Noreena Shams, a tennis start from Lower Dir
Noreena Shams, a tennis start from Lower Dir, KP.

KARACHI: For many, Noorena Shams is just an emerging sports woman from one of Pakistan’s underprivileged districts, Lower Dir, situated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But the story of her journey is not known to all.

The 21-year-old came under limelight in 2017 when she was invited to speak on women’s rights and education at the United Nations headquarters.

She is known for her skills in squash and has been receiving training at all levels with a dream to achieve big for Pakistan in the sport. “My goals are so big that they sometimes scare me when I think of them,” Shams said while talking to Geo.tv. “My aim is to go as high as I can in squash.”

But squash is not an end to her aspiration. Besides rackets and courts, Shams also has interest in automobiles. “I have a dream of becoming a Formula One car racer and an automobile engineer,” she said. “Thinking about achieving all these goals sometimes gives me with sleepless nights.”

She has grown up without a father in Timergara, an area in Lower Dir district, which was no less affected by terrorism and the subsequent war to eradicate the menace.Photo: Geo News

Shams’ goals on their own are a reflection of her determination and passion to grow beyond bounds, as her life since childhood has not been a smooth sailing.

She has grown up without a father in Timergara, an area in Lower Dir district, which was no less affected by terrorism and the subsequent war to eradicate the menace. However, Shams continued regardless.

While speaking about her journey, the 21-year-old said she was always passionate about sports. At the age of 10, she cycled her way out of the barriers in an area where women and girls were usually not allowed to step out.

She then went to participate as a cyclist in Junior Olympics. Shams has also played cricket, and even disguised as a boy — calling herself Noor-ul-Islam — to attend a boys’ cricket academy before picking up squash.

“I was repeatedly told I could only succeed if I studied hard and do what this society wanted me to do,” she said. “As an 11-year-old I could only open my books and do nothing else. But then, her area was hit by war closing down schools and confining locals to their houses.

She was sent to Peshawar for further studies but before that Shams played cricket with her brothers and security personnel in the area, which motivated her once again to pursue sports.

“I was sent to Peshawar for my education, as passionate as I could have been, I joined an all-boys cricket academy where I at first was told that I could not be as good as boys until I proved myself,” she recalled. She joined the academy as Noor-ul-Islam but that was not her idea.

 

“My coach who was a blessing for me at that time, gave me his name and declared me as his son in front of everyone. He cut my hair and made me dress like a boy to play in the under-15 boys cricket team of that time. It was no less than a dream for me,” she added, talking about her days as Noor-ul-Islam.

For many days Shams would practice cricket in tracksuit and run in scorching heat, but that did not last for longer. “Things changed and I couldn’t continue as Noor-ul-Islam. But I kept on participating in different sports at different levels as sports is something I can’t live without.”

And, after couple of years, she made a comeback as a squash player but only to face hurdles any other athlete face while starting a career.

“I didn’t have proper coach, I didn’t have enough finances, I didn’t get courts to practice,” she mentioned when asked the difficulties she faced as starter in squash.

“My passion kept me going. I would practice on any wall I could see, be it in the house, in school or outside my training academy,” she said.

It has been three years since then, Shams has got herself recognised and a place in Women Squash Ranking and has had the honour to be the first-ever female sportsperson from Malakand Division in the past century. “I have represented Pakistan at every possible international event I could have.”

This iron woman of Pakistan, as one may call her, feels that sports is something which can make one stronger and teach lessons that academics cannot.

“What always encourages me to pick sports over everything is that it gives me the unstoppable energy, which I never get when I am doing something else,” Shams said. “It gives me the confidence to be myself. It is that intense desire that I never had. It is the passion that speaks for me wherever I go. I can pick sports a thousand times over everything.”

Shams feels a lot is still needed to be done, at least for female athletes of country. She feels that opportunities for female aren’t as equal as they are for male athletes in Pakistan.

“To be very honest it is a big no,” she replied with I asked her if she’s satisfied with the opportunities being provided to female athletes.

“The daily wages is lesser for girls. The prize money is lesser for girls despite the fact that girls have to go through double of the hurdles than boys. Taking example of men’s cricket team and then women. Both the teams work day and night to represent the country but then men’s team have the privilege to have more projection,” she highlighted.

“If I tell you that I am the only girl who trains with her physical fitness coach in a stadium ground where the number of boys is no less than 300.

This do give me the sense of being equal but not every girl is confident enough to train among boys like that,” Shams added. According to her, the biggest hurdle female sportspersons in Pakistan face is that they have to show that they are empowered.

“She has to show that it is okay to be physically different than the perfect definition of being a girl and that’s not the only struggle a female athlete has to face in our society,” she said.

“The struggle of getting out of the box. The struggle of convincing the people that if her passion drags her to the roads at midnight for running because she does not get the tracks in day time that clearly does not have anything to do with her character.

If she is out of the house and is training with the authorities that does not give the people the ticket to harass her. If she is there despite all her struggles, the safety should be ensured,” Shams said about struggles female athletes face in Pakistan. And when asked how things can be improved, Shams identified equality as the answer.

As selfless person, Shams is also working to empower her colleagues. Currently, she is also supporting one of her juniors financially but when asked she refrained from sharing more details while respecting the privacy of her fellow athlete.

“I want to make sure that the problems I have faced or worst problems that many athletes face now will not exist in future,” she said when asked about her dreams.

The article originally appeared on geo.tv