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Published:November 24th, 2009 11:26 EST
Hijab and Playing Rugby In Kashmir

Hijab and Playing Rugby In Kashmir

By SOP newswire2

"I feel I am doing something great... This challenge has been the best experience of my life," says Saliah Yusuf, 18, a Class 12 student in Srinagar.  

Saliah, who recently captained the national rugby team, has earned a rare honour: She is one of the two Kashmiri girls to qualify for the first phase of an International Rugby Board course. Saba Akhtar, 17, is the other qualifier. The two will be travelling to Pune for the 10-day course to be conducted by officials from the Ireland-based rugby board. Saliah is also scheduled to attend another training to become a Rugby Development Officer, after which, she would be able to coach budding players and earn emoluments worth Rs 4,000 - Rs 5,000 per month (US$1=Rs 46.5) paid by the Indian Rugby Association. 

In a state torn by violence for the past two decades, an entire generation has missed out on normal life. Women have been the worse victims of the violence and the diktat of terror groups. 

Given this scenario, it is nothing less than amazing that there are 450 registered rugby women players across Kashmir since 2004, when the sport was first introduced to women here. Many families and schools now encourage their female wards to take up the game and some aspirants are seriously thinking of making it a career.  

"In traditional Kashmiri society, a career in sports and that too for a girl is still a distant dream. That my family is allowing me to play outside the state is a big thing," acknowledges Sajida Yusuf, Saliah`s younger sister, who studies in Class 9 at Linton Hall School, Srinagar. Both sisters, however, give credit to their mother - a widow - for encouraging them to play rugby. 

"My mom says, `You are my sons, go and face the world`. She takes care of our diet chart. Since it is a physical game that needs strength and agility, the diet has to be a balanced mixture of proteins and carbohydrates. Fatty food is totally prohibited," informs Sajida. She adds, "Rugby means strength, stamina, mental sharpness and agility. A player cannot afford a size zero figure."  

Today, it`s not out of the ordinary to see young Kashmiri women dressed in T-shirts and track pants - some even sporting their `hijab` (head scarf worn by Muslim women) - jostling with each other on the sports field. "We don`t wish to lag behind in any area dominated by boys. We wish to outshine the boys," says Aqsa Mustaq, 16, a trainee from Srinagar. 

Such is the passion for this sport that in the Yusuf household rugby is like religion. The two sisters follow a strict regimen and devote an hour every day for the game in school, and at home on holidays. They also attend the practice organised by the Kashmir Rugby Association at the famed Polo Grounds every Sunday. "At the National Rugby Championship, we played against the top teams in India and performed well. We have to work hard. More coaching camps will improve our performance, which will fetch Kashmiri girls berths on the Indian team," feels Saliah. 

Saliah, however, has proved her mettle as she was among the 26 girls from all over India to qualify for the rugby national camp in Mumbai recently. But while Saliah has her sister to give her company in pursuing their passion, Rutba Amin, 18, was a torch bearer of sorts - being the only girl in her family to ever play any kind of sport. Ecstatic about their daughter`s potential on the field - Rutba has been playing rugby for the past three years and badminton prior to that - the Amins agreed to send their daughter to the outstation national camp in Mumbai for two weeks earlier this year. 

"Girls are excelling in various fields and there is no reason why we should not participate in games like rugby," says Rutba. "My parents have no objection in my playing. They support me and I hope I will do better and play at state or national level," pipes up Qurat-ul-ain, who is studying medicine.  

Despite knowing that rugby is likely to make them prone to injuries, the young girls are adamant about making the game their future. Not surprisingly, most of the players now wish to take up rugby as a full-fledged career instead of playing it as just another sport. Initially, these girls played with the oval rugby ball just to chill out with friends but now they play for a host of reasons. For some, it`s their way of cocking a snook at a male-dominated society; for others, it offers a chance to travel; and for a few it`s the thrill of meeting new people. 

"A few years ago, when the game was introduced in Kashmir among boys, we never dreamt that it would become so popular among girls... Rugby is genetically suited to Kashmiris," says Sarmand Hafez, Joint Director Tourism and a promoter of the sport. 

However, the Yusuf sisters, Rutba Amin and others are lucky to have family support. Others are not so fortunate. Salma Akhtar, 17, (name changed) is an excellent rugby player but despite being selected to play in the nationals she was unable to participate because her parents did not want to send her outside Kashmir for the matches. "My coach says I am a talented player but my parents think that rugby is only for men. I fail to devote adequate time to the game. Despite their objections, though, I do play local matches," she declares. 

The Rugby Association of Kashmir is also doing everything possible to polish the skills of its players for which it has hired an American coach, Gregory Bruce. Scores of players, including women of all age groups, have received essential tips from Bruce, who has played for the Boston Irish club in the US. 

Mohamed Iqbal, a former national rugby player, who has been appointed as Rugby Development Officer of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian Rugby Association has trained about 350 Kashmiri girls. He says that a majority of the female players come from educated, affluent families. Admitting that training women players isn`t always easy for a male coach, he recalls, "In the beginning, we had lots of problems. Most families didn`t want their daughters to play rugby fearing they would hurt their teeth or break bones and then nobody would marry them. We promoted the game in the local schools. We kept in touch with parents to try to convince them there was nothing wrong with rugby and when the parents were convinced of their wards` safety they began sending them for coaching camps and tournaments too." 

Iqbal`s task has been made easier by the fact that all the girls are enthusiastic and genuinely interested. "They are eager to learn. ...Sometimes difficulties do creep in and for that we need female supervisors while coaching," he says. Efforts are on to get a female coach at the earliest. Saliah and Saba have already been accredited to the Indian Rugby Association and could be possible coaches. 

The popularity of rugby among girls can be gauged from the number of matches and tournaments being hosted in the state. Over 10 teams from various schools in Jammu and Kashmir participated in the recently-conducted girls Rugby State Championships, played at the sub-junior, junior, under-20 and senior levels. The Kashmir Rugby Association is also working towards an exchange programme with New Zealand and the US. 

All this portents well for many young women who have defied tradition and even  family pressures to excel on the rugby fields of Kashmir.  

(©  Women`s Feature Service) 

Source:  Prakriiti Gupta