Religion, politics and women’s cricket in Pakistan

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

When the Pakistan men’s cricket team beat archival India for the first time in a World Cup match last October, it was the cause for national celebration, a victory that unified a nation otherwise marked by political, religious and ethnic polarization.

However, this love of cricket is weakening and passion gives way to controversy when it comes to women’s cricket. Here are bareheaded, athletic, confident women, throwing, running, having fun outside the restrictions of traditional shalwar kameez costume and outside the strict religious requirements of society.

“Whenever a young girl dreams of becoming a cricketer and playing for Pakistan, the most serious issue she/her family has to deal with is gender and religion,” former player says of cricket who asked to remain anonymous, with “institutional apathy”. of secondary importance. “We want to change that to more effectively remove that stigma,” she added, to minimize social resistance and increase institutional support “to ensure that the progress we’ve made so far continues to build.” progress”.

Behind the existence of women’s teams lie broader structural issues and forces at play. Two sisters, Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, introduced the sport in 1996, although the creation of a women’s team was considered illegal and has been the subject of legal proceedings and even death threats. The government denied them permission to play in India in 1997 and decreed that women were banned from playing sports in public. Nevertheless, they prevailed.

Can women play cricket (or any other game per se) without violating religious sanctions regarding the hijab, the Islamic head covering? This is a key issue facing major Islamic countries when it comes to women’s participation in the games. Pakistan is no exception, where religion is deeply embedded in the body politic and where, according to the former cricketer, women “have to wrestle with this issue at personal, family and social levels – not just to convince themselves that playing cricket is not sacrilege”. or haram, but you have to deal with a lot of issues where people think – and really believe – that cricket is for men only.

That cricket is heavily gendered in Pakistan – which is also linked to religion – is also evident from the fact that matches involving women’s teams never arouse passion on a social level, even when it comes to a win, although that some liberal factions don’t just support women’s teams. cricket but require more investment to bring Pakistan women’s team on par with other countries.

For example, even though the Pakistani men’s cricket league, the Pakistani Super League (PSL), is now world-famous, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has yet to announce a schedule for a women’s league that it promised it would. three years ago.

But the very news of the women’s league was nothing short of a delight for women. As Javeria Khan, captain of the Pakistan women’s team, told the media after news of the women’s league broke, “it’s very encouraging because it would encourage more women to play cricket,” adding that “men have a lot of such tournaments where they can show their talents, but women don’t have such opportunities… Here a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to prove her talent,” she says “Sex discrimination exists all over the world, but in Asia the problem is more widespread.”

Javeria Khan goes for a century

But institutional apathy is still evident. In 2020, the PCB allocated only 5.5% of its budget to women’s cricket compared to 19.3% for the men’s team. This unbalanced allocation means more established structures and resources for men compared to women and a lot more money for men.

But in Pakistan, with gender more directly steeped in religion, the barrier female cricketers have to cross is twofold. On the one hand, the largely patriarchal structure of society tends to limit the range of career options available to women, and on the other hand, the narrow and gendered interpretation of religion tends to reinforce the divide very significantly. , merging and hijab in one question.

According to an Islamabad-based cleric who runs a madrassah in the capital and sees the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan as a glimpse of the revival of Sharia, “no Islamic society can ever allow such support which violates the fundamental tenets of hijab like prescribed in the Sharia”, adding that women in Islam have “a specific role”, that is to say “the management of the house”.

Yet an all-female team exists that, given institutional apathy, gendered perspectives, and religious sanctions, is nothing short of a paradox.

It is a paradox that can only be explained with reference to the larger paradox of Pakistani society itself. Although it is an openly religious society, we can find many instances where religious orthodoxy is systematically fought and challenged. Women’s cricket is therefore partly a state of exception, partly born out of feminist/feminist movements that have flourished since the 1980s, led by organizations like Women Action Forum (WAF), which was established in 1981 in Karachi to resist to the military dictator Zia. -ul-Haq’s Islamization program – which was more about giving religious cover to his illegitimate rule – by seeking to establish an extreme version of Islamic laws to make Pakistan a veritable religious stronghold.

This tradition of feminist resistance has continued over the years through numerous organizations and NGOs. More recently, the annual Aurat (Women’s March) march has become an annual festival of feminist debate in Pakistan with liberals and conservatives clashing on social and digital media, with protests and rallies held across the country to debate the feminist question. and breaking the chains of patriarchy and religious orthodoxy.

The lengthy manifesto released by the organizers of the Aurat 2022 march – and its main demands – manifests a broad movement seeking structural change away from traditions and patriarchal systems rooted in religion. For religious conservatives, Aurat March is just “one more slogan that seeks to westernize Pakistan”, the cleric added.

But the cricketers concerned have a diametrically opposite perspective. “Aurat March has become a symbol of resistance that almost all female cricketers also face from society, while reflecting how female cricketers themselves are resisting this resistance,” the former said. cricketer. “Resistance is at the heart of our existence as a support and our whole experience as cricketers and that’s why we’ve managed to carve out a space for ourselves that is slowly – but surely – expanding to our advantage. “

The PCB recently implemented a parental support policy that grants female cricketers 12 months of paid leave. Much like men’s cricket, there is now wide acceptance of women’s cricket as a lucrative profession. Although the women’s team receives fewer sponsors and relatively less funding is available or less is allocated, female cricketers are now offered suitable contracts like their male counterparts, and better training and accommodation facilities are available.

“I would say it has a lot to do with the pressure to change societal norms that movements like Aurat March generate. I am taking part in this march myself,” added the cricketer.

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