How Madiha Is Standing Strong for Girls
A team of girls are chasing a football on the only field in their small town in Pakistan. Their coach, Madiha, 22, shouts encouragement as one of them snags the ball and dashes forward to score a goal. The girls cheer and run over to celebrate with Madiha.
The game is a rare chance for the girls to be out in public, celebrating and playing together. If it wasn’t for Madiha, this field and this team wouldn’t exist. But it wasn’t an easy road.
Madiha grew up in Thatta in Sindh province, one of the most conservative areas of Pakistan, where girls are strongly discouraged from pursuing life outside their homes. Madiha refused to let tradition tell her what she, or any other girl, could or couldn’t do.
“I never thought to play any sport as it was against the norms of our society. But when I started taking part in games, I felt more positive, and I became more confident.” - Madiha, 22, Coach
A Rising Star
Life in Thatta is difficult for a girl trying to forge her own path.
“I am part of a community where girls traditionally live lives defined by boundaries. Most of the girls from remote areas have no access to primary education. Girls are not allowed to go outside of the home unless there is a necessity,” Madiha says.
Growing up in this environment, Madiha was luckier than many. Her father encouraged her to go to school, where she was an excellent student, and he practiced football with her at home. Those practices sparked a love of the game. But, unlike boys, she didn’t have a chance to develop her skills outside the home.
When Madiha was in grade six, a Right To Play football program started up in Thatta.
“Initially I was reluctant to participate because girls playing sports was an unusual thing in our society. I never thought to play any sport as it was against the norms of our society. But when I started taking part in games, I felt more positive, and I became more confident.”
Madiha’s rise in the program was meteoric. Before long she was a Junior Leader working with other girls, and chairperson of the local Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) for the program. Her growing confidence on the field translated into more confidence in the classroom. In 2018, she became the first member of her family to go to university, in a community where many of the girls never complete primary education.
“I had always been good at studies, but somehow the elders in my family decided college is no place for a woman. Despite being good at school, I could not convince them otherwise. But being part of Right To Play activities made me realize who I am, and I was able to convince my father and then my mother to let me pursue my education. It’s a huge thing for someone coming from a family like mine. This is what Right To Play has given me: an identity of my own.”
“I was able to convince my father and then my grandmother to let me pursue my education. It’s a huge thing for someone coming from a family like mine.” - Madiha
Standing Strong in the Face of Threats
In 2019, Madiha was one of four ambassadors selected to go to Qatar for the FIFA Club World Cup, where she had the chance to meet other players from around the world and share her experiences with them.
When she returned, Madiha and the other YAC members decided to found their own sports teams to continue helping girls and boys build life skills. The YAC worked with the town’s professional football team to turn a field into a football pitch, and then started recruiting girls to the team. But it wasn’t easy.
“At the start, I only had three girls. I got a lot of negativity and pressure from people in the community, even within my own family. I was 20 years old at the time and people were starting to harass me. They were messaging me from unknown numbers inquiring about whether I’ll come to the ground that day,” she remembers.
“I realized people were watching me. Some people just walked up to me and threatened me outright to stop going to the ground and taking girls there. They said there was no need for girls to be involved in such things. I started feeling very unsafe. I had the support of male friends and the other ambassadors and coaches, so I continued going to the ground. I had in my mind that I must face this, otherwise people will be successful in scaring me back inside my home. I chose to ignore them and continue my work.”
“Our biggest challenge then was figuring out how to get girls on the football pitch safely and with parental buy-in. I went to their homes and convinced their parents that it’s not just about playing football, but rather the mental and physical benefits of participating in play,” she says.
“I had in my mind that I must face this, otherwise people will be successful in scaring me back inside my home. I chose to ignore them and continue my work.” Madiha
Helping Every Girl to Excel
Madiha’s courage paid off. Slowly, the threats and harassment died down, and parents began to support their daughters. There are now six girls’ teams with players between the ages of 12 and 22.
When Roshan Rastay, a new Right To Play program, launched in her community in 2021, Madiha joined back up to support it. Roshan Rastay uses sports and play to help out-of-school children go back to school and develop life skills like confidence. Madiha and her friends have already trained 50 new Junior Leaders and 12 head coaches since the launch of Roshan Rastay.
“Now my aim is to encourage more generations of amazing children. I need to empower every girl of my community. With the help of my friends, and if Allah wills, I shall lay down the foundation of the first girls’ football club in the history of Thatta. I want to be the first girl of Thatta who can make a girls’ football academy free for everyone,” she says.