They might have won only one match at the Asian Women’s Rugby Sevens in Laos on the weekend, but for the Pakistan team which formed only a year ago it was a dream debut at an international event.
“For everyone it’s a huge deal that the women are playing rugby,” said Pakistan player Mehru Khan. “First, that’s a big deal that women are playing rugby. And secondly that we are getting a platform to come and perform to represent our country.”
In a country of more than 200 million people, where women are believed to be half of the population, only men’s cricket gets recognition. Cultural barriers make it difficult for sportswomen to get due encouragement to take up either team or individual sport especially contact sports like rugby.
When last year Pakistan tried to form its women’s team, Pakistan rugby officials encouraged school teachers and students, and they received a good response.
“In Pakistan, opting for a sport like rugby, this is like out of the mould for our society,” said Feiza Mahmood Mirza.
“So we are here, because I think we are making change. We are the ones who are going to be the inspiration for other girls,” Mirza added.
Pakistan finished above Nepal, its only win, in the seven-team competition, which also featured winners South Korea, India, Malaysia, Philippines and Laos. The team also lost to India with a 0-5 score.
The Pakistan Rugby Union has trained more than 50,000 players since World Rugby’s “Get into Rugby” programme began in the country three years ago. More than a third of them are women and girls.
“We are very keen to make a good woman rugby culture in Pakistan,” said coach Shakeel Ahmed.
“So we have a contract with different departments, as women’s teams: we have a contract with the Pakistan Army, we have a contract with police. We have contracts with different schools, in different cities. So until 2019 we will teach more than 10,000 girls how to play rugby,” Ahmed added.
Many players believe there are still cultural hurdles for girls to take up sports, such as families discouraging them or a lack of government funding to establish sports facilities.
Khan, who had studied in Canada where she discovered rugby, believes the sport could play a major role in women’s empowerment in Pakistan.
“I hope women in Pakistan look towards me and think if she can do it, I can do it,” she said.
“I will go back and I will create a club in Lahore for girls. I will go to their houses and call them and play rugby because I don’t want them to feel they are less than us or than the boys or anyone. They should come and they should join and they should have fun.”