Illustration by May Moorwood

Last week, I railed against the gender pay gap in sports, alongside exploring the forceful machismo and chauvinism of our global footballing culture. An inertia of promotional and broadcasting content continues to create a sexist illusion of wide-scale apathy towards women’s football. Despite the fierce injustice behind every case of pay inequality, for millions of hopeful athletes, this is the least of their problems. In many patriarchal (and particularly rural) societies, barriers to playing football exist outside of monetary interests.

In Chitral, a mountainous region in the north of Pakistan, girls are rarely given the chance to play football. It is a staunchly conservative part of the world, where gender stereotyping is rife and where sport is generally a privilege enjoyed exclusively by boys. But attitudes are slowly changing, thanks largely to the work done by Chitral Women’s Sports Club, a team formed in 2018 with the aim of ‘breaking gender stereotypes in order to empower girls in their hometown through sport’. There are now 100 girls involved in the football camp, training and playing matches at 3500 metres above sea level. And those numbers are increasing year by year: in 2018 there were 60 girls, all of whom were encouraged to start playing by the club’s founder, Karishma Ali.

At just 21-years-old, Kashmira is a trailblazer, a role model for young girls across Pakistan. She was the first woman from Chitral to represent the country as a footballer at national and international level, having started playing at the age of 15. “In 2016, I got selected to represent Pakistan in the international Jubilee Games and saw a post on Facebook saying I was the only girl from Chitral playing football,” she told FIFA. “I was proud, of course, but it got me thinking that I shouldn’t be the only one when the population of women in Chitral is over 220,000.” Karishma set about changing that, offering a chance for girls to play football and to access the required facilities, for no cost. The aim, she says, is to “physically and mentally empower young girls, using sports as a tool”.

Those involved are often from underprivileged families, brought up under the assumption that they would never play football – or any other sport for that matter. “I grew up in a patriarchal society willing to do something different,” she said. “It was never acceptable for girls to play sport. A good girl was one who would get married early, never talk about her rights and stay in the kitchen. I wanted to bring a change for the girls and women back home who had a dream of doing something and becoming something more than just a housewife.” Karishma intends to provide better facilities and equipment, but for that Chitral Women’s Sports Club needs more funding. Progress is being made though, and awareness raised, with the target eventually of seeing some of the girls involved reach a professional level.

There has been opposition since Karishma founded the club, some of it vocal. “Last year, when I shared my idea with different people, they would usually make fun of me thinking that it was ridiculous to do something like that in Chitral,” she says. This ridicule turned into vile online threats of physical harm; but even that didn’t stop her. “I kept fighting for the young girls back home and I like to think that I’ve won. From being the only girl in Chitral playing football, I now have 100 taking part in the game at our sports club.” It was a decision that spoke not only for Ali’s ambition but also her bravery. It would have been understandable, after all, had she opted to keep a low profile given the sinister reaction to her sporting exploits.

Karishma has gone on undeterred despite the abuse, hopeful that her work at Chitral will play a part in the development of Pakistani society. “When we give equal opportunities for women as we do for men, I think it would definitely help boost the development process,” she adds. “These women are going to contribute to the economy, that’s what everybody needs to understand. I want to see more women in leadership positions. I want girls to have the freedom to choose whatever they want to pursue in life without their families worrying ‘what will people say’.”

There is hope, too, that Chitral Women’s Sports club can be a place of respite for the girls involved. Training sessions also act as a safe space, a place for the girls to talk openly and freely without fear of judgement. The suicide rate amongst young people in Chitral is high, and Karishma has emphasised the importance of mental health. It is about more than just sport. It is about allowing these girls to grow, to build their self-esteem and confidence, to provide a sense of freedom. Chitral Women’s Sports Club hope, eventually, to build a stadium and a training ground fit for professional sessions. “Nothing gives me more happiness and satisfaction than seeing my girls playing freely, laughing and walking around carefree,” Karishma told World Footy News. “I never believed in solo success. I believe I am successful when I make a positive difference in other people’s lives. I will keep working on improving the lives of my girls. And I hope I am able to inspire others to do the same.”

While Karishma’s struggle mirrors that of millions of girls worldwide, hers is certainly not a novel one. Since practically the beginning of professional football, pioneering women have been fighting for their rights to gender equality on the pitch.

In the 1920s, Lily Parr was perhaps the most celebrated footballer in England. At a time when women’s football had reached unprecedented levels of popularity, she was a star. Parr spent her illustrious career battling against deeply ingrained stereotypes, against the patronizing comments of men who refused to accept that women could play the sport. Yet she didn’t need words to make her point; her statements had been made on the pitch.

After impressing the Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. manager Alfred Frankland, she was asked to join the team. She accepted, moved to Preston, and embarked on one of the most prolific careers in sports history.

Parr rapidly became the heart of her new team, and quickly began to attract huge crowds. During one game at Goodison Park in Liverpool, 53,000 people filled the stadium – this remained a record attendance for the women’s game until 2012. In 1921, Parr scored five in a 9-1 win against a “best of Britain” team. A few months later, she scored all five in a 5-1 win over the French national side who’d been touring in England. Bobby Walker, a Scotland international, called her the “best natural timer of a football I have ever seen.”

The matches involving Dick, Kerr’s team were played for charity: by the end of the club’s 48-year existence, they’d raised £175,000.  Unsurprisingly, the FA saw things differently – they accused the club of using too much money on expenses and not donating enough to charity. At the same time, they made clear their view that football is quite unsuitable for females.

Despite the attitude of the FA, Dick, Kerr’s pressed on. So too did Parr, who continued to score an astonishing rate. But it wasn’t long before they were denied access to large venues. Public interest waned, and eventually, the club was taken over by English Electric who sacked some members of the team. Parr was one of them. She wasn’t deterred and simply moved on to Preston Ladies.

While playing for her new club, she worked at Whittingham Hospital. There she met her partner Mary. Parr was openly gay and refused to hide it, despite the brutal persecution at the time of those known to be in same-sex relationships. At Preston Ladies, Parr was equally prolific. She continued to play until 1950 when, aged 45, after scoring in an emphatic 11-1 win over Scotland, she retired. She had, according to most estimates scored, a career total of over 900 goals.

Lily Parr was a pioneer, a role model, a representative for female footballers across the country and the globe. But, in 1921, the FA sought to put an end to the growth of the women’s game. “Complaints have been made as to football being played by women”, read a statement released by the governing body. “The Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

Thus, the women’s game was effectively banned in England, stunting its progress for decades to come. Thankfully, this has begun to reverse in recent years. But gender-based discrimination still exists in sport the world over, particularly for those brave enough to want to play the Beautiful Game. Women like Lily Parr and Karishma Ali are clearly needed to change that. But that can’t be enough. Any time you hear a derisory comment about the women’s game, whether on the streets or in the stands, do your part in mending this vicious injustice and call it out for what it is – complete and utter ignorance.

Chris ONeil

Chris O'Neil is a columnist for the Blue. He's going into his second year at Brasenose College, studying History and Politics. With special interests in sports and pertinent socio-political issues, he'll be writing his column throughout the late summer and into Michaelmas Term 2020.