The first girl from her hometown of Chitral, Pakistan, to have played soccer at a national and international level was present at Los Angeles HQ Jamatkhana recently. REC students had the pleasure of meeting Karishma Ali, who had represented Pakistan at the Jubilee Games in Dubai, and were inspired by her journey and the contributions she had made for young girls in her community.
Karishma’s team, the Pakistan Shaheens, was the first women's team from Pakistan to participate in the Australian Football League’s International Cup. She also serves on the National Youth Council initiated by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. In addition to these accomplishments, she is also the first person from Chitral to be featured in Forbes Asia 30 Under 30.
Karishma spoke to the students about the many obstacles she had to overcome to become a female soccer player and to initiate the Chitral Women’s Sports Club in 2018. She said, “Chitral borders Afghanistan and Dir, which are very socially conservative areas. In Chitral, most girls are married and with children at the age of 16.” She found her passion to be a challenge, as there were no sports facilities for women, and there was a general condemnation of women playing sports.
Out of over 220,000 women in Chitral, and at the age of 12, Karishma was probably the first to play soccer. Supportive parents made her passion a reality. Her father had started the first English medium school in Chitral, and when members of the community began enrolling their sons in the school, he made it a rule that a son would only be enrolled if his sister was also enrolled in the school.
Despite this progressive approach, Karishma could play only with her father and had to wait until she went to school in Islamabad, where there were fewer restrictions on girls than in her hometown of Chitral. The first thing she did when arriving at the school was to check out the soccer pitch and tell the coach she wanted to play.
Girls who wanted to play soccer with her often had only one pair of shoes, which they wore to school, and had to borrow their brothers’ sports shoes to play. Undaunted, and wanting to share her love of the sport, Karishma became a trailblazer by starting the Chitral Women’s Sports Club, once she returned home in 2018. She says she wanted “to mentally and physically empower young girls by using sports as a tool.”
Her desire to encourage girls to play soccer led to some appreciation of her efforts but also a campaign against Karishma. She says she did not let the critics “break her spirit,” and told the REC students to “live a life of purpose. When you have a purpose, you can do whatever you put your mind to. I knew I needed to have a lot of determination and strength to bring a better future for my community.”
Karishma spoke to the LAHQ REC students about opportunities to volunteer in Chitral at the Sports Academy to expose the children of Chitral to other sports or teach them English and other skills that will enable them to succeed in the global economy. Many students were excited to learn of these opportunities and recognized that they take a lot for granted growing up in North America and look forward to opportunities to assist in less fortunate areas.
“When we give equal opportunities to women, as we do for men,” Karishma said, “I think it would definitely help boost the development process.” She believes sports can improve wellness as a form of exercise and managing depression. “I am successful when I make a difference in other people’s lives,” she said to the students.
Karishma was in the US as a guest of UC Berkeley’s Institute for South Asia Studies. The Institute for South Asia Studies partnered with Facebook to sponsor an event entitled, “Tell Her Story.” This initiative aims to gather and tell memorable stories about remarkable women from South Asia who fight against social injustice or who have made a significant impact in their communities. Karishma was one of the top five finalists and she explained how she had overcome the challenges of hailing from a patriarchal society in the rural areas of Chitral where women are discouraged from playing sports, to become a part of soccer clubs at the national level.
Karishma was also invited to “Development through Action: a Panel Discussion with three Social Activists from South Asia.” She was joined by Ayesha Chundrigar, the Founder and CEO of ACF Animal Rescue, the first-of-its-kind animal shelter in Pakistan, based in Karachi, for injured and ill stray animals such as dogs, cats, and working animals such as donkeys, horses, and camels. Bharti Singh Chauhan, founder of PraveenLata Sansthan, an organization that helps alleviate poverty by facilitating the empowerment of women and girls from poor and marginalized communities was also on the panel.
Karishma has expanded the club’s sports to include volleyball, and today boasts 60 female soccer players, 45 volleyball players, and 100 who attend her sports Camp. Her next project is planning sports facilities for people in Chitral. She is expanding her impact beyond sports to improve the inclusivity of special needs women who are marginalized. She is also enhancing the economic status of women in the community by providing them with sewing machines. and helping them sell handmade products globally.
“Although progress is slow,” Karishma says, she has “more supporters than detractors now, and there has been a great improvement. Government schools are also initiating Sports Week for girls, and I am pleased to be a part of this change.”
As a pioneer in advancing equality for women in Chitral, Karishma is an inspiration to girls everywhere, one girl, one ball, and one goal at a time.