“Soccer can help build that self-confidence on the field, which enables them to go out into the world and break other gender stereotypes that girls in Pakistan face.”
Behind concrete walls that span several feet high in the bustling streets of Karachi, Pakistan, Mashal Hussain stands on the side of the soccer field, looking on at the group of girls playing.
The girls are laughing and smiling, dripping in sweat from running around in the hot and humid conditions.
It’s clear Hussain is fully invested in these young athletes. She yells from the sidelines, encouraging them to play harder and faster. But each order is given with a sense of tenderness. Hussain loves these girls, and it’s quite possible that they wouldn’t even be playing soccer if it weren’t for her.
In 2010, she founded the girls' soccer league at Karachi United. Unlike many people who go into coaching a sport they grew up playing, Hussain’s first sport was basketball. It wasn’t until college that she began developing a passion for soccer.
“I started playing soccer when I was in Montreal,” she says. “My friend was the captain of the men’s varsity team at McGill University, and at the time I was working as a sports therapist. I was helping him rehabilitate to get back on the pitch.”
She spent the entire summer with him and his family, who were avid soccer fans, and learned the ins-and-outs of the game. When she returned to Karachi to visit her family, her sister had just begun playing on a girls’ soccer team — the only girls’ team in a city of 21 million people.
Hussain went back to Montreal to finish her degree, and when she returned to Karachi, she realized opportunities for girls to play soccer hadn’t improved.
“Things were still the same, and there was still only one girl’s soccer team,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Karachi United
Hussain wanted to change that. She also realized that she had a unique experience when it came to sports: Hussain’s parents encouraged her and her sister to stay active and provided them opportunities to play.
That is not the reality for a majority of Pakistani girls.
“There’s a lot of cultural challenges that girls face when it comes to playing sports in general in [Pakistan],” she says. “I understood that I couldn’t just create a girls program and expect that they’d be able to come.”
With the help of two friends, Hussain approached Karachi United, the largest soccer club in Karachi. “When we approached them we said, ‘We want to start a women’s division.’ And they asked us, ‘How is that going to work?’” she said of their initial meeting with the club.
Reaching girls would be challenging. Instead of the traditional marketing initiatives used to reach people like advertising on Facebook, Hussain recognized that it would take more grassroots efforts.
First, they held a summer camp for girls under 10 years of age — the first one ever held in Karachi. According to Hussain, this initiative has proven to be one of their most popular programs, serving as a pipeline for future female players to compete on the KU Women’s Team.
Then, the women had to address another systematic hurdle many girls in Pakistan face: lack of access to transportation.
According to Sana Mahmud, a project officer with Right to Play Pakistan, and former captain of the Pakistan Women’s National Soccer Team, parents have fears about allowing their daughters to travel alone because of concerns about potential sexual harassment and violence.
“This means that a parent will have to travel with their daughter to and from practice, which adds cost,” says Mahmud. In fact, the cost of transporting girls to sports programs in Pakistan is about three times the cost of boys, according to Right to Play. This added cost takes into account different factors such as added bus fare or having to miss work to take girls to practice or matches.
To help circumvent the transportation issue, Hussain started Karachi United Women’s programs in grade schools. While this helped create access, however, there were still other cultural issues that she needed to address.
There are negative physical connotations for girls playing sports in Pakistan, like getting too muscular. But an even more sensitive issue is the fear of girls getting tan skin from playing outside. Because having fair to light skin is coveted in many parts of Pakistan, if girls get tan parents worry their daughters will be less desirable for marriage.
“In Pakistan, in many households, girls are still seen as assets,” Hussain says. “Having darker skin could mean the girl won’t marry well.”
To help get parental buy-in, Hussain holds parental workshops. The parents are not only invited to see the girls play soccer, but to also play with them. She says that once the parents experience the joys of playing with their daughters, they begin to see the positive impact sports can have in girls’ lives.
Since launching the girls' program in 2010, Karachi United Women now has 20 teams. As a result, Hussain has witnessed the girls in her program grow into bold and courageous young women.
“There’s a huge benefit to offer girls the chance to be physical for health reasons,” she says. “But one of the greatest things we’re doing is breaking the stereotype that girls shouldn’t have self-confidence. Soccer can help build that self-confidence on the field, which enables them to go out into the world and break other gender stereotypes that girls in Pakistan face.”
More importantly for Hussain, she believes just by parents giving girls the choice to play soccer or sports in general, they’re empowering their daughters in unimaginable ways.
“It’s an assumed thing that girls don’t have a choice [in Pakistan]. She has to get permission to play or to do anything,” she says. “But when they give girls that choice, they, in turn, give girls the ability to be their own person and to have self-agency.”
Hussain smiles and looks back towards the field as the girls continue to play. “I mean, look at just how happy they are.”