Pakistani women take key first step in rugby sevens debut

AP News
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Posted: Feb 20, 2017 2:40 PM

ISLAMABAD (AP) — They won only once at the Asian Women's Rugby Sevens in Laos last weekend but for the Pakistan women it was a dream debut at an international event.

"That's a big deal that women are playing rugby," player Mehru Khan said. "And secondly, that we are getting a platform to come and perform to represent our country."

Men's cricket is the only sport to get recognition in this country of 200 million people. Religious and cultural barriers make it difficult for women to receive due encouragement to take up sports, more so for a contact sport like rugby.

But World Rugby's "Get into Rugby" program has in the last three years attracted 50,000 people, more than a third of them females, according to the Pakistan Rugby Union.

A year ago, when the union wanted to form a women's sevens team, it targeted school teachers and students and received a good response.

In the seven-team Asian Women's Rugby Sevens, Pakistan beat only Nepal. But it was a start.

"In Pakistan, opting for a sport like rugby, this is like out of the mould for our society," player Feiza Mahmood Mirza said.

"We are making change. We are the one(s) who are going to be the inspiration for other girls."

The sevens coach, Shakeel Ahmed, said they hope to draw 10,000 more females into the sport by 2019. To that end, the union has signed contracts with the Army, police, and schools in various cities to encourage participation.

"We are very keen to make a good woman rugby culture in Pakistan," she said.

Rugby was introduced to Pakistan in the 1920s by British expatriates and almost died out in the 80s as British influence waned. But locals and embassy workers revived the sport and started a league, and the union was founded in 2000.

Women still face hurdles to play sports, let alone rugby, such as discouraging families, and a lack of government funding for facilities.

But Mehru, who began playing rugby while she was studying in Canada, believed the sport could play a big role in empowering women in Pakistan.

"I hope women in Pakistan look to me and think, 'If she can do it, I can do it,'" Mehru said.

"I will go back and I will create a club in Lahore for girls. I will go to their houses and call them and play rugby because I don't want them to feel they are less than us, or than the boys, or anyone. They should come, and they should join, and they should have fun."