Aalia Rasheed
Aalia Rasheed Image Credit: Supplied

With her extensive and in-depth knowledge of cricket and other sports, her direct but graceful, and honest but never demeaning questions, comments, and responses, and her impeccable Urdu, Aalia Rasheed is a rare sight on Pakistan’s tv screens. The first multi-media female sports journalism in Pakistan, Aalia not just broke the concrete ceiling of a male-dominated profession but also carved a wide skylight for the next generations of females aspiring to be sports reporters, analysts and anchors.

No shortcuts, no overnight hyper success, no sudden and undeserved promotions, Aalia’s journey is long, fascinating, committed, focused, with never a dull moment. Most importantly, it is inspirational. Aalia’s body of work is solid and unarguably impressive: cricket reporter and feature writer for Akhbar-e-Watan, a renowned Urdu cricket magazine; writer of a biography of Jehangir Khan, the Squash legend; sports anchor on PTV; 14-day hockey world cup live transmission from Lahore PTV studio; commentary for many national games; interviews of national and international cricketers and players of other sports; culture and sports reporter for The News, Lahore; covered several world cup and test matches, and tennis tournaments; produced and directed two documentaries on Shahid Afridi and Misbah-ul-Haq; produced a documentary on Taliban-controlled Swat in 2009; and worked as an assistant director for film and drama veterans Syed Noor, Nazrul Islam, Javed Fazl, and Ayub Khawar. Aalia is also a cricket analyst at Geo News.

For Gulf News, I asked sports journalist and anchor Aalia Rasheed a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: You chose a path that was an unfamiliar territory for a young female journalist in the 1980s: sports journalism. Share with us your story.

Sports Journalist Aalia Rasheed: My connection to cricket has a sort of a psychological background. My parents left for the USA, and my sister and I had to stay back because we didn’t get visas. I was seven and she was five. That was when I started going to watch cricket matches with my chacha [paternal uncle] and listened to cricket commentary at home with him. That took my mind off the pain of being without my parents. As a child, being highly emotional and sensitive, which I still am, cricket was a big emotional support.

It was 1987, Pakistan had lost in the semi-finals of the world cup, but the amazing performance of the Pakistan team had left a great impact on young minds. I wrote an article for Akhbar-e-Watan, a very popular Urdu magazine of that time, on Wasim Hassan Raja [Pakistani cricketer from 1973-1985, passed away at the age of 54 in 2006] for which the magazine awarded me a prize of Rs 1,500. Munir Hussain, publisher and editor of Akhbar-e-Watan, called me into his office and said, ‘You write so well, work with us.’ As I was in school, he thought I was too young, and he even joked with me, ‘Are you sure you have written this article?’

Fazal Mahmood, one of Pakistan’s cricket legends, was sitting with Mr Hussain. He asked me if I wanted to be a sports journalist. Then he asked me if I knew the first word for knowledge in the Holy Quran. I answered in Arabic: “Recite in the name of your Lord who created… 96:1]. My response delighted Mr Mahmood and he gave me his warmest wishes. That is how my career in journalism began.

I tried to learn as much as possible from my teachers, my colleagues. My first job as a sports anchor was with PTV [state television] in 1993 with a programme titled Sports Show. It was a huge hit.

What was that one breakthrough story or interview that convinced you that you had made the right choice to step into a career that would last for decades, and is still going strong?

I was still very new in the business when the West Indies team visited Pakistan. Their fast bowlers were known to wreak destruction on the opposing batting side, and so for the matches in Karachi, the Pakistan Cricket Board [PCB] made pitches that were white and utterly dead. I did a story on those pitches, criticizing and questioning the PCB. Hanif Mohammad [one of Pakistan’s iconic players, also titled ‘Little Master’ of cricket] was the chief selector. During an interview, my direct questions upset him, and he switched off my tape recorder saying, ‘Bibi, this is not my first interview.’

There are many such stories. I interviewed several prominent national and international cricketers. I interviewed the visiting Indian cricketers. After the world cup victory in 1992, I climbed on a truck [carrying Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and other members of the winning squad in a celebratory motorcade that went from the Lahore airport to the shrine of Hazrat Baba Fariduddin Ganj Shakar (RA)] at 2am to do an exclusive interview with Imran Khan. That was a very important event of my young career. I was fasting and had a fever, but that didn’t deter me. No other reporter succeeded in reaching that place. On that day, one story was published, and it was mine.

The ‘coup’ against Wasim Akram happened when he was the captain of the Pakistan team. I was the one who broke that story for which people congratulated me, appreciating my work.

Many important and interesting stories that kept propelling me forward. I have always tried to do my work with honesty, looking at things for their merit. Any kind of liking or dislike, I have never let it affect my judgment. I have always tried to work above and beyond all prejudices to ensure that justice is done to every story and the person involved in that story. Each word that I write and each word that I speak must be expressed with honesty because that is what we were taught in our journalism ethics: a journalist does not belong to any individual or any party or any side.

A traditionally patriarchal set-up, and you were the first one to enter it, bright-eyed and full of love for sports. What were the most difficult obstacles—obvious and not so visible ones—in your way to make your mark as a credible voice in sports journalism on TV?

In the beginning, people used to say that I covered games played by men. I faced so many issues that you as a woman can relate to, some of which can’t even be talked about. The kind of gestures one faces, the insulting tones. Then there were my own colleagues; some of the worst mental torture was from the people I worked with. When I was working in a newspaper, my male co-workers used to write all kinds of filthy stuff about me in the office washrooms; my well-wishing friends were the ones who would told me what was happening.

By nature, I am very conservative, and that has been an obstacle in my progress, but I have never compromised on my values. I have my own rules, I don’t go beyond them. I can’t beg anyone and that has even been damaging in certain ways. When I was getting married, my in-laws were told that I roamed around at night with cricketers, and that my character is ‘not good.’ You know how common such stuff is in our society. Alhamdulillah, all those things passed, I survived everything with my head and values held high.

As a woman I think some injustices continue. I say it categorically that people much less deserving than me are earning much more than me just because they are men. They have the ‘advantage’ of gender. When people don’t have anything else to say, they comment: ‘Women who should be in kitchen are teaching us about cricket’; ‘how can women who have not played cricket can comment on it?’ Even some cricketers say such things.

Such people seem to forget that some of the most renowned critics, writers, commentators, and journalists may never have played cricket, but they have devoted their entire lives to this sport. One example is Harsha Bhogle, one of cricket’s most renowned commentators; he has never played cricket. The point is our society tells women that you don’t know anything. That is why a woman has to work harder than a man to succeed and to remain relevant.

One of the most awful questions I often face: ‘Aap abhi tak cricket cover kar rahi hain!’ (You are still covering cricket). No one asks my male colleagues, even those much older than me, these kinds of questions.

What is your advice for female sports presenters and analysts to have a long but a responsible career in a field that in Pakistan is still considered a predominantly male domain?

All females in sports journalism should understand that they must concentrate on the game and not on building friendships with cricketers and other cricket related folks. They must have proper knowledge of the technicalities of the game. If your focus is right, you are aware of your purpose, and you are fully updated on what you are covering, no one will be able to stop you from moving forward. The thing is we cannot become good anchors by only dressing up well and looking good. At the end of the day, it is your homework, your grip on your subject, your hard work that matters. And the most important thing, my life’s motto, is that the pursuit of knowledge must never end.

Adapt with the times; after T20, now there is also T10. The nature of broadcasting has changed, challenges are increasing, there is more glamour. It is essential to be knowledgeable about the changes. Adjust, evolve, and don’t panic. Within your moral boundaries, focus on all that can help you go forward.

I feel deeply happy. I feel it is my legacy that today so many females are reporting from the pitch, are giving comments on cricket, are hosting shows. Men’s cricket. No one in Pakistan could have dreamed of that. The biggest criticism that I used to receive was that I covered men’s cricket. That has changed. Other issues will continue. As they say, ‘Kuch to log kahain gaye, logon ka kaam hai kehna!’ (People will say something; it is people’s job to comment). We are not going to stop doing our work, our very best.