Religion, Politics and Women's Cricket in Pakistan
It's International Women's Month
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
When the Pakistan men’s cricket team beat their archival India for the first time in a World Cup match last October, it was cause for a national celebration, a victory that unified a nation otherwise marred by political, religious, and ethnic polarization.
Yet this love for cricket becomes fragile and passion gives way to controversy when it comes to women’s cricket. Here are bareheaded, athletic, confident women, throwing, running, having a fine time well outside the strictures of the traditional shalwar kameez costume and outside the strict religious demands of society.
“Whenever a young girl dreams of becoming a cricketer and playing for Pakistan, the most serious question she/her family has to face is that of gender and religion,” said a woman former cricketer who asked to remain nameless, with “institutional apathy” of secondary importance. “We want to change that to remove this stigma more effectively,” she added, to minimize social resistance and increase institutional support “to make sure that the progress we have so far keeps progressing.”
Behind the existence of women’s teams are broader structural questions 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 was met with court cases and even death threats. The government refused them permission to play India in 1997 and ruled that women were forbidden from playing sports in public. Nonetheless, they prevailed.
Can women play cricket (or any other game per se) without violating religious sanctions about the hijab, the Islamic head covering? That is a key question that major Islamic countries face when it comes to women’s participation in games. Pakistan is no exception, where religion is deeply embedded in the body politic and where, according to the former cricketer, women “have to grapple with this question at personal, family and social levels – not only to convince themselves that playing cricket is not sacrilegious or haram, but you have to face numerous questions where people think – and really believe – that cricket is just for men.”
That cricket is highly gendered in Pakistan – which is tied to religion as well – is also evident from the fact that matches involving women’s teams never arouse passion at a social level, even when it involves a victory, although some liberal factions not only support women’s cricket but demand more investment to bring Pakistan’s women’s team at par with other countries.
For instance, even though the Pakistan men’s cricket league, Pakistan Super League (PSL), is now world renowned, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is yet to announce a time frame for a women’s league it had promised three years ago.
But the very news of a proposed women’s league was nothing short of a delight for women. As Javeria Khan, captain of Pakistan women’s team, told media after the news of a women’s league came out, “That is very welcoming since 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 do not have such opportunities … Here, a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to prove her talent,” she says. “Gender discrimination exists all over the world, but in Asia, the issue is more rampant.”
But institutional apathy is still evident. In 2020, the PCB allocated only 5.5 percent of its budget for women’s cricket as compared to 19.3 percent for the men’s team. This lopsided allocation means more established structures and resources for men as compared to women and far more money for men.
But in Pakistan, with the gender issue more directly infused with religion, the barrier that women cricketers have to cross is double. 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, the gender-specific, narrow interpretation of religion tends to reinforce the divide in a very significant way, fusing gender and hijab into a single question.
According to an Islamabad-based cleric who runs a madrasah in the capital city and sees in the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan a glimpse of the revival of Shariah rule, “no Islamic society can ever allow for such a support that violates basic tenants of hijab as prescribed in Shariah law,” adding that women in Islam have “a specific role” i.e., “house management.”
Yet a women’s team exists which, given institutional apathy, gendered perspectives, and religious sanctions, is nothing short of a paradox.
It is a paradox that can be explained only with reference to the larger paradox of the Pakistani society itself. Despite being an overtly religious society, we can find numerous instances where religious orthodoxy is systematically resisted and challenged. Women’s cricket is, thus, partly a state of exception partly born out of women’s/feminist movements that have been thriving since the 1980s, led by organizations like Women Action Forum (WAF), which was established in 1981 in Karachi to resist military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s program of Islamisation – which was more about giving his illegitimate rule religious cover – by seeking to establish an extreme version of Islamic laws to make Pakistan a true religious fortress.
This tradition of feminist resistance has continued over the years through numerous organizations and NGOs. More recently, the annual Aurat March (Women’s March) has become an annual festival of feminist debate in Pakistan with liberals and conservatives coming head-to-head on social and digital media, with protests and rallies organized across the country to debate the feminist question and break the shackles of patriarchy and religious orthodoxy.
The long manifesto released by the organizers of the 2022 Aurat March – and its key demands – manifest a broad movement seeking structural change away from religiously rooted patriarchal traditions and systems. For religious conservatives, Aurat March is just “another slogan that seeks to westernize Pakistan,” the cleric added.
But concerned cricketers have a diametrically opposite perspective. “Aurat March has become a symbol of resistance that almost all female cricketers, too, face from society, as well as reflecting how the cricketers themselves resist this resistance,” said the former cricketer. “Resistance is at the heart of our existence as a support and our whole experience as cricketers and that’s why we have managed to carve out a space that is slowly – but surely – expanding to our advantage.”
The PCB recently implanted a parental support policy that allows women cricketers 12 months of paid leave. Very much like men’s cricket, there is now a broad acceptance of women’s cricket as a money-making profession. Although the women’s team gets fewer sponsors and relatively less finance is available or less is allocated, women cricketers are now offered proper contracts like their male counterparts, and better training and accommodation facilities are available.
“I would say a lot of this has to do with the pressure for changing societal norms that movements like Aurat March are generating. I myself participate in that march”, the cricketer added.