Photo: Kashmir Ink
Rugby is suddenly all the rage among girls in Kashmir. Why?
It's noon on February 8. The winter sun, despite shining bright, is struggling to up the mercury at Gundun, a multi-sport facility near Rajbagh in Srinagar. A whistle blows and a row of girls emerge and start doing squats, undeterred by the chill. They are preparing for the upcoming national games in Gulmarg.
At the end of the exerting routine, the coach picks out 12 girls from the pack.
Their chosen sport? Rugby.
An ever growing number of girls in Kashmir is taking to this demanding sport, with the latest count at over 4,000. Irtiqa Ayub, 21, a student at the Women’s College in Srinagar is playing rugby since class 11. She explains why the sport is all the rage among the valley's girls. “I was playing 'girly' games like Kho-Kho and Vish-Amrit, and then I picked up football. It was in 2009 that I was introduced to rugby at my school in Kothi Bagh. I started out as an underdog but became a star when I scored better than the professionals. It is a new-age game. Curiosity and high blood rush attract girls to the sport. Cricket is lousy compared to rugby,” says the girl from Eidgah in downtown Srinagar.
It is an adrenaline rush, alright. The player's technique matters as much as her stamina to push through a wall of opponents towards the goalpost. It requires a heavy good dose of determination too, something these girls aren't short of.
Still, it has not been easy breaking the mould. Irtiqa’s neighbours went to her father, who works with the J&K Board of School Education, objecting to her playing a sport that could cause physical harm and even bring “disrepute”.
“This mentality was the first blockade. But rugby is in my blood. It is an addiction I cannot do without. In fact, I will marry someone who won't ask me to stop playing the sport,” says Irtiqa, whose performances at events in Gujarat, Mumbai, Nagpur and Orissa convinced her father she has made the right choice. Irtiqa, who is determined to pursue a sports career, has won two silver medals at national rugby events. Rugby is an integral part of her life now. Every Sunday, she leaves home early for the Gundun sports facility to train.
“This game requires weight and stamina to brave the tackles. Besides, one has to shun the idea of shame that the society has imposed upon us. This one is looking at us, that one is staring at us. But on the turf, we have to ignore all that and keep our focus on the game itself,” says Saiqa Bazaz, a masters student in Business Administration at Kashmir University.
Saiqa’s father, a businessman, is a pillar of support. “Had he objected, I would have had to give up the game. This game helps inculcate precious values like team work, hard work and hardcore discipline,” says Saiqa, who is playing the sport since 2007. She won a shield for her performance at an event in Mumbai in 2008.
The high-adrenaline game, in which the players are constantly on the move, dodging opponents to score a goal, has equipped the girls with a set of skills, too.
Tajamul Akhtar, 21, of Drass in Ladakh, has learned self-defence. “I am often teased for my looks and called ‘Bota’. This game gives me the confidence to give it back to those who jeer at me. Rugby indeed infuses you with energy and confidence; it requires mental toughness,” says Tajamul, who is playing rugby since 2013 and now coaches other girls.
A few years ago playing in Kerala, Tajamul cut her face and had to take four stitches. But she was back on the turf in the second half and scored for her team. “I have dream to start a sports coaching centre in Ladakh and promote this game there,” she adds.
Qainat Bhat, a hotel management student, braved multiple fractures in the face to stay in the sport. “Rugby is good way to channelise your frustration and anger. One slugs it out on shard turf and snow. Unfortunately, we don’t have all types of turfs available in Srinagar. I wish to play on all kinds of rugby turfs,” says Qainat, who has played in national competitions thrice since 2010.
To hone their techniques, these girls watch YouTube videos of ruby stars from New Zealand and Africa. “The game is unique. We also prove a point through the game. The notion that all games are meant for boys is premised on a social construction. We are challenging the same through the game. It’s a silent revolt. Lines like ‘what will they (girls) do’ need to blur,” says Sajidah Yousuf, 22, a Mass Communications student at Kashmir University.
Sajidah and her elder sister, Sauleh Yousuf, had to battle it out on a different turf to stay in the game. In 2008, Sauleh’s passport was withheld because her late father Muhammad Yousuf Sheikh had been an armed member of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. “What he was he was. Why should we be targeted for that. My sister would have missed playing rugby overseas if the passport had not been issued eventually,” recalls Sajidah.
According to J&K rugby coach Irfan Aziz Botta, “over 4,000 sportswomen playing rugby are registered with the state sports council”, an indication of how the sport is fast gaining popularity among the young women, and men, in the valley. “A total of 17,000 youth are playing the game in the state, leaving behind traditional sports such as kho-kho,” Irfan adds.
Irfan remembers introducing the game in 2004 with just eight boys slugging it out on a hard surface. In just 13 years, rugby has become nearly as popular as most traditional sports played in Kashmir.
“The first batch of female rugby players was from Linton Hall School. Today, we have players registered from 180 schools, 44 colleges, 83 clubs, besides two medical colleges,” says Irfan.
Irfan believes the game gives a chance to Kashmiri women to take their courage to a new level. Besides normal rugby, girls are passionate about snow rugby. “It requires stamina to play in freezing temperature and on a snowy surface. They enjoy it,” he adds.
The longer format of the rugby is for 90 minutes, while the 7s, the sport twenty20 version, lasts only 14 minutes. It’s played on beach, sand, hard surface, snow.
The growing interest of girls in the sport is forcing the State Sports Council to wake up to changing realities. “We want to make sports all inclusive, with equal care and opportunity irrespective of gender. We are in the process of hiring female coaches to train girls in water sports,” says Waheed ur Rehman Parra, the council's secretary.
Not just that, the Sports Council must also stay away from appropriating the achievers and encourage talent to flourish. Any attempt to politicise will only limit the expression of the sportspersons, especially the girls of this conflict-ridden state.
Photo: Kashmir Ink