rule. But the sport is gaining more visibility after these young women received a great deal of media attention in 2017, when they represented Pakistan internationally for the first time.
What most people don’t know is that the majority of these young women are from low-income families, and their sports careers have transformed their lives.
Although richer families in Pakistan tend to be quite liberal, few women from more privileged backgrounds choose to play sports, says Hadeel Niazi, the team’s manager.
“Mostly, higher-income people don’t focus on sports. They want their girls to excel in education,” she says. But she adds, “Our girls are very talented and skilled, so they utilize these skills to earn [a living].”
The Pakistan Rugby Union has backed these young women. It pays their transportation and accommodation costs during training camps, and more important, it can help them get jobs in the sports field, says Shakeel Ahmed Malik, technical director of the union and the coach of the national women’s team.
Because of this, it is easy to convince even conservative families that their daughters should be allowed to join a rugby team. “If we provide a job and an opportunity to go out of the country for exposure [to other countries], they are very interested,” he says.
Youths from smaller towns and lower-income levels tend to be keener to play, notes Fawzi Khawaja, chairman of the Pakistan Rugby Union. “There aren’t many extracurricular activities around for them, and given the opportunity, they gravitate towards sports,” he says.
As a member of the World Rugby union, the Pakistan association is required to support women’s participation, Mr. Khawaja says. Just three years ago, though, there were no women’s or girls’ teams in Pakistan. Today there are 11.
The Pakistan Rugby Union has dedicated 40 percent of its development budget to support these girls and women.
However, according to Mr. Malik, some of the girls must fight family pressure to marry at an early age. Many women in Pakistan stop working after they get married.
Nimra Maryam, age 17, hasn’t had to deal with such issues. “I told my family I will not get married before I have fulfilled my dreams,” she says.
Originally from the Pakistani city of Muzaffargarh, she has been playing rugby for two years now. Her father has not been able to work for a while because of a back injury, and that has compelled Nimra and her siblings to get jobs.
She’s now on the rugby team for Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority and earns a salary as a professional player. “My family has been very supportive,” she says.
Nimra’s dream is to continue playing rugby and to go abroad for training.
Bushra Rasheed, a small but tough 18-year-old, got into rugby three years ago. She now plays for the Pakistan Army’s team in Rawalpindi.
At first my family didn’t support me playing rugby because it’s a very dangerous game. But slowly they started accepting it, and now they are totally fine with it,” she says.
Ms. Rasheed’s father works in an office in a low-salary position cleaning, making tea, and doing other menial jobs. She has four sisters and a brother, meaning the family’s expenses are high in relation to their father’s earnings. All her siblings are still in school, so Rasheed, a professional rugby player, is the only one besides their father contributing to the family’s income.
“It is only because of rugby that I am helping my father now,” she says proudly.
Such opportunities would have been impossible for many of these women. “[Some of the women] earn more than $1,000 a month,” says Malik, the coach. This is a high income level in Pakistan.
Working to support herself
Irum Rathore’s father became blind in an accident before she was born, rendering him unable to work. Her mother died a few years ago. Now Ms. Rathore, who is in her mid-20s, largely supports herself, working as a swimming instructor and yoga teacher in a school – positions obtained via her participation in rugby.
Despite her success, she sometimes hears negative comments from her relatives. “They say [women] should stay at home; they should do housework,” she says. Her mother’s side of the family is very conservative, and they don’t all approve of her choices. But this hasn’t deterred her: She still plays rugby and dreams of furthering her career.
Azra Farooq, who was the captain of the national team in 2017, has also been able to start supporting her family thanks to rugby.
“My mother is a housewife and my father died four years ago,” she says.
Ms. Farooq, who is in her mid-20s, was always interested in sports and was able to get into university on a sports scholarship – otherwise a distant dream for a young woman from a low-income family.
Now in addition to playing rugby for the Army, she has gotten a job as a physical education teacher in a school.
Out of her five siblings, only her brother has a job, so Farooq shoulders a large responsibility in bringing food to the table.
Besides helping the women financially, rugby has improved their self-confidence.
“When I’m going somewhere, I’m not afraid of anyone,” Farooq says. “I can go anywhere alone.”
“This is an aggressive game,” says Ms. Niazi, the team manager. “[In most other games], you don’t tend to touch the players because it’s a foul. It’s a physical sport, so it makes you tougher.”
Rathore agrees. “I was going to my college and someone was coming behind me. I turned and someone was there, trying to touch me,” she says. Rathore grabbed the man’s hand, and after a bit of a tussle, he ran away, she says.
In a conservative, male-dominated society like Pakistan, being able to support one’s family as a young woman is enough of a confidence booster. But becoming physically strong makes these women nothing short of superwomen.
“Rugby is such a tough game that it completely erases fear from your heart,” Rasheed says.