Professional squash player, cyclist, cricketer and sports activist
Noreena Shams, hailing from Timergara, Lower Dir District, is a professional squash player, cyclist and a cricketer who has fought against all odds to follow her passion. Currently ranked at 234 in world ranking, Noorena Shams, at just 22 years of age, is the youngest member of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Sports Management Committee.
Shams works against harassment in sports and against harassment of female Muslim athletes around the world. She has spoken at the Human Rights Council of the United Nations about issues of harassment in sports. She has been listed among 24 inspirational figures of Pakistan by the United Nations Development Programme in 2016 and is the first female athlete from Pakistan to have spoken at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women regarding women’s economic empowerment.
From breaking barriers to beating opponents in the squash court, Hilal for Her, talks to Noreena Shams about her journey, career and aspirations.
You have grown up without a father in an area massively affected by terrorism, so who has been your mentor in this journey?
It is hard to point out a single person because there have been different people guiding me through different phases of my life. If I explain it metaphorically, my troubles, struggles and all the hardships I have endured have been my mentors. My circumstances brought me closer to the people who guided me through it all. My mother, my elder sisters, in fact my entire family has been a phenomenal support in whatever I have done or achieved.
What triggered that idea of you disguising as a boy, Noor ul Islam, to play cricket?
Honestly, it was not my idea, it was my coach who came up with this solution because in our area it was not found societally acceptable for women to be playing sports. I jumped at the idea because I was very young and just wanted to play a sport that I really loved. I was a teenager, hardly fourteen or fifteen years old. I had absolutely no idea how big Peshawar was or where Qayyum Stadium was. While looking for a proper cricket academy, I stumbled upon a local one, which unfortunately had no girls’ facility. Upon requesting a few times, I was finally given a chance to prove myself and to their utter surprise, I was better than their expectations. I would really like to thank my cousins for that. The only reason behind my acceptance for the disguise was my sheer passion for the game. I knew a few other girls who had done a similar thing; my own cousin went to an all-boys school for approximately six years in Bajaur Agency, due to the absence of a girls’ school. She, however, did not disguise, maybe because her father was alive and around to protect her. Unfortunately, I did not have that signiﬁcant male presence in my life and hence, pretending to be the opposite gender was a safer option for me. I know a mother in my hometown who had to lie about her daughter’s gender just because she had to leave her alone at home. I believe what led me to grasp the idea of disguising as a boy to fulfil my dream is the unfortunate mindset that is imbued in our society regarding genders.
Although, such stories may sound fascinating to the readers, but the ugly truth is that talented girls have been sidelined due to these societal restraints. If we let them live the way they want to and support them in their aims and ambitions, we as a country can definitely start winning.
Before picking up squash, you were also a participant in Junior Olympics as a cyclist. What drives your passion to be a go-getter at everything?
I would say my curiosity is the driving force behind this; it motivates me to try something new all the time. I would not say I am a go-getter at everything, but I put my heart into everything that I choose to do whether it is a very small project or something massive. Anything done with passion becomes great.
What difficulties did you face while breaking the glass ceiling and how did you overcome them?
When my father died, my family went through a severe ﬁnancial crisis, since the breadwinner of our family had just died. I remember writing an application for scholarship in my amateur English, at the age of 11. Due to the military operations in the region, the situation got further out of hand for my family. They sent me to Peshawar to continue my studies. I had to hide from my mother my involvement in sports for more than six years because she wanted me to focus solely on my education. She obviously could not afford anything like sports at such a crucial phase of our life. All my sports gear I used to have was given either by my friend’s father or some other sports enthusiast. Fortunately, I have had some teachers and some of my father’s friends who paid my college fee when my mother could not. I started earning at a young age of fifteen or sixteen to mitigate my expenditures. I faced all those problems, which few other girls of my age face. Whenever, someone from my community would see me on social media, they would call my mother and label me as a ‘shame’ for the community. I have fought a lot to stand where I am today. I am glad my family eventually understood and accepted my passion for sports.
There were ﬁnancial problems, coupled with discrimination and many other factors that certainly pushed me to quit but I did not. I am really not sure why or how, but I am glad I did not quit. They say, with time troubles take shape of storms, and I have certainly been surrounded by them. Even now, when the world around me seems to have ‘modernized’, I still face gender discrimination. I am sometimes not included in trials, not given access to certain courts to practice in, my sponsors get mails and letters to stop sponsoring me, journalists are asked to write negatively about me, and the list of goes on. But now, I am least bothered by this; I am more focused on my dreams and ambitions.
Today, when I walk inside the stadium, every other person greets me for my struggle for the rights of athletes. I feel elated that I have done something constructive than to merely exist. Undoubtedly, the troubles were a blessing in disguise and they made me who I am today.
Do you believe that the male athletes in our country are privileged and have signiﬁcantly more opportunities and exposure than their female counterparts?
I would agree to that. Not only in case of competition, but otherwise as well. The lack of infrastructure to support training is one of the biggest impediments for us females. There is a lack of proper planning for females, infact I would say all the athletes. It seems sometimes, that we sportswomen are completely on our own. We are our own coaches, nutritionists, and even mental health counselors, with financial/sponsorship problems being the cherry on top. Most of the female athletes, come from conventional backgrounds and hence they give up early due to the cultural or social constraints. I recall how I had to train among 300 men at Qayyum Stadium for my ﬁtness program because disappointingly, the quality of coaching for males was better than that for women. I was the only female athlete who played squash and wanted to avail the opportunity, even if it meant being the only female training among all the men.
How do you keep yourself calm under pressure in competitions? Did you ever wish to quit sports?
I would say yes to that because I did actually give it a thought six years ago. But now the dynamics have changed. God has blessed me with an amazing support system in the form of my family and my coaches who have made me strong enough not to even consider the option of quitting. What makes me mentally strong is my will to think of all the plausible reasons that keep me going no matter what life throws at me. Most significant of these reasons is my passion for sports, which has been the driving force since day one. Also, people who give voice to my struggle and opinions are one of the reasons I continue to strive for my passion.
What in your opinion needs to be done to have more girls take up squash in Pakistan and bring back its glory days?
I personally think that the government should include physical education as a mandatory subject in schools. Squash courts take up the space of a small corner room in schools. If we start building squash courts in schools, it will automatically create an interest in the students to take up the game. The other way to do that is to introduce female sports legends in curriculum for awareness. I have always been vocal about this lack of awareness about female athletes. I was not aware of Sana Mir or Maria Toor primarily because I was never told anything about them. It has always been stories about the male players, if we ever were told about any. If we narrate stories of how Carla Khan went on to win and achieve such international popularity by playing in Peshawar only, then more and more girls will be motivated to play. Currently, we have at least 110 international squash players from Pakistan, out of which 38 are female but unfortunately no one knows about them. I think the media can play a pivotal role in highlighting this matter. I strongly believe that once these ideas are implemented, we will have more aspiring sportswomen in Pakistan.
My message to anyone who is reading this interview is to live your life as you wish to and to own your individuality. Live and let people live. Have a passion and work for it because if you do not, you would regret it later on in your life.
What are your goals and aspirations in life?
To be amazing at whatever I do and most importantly to be a good human being. HH
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