Karachi, Pakistan – 19-year-old Sughra Rajab and 21-year-old Shamsia Ali are two young football players representing the Hazara Quetta team in the National Women’s Football Championship in March this year.
The two travelled hundreds of kilometers from Quetta in the southwestern province of Balochistan to Karachi, a coastal city in the south.
For Ali, coming to Karachi and playing at that level is a “dream come true”.
At the same time, Rajab called it “a lifetime opportunity” and added: “The exposure here is amazing. I really like it.”
Play their favorite sports without scruples, and the troubles off the court seem to be a welcome relief not only for them, but also for the entire team.
These girls belong to the Hazara minority community in Pakistan. Most Hazaras live in Quetta, Pakistan’s largest but poorest provincial capital. For a long time, Hazaras have been persecuted as a result of attacks and bomb attacks.
According to a report issued by the National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 2018, since 2005, nearly 2,000 Hazaras have been violently killed by long-term sects targeting the community.
Amidst sectarianism, violence and fear, football has become a beacon of hope for the community, especially for girls.
In the hot sun, wearing black scarves and shorts with black leggings can make them feel uneasy. In the town of Hazara in the Quetta enclave, people’s memories of life are still full of their own discomfort and trauma.
Rajab said: “We try to move on in our daily lives, visit friends and family, and participate in sports.” “But when the security situation deteriorates, we stay at home. Safety is our biggest concern.”
Taking safety into consideration, going to Karachi to participate in the game is not easy for the players or their families.
“Two years ago, I lost an uncle in a targeted attack. Mentally, I have always felt very upset.
For Ali, it is also difficult to convince her family.
Ali said: “My father said, if the men in our community cannot be safe, how can we expect women to be safe?”
But it was the team coach Saba It who managed to persuade his parents after months of numerous consultations and coaching.
“Our community is a victim of constant persecution and killing. A year before the game, I had to plan and start to convince their families.” said Saba, a former football player representing the University of Balochistan (Balochistan) .
She added that targeted killings have deprived the Hazaras of many opportunities that a safe environment can provide.
She said: “Trauma and fear are so common in everything we do and are deeply rooted in every decision in our lives.”
In January of this year, a group of ISIL fighters claimed to have attacked 11 coal miners in the Hazara community and kidnapped and killed them in Maher, Balochistan province.
Community members organized a sit-in protest and demanded justice. They insisted not to bury the dead until Prime Minister Imran Khan visited them.
When Prime Minister Khan first asked for extortion, he flinched and visited the families on January 9.
After the attack, Saba’s one-year struggle to convince parents to let the girls travel was hit hard.
“It was just a hard work to convince them again. After the attack, some parents flinched. The girls kept crying and crying,” she said.
Initially, Saba was committed to helping and empowering Hazara women, which prompted young girls to become interested in football and subsequently formed a team.
In 2017, she opened a handicraft and sewing workshop in the town of Hazara to provide accommodation for everyone, including young Hazara women who were killed in the attack.
Participants found the color photos of her playing in the studio, and the participants were very interested in it.
Rajab said: “We saw Saba’s picture of a football player, which fascinated us.”
Initially, Saba received informal football training. But it is not simple.
“We will go out before dawn, so no one will see our training. We train in an open field every week. At the time, we couldn’t afford suitable football.”
In less than a year, the ambitions grew. They want to form a suitable team, participate in regular football matches, and represent their community on a professional level.
With these wishes, Saba asked the Hazara Football Academy for permission to use their field.
At first, she was ridiculed. People questioned women’s participation in this sport. But perseverance paved the way for their approval.
“After constant requests, the academy allowed us to use their positions. We paid 15,000 Pakistani rupees [$98.5] Saba said: “Train once a month, three times a week.”
A 2018 report from Human Rights Watch described the living conditions of the Hazara community in Quetta, reflecting the prisons held due to violence. The terrifying environment is tricky in every generation of Hazara experience.
Human rights activist and advocate Jalila Haider (Jalila Haider) specifically targeted women, saying that “there is a double danger in society.”
“They were marginalized at first because they were women. Because they were from the Hazara community, their marginalization doubled.” Haider told Al Jazeera.
“Sexist social issues and the fear cycle of the community have further conquered Hazara women. They have been traumatized by the loss of uncles, brothers or fathers. In a turbulent environment, lack of professional skills and liberation, and be plagued by violence, make them Deeply traumatized.”
Saba and many girls in the convoy were also psychologically disturbed.
“Every Hazara family bleeds because of terrorism. The girls are always in a state of shock and worry.” Saba said. “Some players will continue to collapse. Sometimes, the pressure makes them faint.”
Saba faces the coach bravely, but sometimes, as a human, she falls into depression because of fear.
“Sometimes, I don’t know what to do. I am responsible for these young girls.”
“In the first two weeks, I cried a lot all night. People were very worried about safety.”
After returning to Quetta, Saba began to provide counseling to these families, aiming to free them from fear and let the girls play.
Saba said that these courses were organized with the headmaster of the girls’ school. Through a systematic approach, parents learned about the importance of football in their daughters’ life.
“I told them that these girls are troubled and need to go out. They need to play football and gain experience outside of confined spaces in order to feel better.” Saba added.
Ali said that in Karachi, changes in the environment have doubled her confidence.
“I am meeting with people from outside, I have learned a lot from other players, and the motivation they bring to the game. Spiritually, I feel that now I want to stand out in all levels of football games.” She Say.
40-year-old Ali Hunardost is the father of a player in the team. Unlike most families who don’t want their daughter to travel and entertain, Hunardost is eager to let her daughter move on.
“People are afraid of their lives, but I don’t think we should live too passively. Only when men and women have equal opportunities can we make progress.” said the father of five children.
Hunardost’s 20-year-old daughter has been playing football for two years.
“She is quiet in school, but always good at sports, so I encourage her to start football training. I want to support all her achievements. My other daughter does martial arts.”
Although there are checkpoints and security guarantees throughout the province, the violence and attacks on Hazaras in Balochistan continue. Haider believes that the situation is still unpredictable.
“We can’t predict whether the situation will improve. Sometimes, we feel relieved that nothing happened, and suddenly, something happened.
“Hazaras need to feel safe and investment in human capital is vital at all levels. We need empowerment and equal opportunities so that we can contribute to the country’s economy.” Haider said.
At the same time, Ali and Rajab are eager to pursue and play football internationally.
“Everyone is ambitious, and so are we. I’m sure if we can live in Karachi after so much hardship and lack of resources, imagine how we will excel if things become simple.”