ISLAMABAD: The remote Shimshal Valley, hidden in the far north and surrounded by the picturesque snow-capped mountains, is home to some of the country's most dedicated athletes who defy conventions to reach new heights.
Around 29 girls and young women from the valley walked for four hours along a dangerous path to play the highest altitude soccer game on the Zarthgurben field, Gulf News reported. The locals claim that Zarthgurben, located at 4,100 meters above sea level, is the "highest sports field in the world."
The mountain girls, between 11 and 22, conquered one of the most difficult tracks and breathing conditions, driven by the passion for football and the desire to demonstrate their skills to the world. “The best moment was to reach the top with the girls. I think we certainly made a national record by climbing the mountain to play football at a record height, ”said Sajina Mirza, 21, to the Emirati publication.
Around 29 young women walked for four hours to play a high altitude game in Zarthgurben
Most of the players, as well as Mirza, belong to Shimshal in the Hunza region of Gilgit-Baltistan, one of the last border villages with China. Shimshal is home to about 2,000 residents, including passionate women, such as Pakistan's first female mountaineer, Samina Baig.
The game was a small but crucial effort to show that women can compete in all fields, says Mirza, who plays as a striker. The football game, he says, demonstrates the dedication and resolution of the girls of the valley who strive to demonstrate their power, both on the soccer field and in the community.
The match was organized by Al Shams Women Football Club, a women's club founded by valley football fans, Azeem Baqir and his cousin Munawar Ali.
"The performance of the girls and the entire event was a great success … in fact beyond our expectations," says Baqir, 19, describing the details of the game held on July 22. "The goal behind the women's soccer game in the highest in the world The goal was to send a message of equality and peace from the most remote valley in the mountainous regions of Pakistan."
Baqir and Ali always believed in the power of sport to empower and develop communities, but it was in 2016 in Lahore that the two, along with Baqir's sister, Karishma Inayat, 21, decided to establish the women's soccer club.
"Our goal is to encourage girls to play football at the grassroots level by offering them the right training, equipment and equal opportunities," says Baqir.
All three were so passionate about the idea that, instead of waiting for funds, they went into their own pockets and received donations from friends and family to begin training.
Currently, about 20 girls are part of the Al Shams Club, where Ali, Baqir and Inayat, who have been in football since 2012, lead the practice. During the summer and winter camps, about 120 girls are trained in the Hunza, Shimshal and Sost areas.
How do people in the remote valley support the idea of girls playing football when it is not common in cities?
"The locals were a little apprehensive before … they thought the sport would waste their children's time, but they soon realized the benefits, such as obtaining scholarships based on the sport," Baqir explained.
According to Inayat, one of the main reasons why football is popular with girls in northern Pakistan is that “families and communities support girls to pursue their dreams. In addition, the people of Hunza are particularly more educated and enlightened. Most children attend school and university too if they can afford it. ” However, there are fewer opportunities to channel their passion, which is what the founders of Al Shams Club hope to offer them. "We are providing the valley girls with a platform to showcase their hidden talents," he said.
By sharing some of the challenges, Baqir says that the main problem they are currently facing is the lack of sponsors.
"I strongly believe in the power of football to create social change, but it is difficult to convince people," he said.
According to its founders, the Shimshal Valley football club has three main objectives: to empower women in the mountains, to create sporting opportunities for girls in Gilgit-Baltistan and to develop and promote talent in the region. Baqir is sure that the girl team he is training would produce world class players someday.
Inayat and his team also organized the first women's soccer league, the Gilgit-Baltistan Women's Soccer League, in 2017 and 2018 that received an encouraging response. “The valley is full of talent. However, we lack basic sports facilities, such as suitable grounds and equipment to polish the skills of young soccer stars, ”he said. "If these girls can perform so well on dusty and rocky terrain, imagine what they can achieve when they play nationally and internationally."
Posted on Dawn, September 8, 2019