Islamabad: The remote valley of Shimshal tucked away in Pakistan’s far north and surrounded by picturesque snow-capped mountains is home to some of the country’s most dedicated sportswomen who are defying conventions to reach new heights.
Around 29 girls and young women from the valley trekked for four hours on a dangerous trail to play the highest altitude game of football at Zarthgurben ground. Locals claim that Zarthgurben, located at 4,100 metres above sea level, is the world’s “highest sports ground.”
The mountain girls — aged between 11 to 22 years — conquered one of the hardest tracks and breathing conditions, driven by passion for football and a desire to prove their skills to the world. “The best moment was reaching the top with the girls. I believe we certainly made a national record by climbing the mountain to play football at record-breaking height,” Sajina Mirza, 21, told Gulf News.
Ability to compete
Most of the players, as well as Mirza, belong to Shimshal in Hunza region of Gilgit-Baltistan, one of the last villages bordering China. Shimshal is home to around 2,000 residents, including some of the most passionate women, such as Pakistan’s first woman mountaineer Samina Baig.
The game was a small but crucial effort to show that women are able to compete in every field, says Mirza, who plays as a striker. The football match, she says, demonstrates the dedication and resolve of the valley girls who are striving hard to prove their power, both on the football field and in the community.
The match was organised by Al Shams Women Football Club, a women’s club founded by football fans from the valley, Azeem Baqir and his cousin Munawar Ali.
“The performance of the girls and the whole event was a huge success in fact beyond our expectations,” says Baqir, 19, describing the details of the match held on July 22. “The aim behind the women’s football match at the world’s highest ground was to send out a message of equality and peace from the remotest valley of Pakistan’s mountain regions.”
Baqir and Ali always believed in the power of sports to empower and develop communities but it was in 2016 in Lahore that the two along with Baqir’s sister Karishma Inayat, 21, decided to establish the football club for women.
“Our goal is to encourage girls to play football at grass roots level by offering them the right training, equipment and equal opportunities,” says Baqir.
The three were so passionate about the idea that instead of waiting for funds, they dipped into their own pockets and got donations from friends and family to start the training.
Currently, about 20 girls are part of the Al Shams Club where Ali, Baqir and Inayat, who has been into football since 2012, lead the practices. During the summer and winter camps they train about 120 girls in the Hunza, Shimshal and Sost areas.
How come people from the remote valley endorse the idea of girls playing football when it is not a common sight in the cities?
“The locals were a little apprehensive before ... they thought sports would waste their children’s time but soon they realised the benefits such as getting scholarships on the basis of sports,” Baqir explained.
One of the main reasons why football is popular among girls in northern Pakistan, according to Inayat, is that “families and communities support girls to pursue their dreams. Also, the people of Hunza are particularly more educated and enlightened. Most children attend school and college too if they can afford it.”
However, there are fewer opportunities to channel their passion, which is what the founders the Al Shams Club are hoping to offer them. “We are providing the young girls of the valley a platform to display the their hidden talents,” she said.
Sharing some the challenges, Baqir says the main issue they are currently facing is lack of sponsors.
“I strongly believe in the power of football to create a social change but it’s hard to convince people,” he said.
According to its founders, the Shimshal valley football club has three main goals: to empower the women of the mountains, to create sports opportunities for girls in Gilgit Baltistan, and to develop and promote the talent of the region. Baqir is certain the team of girls he is coaching would produce world-class players one day.
Inayat and team also organised the first-ever women football league — the Gilgit Baltistan Women Football League — in 2017 and 2018 that received a very encouraging response. “The valley is brimming with talent however we lack basic sports facilities such as proper grounds and equipment to polish the skills of young soccer stars” she said. “If these girls can perform so well at dusty, rocky grounds, then just imagine what they can achieve when they play on national and international level.”