When 12-year-old Ayesha Ayaz decided to organize a cricket match among girls from the Babuzai and Kabal tribes at the Charbagh Cricket Stadium in Swat, she probably didn’t think that this smallest of freedoms would lead to accusations of dishonouring some imaginary line in the sand drawn by a patriarchy that refuses to allow girls and women any form of sporting entertainment – or any entertainment at all. The initial euphoria among the girls must have been short-lived as they faced outraged clerics and other area residents – in all probability, mostly men – who strongly protested against the girls-only cricket match. The naysayers had argued that it was “immodest” for girls to play cricket. The chairperson of Charbagh Tehsil had cited “security concerns” for halting the match and had said that had the players informed them about the match they would have arranged the match in “a ground with boundary walls.” The Swat administration has said that the match will be held ‘soon’, once a ‘suitable location’ is found for the event.
There is nothing new in this kind of paternalism – where restrictions are somehow passed off under a veil of ‘safety’ for women. Sports in Pakistan has long remained the territory of men and boys. Women and girls who dare enter this field already face immense criticism, even from fellow players who often casually make inappropriate comments about their appearance. We are a country where a TV advertisement showing the act of a woman running draws the ire of newspaper columnists and social media personalities. Justifying such blatant sexism and discrimination as ‘cultural values’ does no service to either the region or its people. Traditions must be respected, but justifying basic acts of prejudice as ‘tradition’ needs to be called out for what it is: a convenient weapon that is wielded each time women demand the bare minimum of equality.
While this incident will soon be forgotten, let us not forget that there is a need to ensure that no territory in the country falls to regressive ideology. Ideally, such matches should be organized not by individuals but by the local authorities, allowing girls to express themselves more freely. While countries around the world invest in their athletes, we are insisting on lagging behind, depriving children of a chance at a life full of opportunities. We continue to fail half of our population, whether in their right to play a sport, their right to a public space without fear, or their right to just breathe without a constant refrain of ‘honour’ being thrown at them every step of their lives. Such toxicity can only foster misogyny and hatred. The only way out is for there to be an effort by state and government to ensure that the one-step-forward-two-steps-back path we’re on is countered with proper planning and will. Let our girls play.