Bisma Amjad plays cricket. She aspires to play internationally and was picked for Pakistan’s under-19 World Cup squad.
But when the pandemic came, because she was a woman, there was nowhere for her to practise, so she dressed as a man to play alongside male cricketers at “gully cricket” – the street game.
“Boys used to play gully-cricket even during the pandemic,” she says. “But the movement of girls was restricted, so we couldn’t play at all. I had no option than to dress like a man and practise with them,” says Amjad, 19, who has bowled at first-class and regional matches.
In traditional circles in Karachi, Amjad hears constant comments such as “your skin will turn darker” or “it is a boys’ game and you are wasting your time. Do a course that will help you after marriage.”
She says that many girls from conservative families or rural areas dress like boys so they can play cricket without being noticed.
“A friend of mine has chopped her hair off so she could go and play without being known as she is a girl,” says Amjad. “Women who play sport have to struggle a lot in our society.”
Amjad’s father supported her and drove her to matches but when he became ill she had to stop playing for a few months. “After my father recovered and I got his permission, I learned to ride a bike so I could commute on my own,” she says.
Cycling brought its own problems. “Men would say ‘look, look, she is riding a bike. She used to wear a headscarf, what happened to her?’” she says.
Fiddling with a cricket ball, she says: “I give my savings to my parents to show that I earn some money. I keep telling them, give me a few months more, I will prove it.”
They have now given her one year to break into the national team or else drop cricket.
Amjad was chosen forPakistan’s under-19 squad to play the World Cup in 2021, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic, and now she has to keep playing first-class cricket to have any hope of making the national team.
Cricket is the most widely played and watched sport in Pakistan. But not women’s cricket. Excitement is building for the start of the seventh season of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) for men’s cricket on 27 January.
The league hosts six teams from different parts of Pakistan and promotes cricket, helps male players earn a living and a place in the national team.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has yet to propose a time frame for the women’s league it had promised three years ago. Its chairman, Ramiz Raja, has confirmed that there will be one.
The news has delighted the Pakistan women’s cricket captain, Javeria Khan. “That is very welcoming since it would encourage more women to play cricket,” she says, adding: “Men have a lot of such tournaments where they can show their talents but women do not have such opportunities.
“Here, a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to prove her talent,” she says. “Gender discrimination exists all over the world, but in Asia, the issue is more rampant.”
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Khan says that when the PCB began work on the structure of women’s cricket, players started getting contracts. “When you see incentives in the profession, then you invest for it too. PCB has been doing talent-hunt programmes and sending teams all over the country.”
Khan considers herself lucky to have had support from her family despite coming from a rural area, Torghar, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She says: “My father took pride in me and he used to tell people in our village when my match would take place. They would listen to it on the radio.
“All families should support their daughters to play cricket and sports,” she says. “Culture is a huge hindrance but we can fight that with education.”
Asfa Hussain, 16, an emerging talent from Karachi, hid her cricket from her father. Her mother used to drop her off and pick her up from the cricket academy in secret.
“When he came to know about it, he became really upset. It was my mother who convinced him to give me a chance to prove myself,” Hussain says.
“The moment I got selected for an under-17 trial it made my father very proud. I am lucky to have my parents’ support and they bear my expenses. We are paid less by the regional teams and get no payment at club level.”
Hussain played for the club that won the Sindh province championship last year. She says: “The game is expensive. You have to take care of your diet, transport, the gym and also buy the best equipment if you are a batsman.
“The PCB has to give incentives to female players. Men’s cricket gets TV coverage, we don’t get that.
“When women’s cricket is shown on TV broadly, only then can we fight the stereotypes against it. We will start getting sponsors too,” she says.
Hussain played alongside the boys at her school and says the state has to invest in girls’ cricket at schools. Khan agrees, and says: “Our main issue is grassroots cricket and once we have hunted for talent from schools, these players can be nourished and trained.”
The PCB allocated 5.5% of its budget to women’s cricket and 19.3% to men’s international cricket in 2020.
In 2016 Bismah Maroof, a former Pakistan women’s cricket captain, raised the issue of the significant gender pay gap with the PCB after it emerged that the country’s male cricketers made the equivalent of nearly $77,000 a year, while their female counterparts made only $12,000.
However, the PCB refused to answer questions on pay and the development of women’s cricket when approached by the Guardian.
Najam Sethi, a former PCB chairman, says: “Even urban families are not inclined to send their daughters into professional sport, forget about rural areas. Now with school cricket dying out – [because of] land scarcity and expenses – prospects of women in sports are not good.”