"I am dyslexic. I understood early on that I was different. I couldn't see the world the way the other kids did. And after some time, I got tired of trying to fit in and pretend. My brain did things differently. It could have been a distressing and miserable experience but I chose to follow my instincts. I had help coming in at the right time. I am glad things turned out the way it did."
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and I was on a call with Shafaq Khan, a 26-year-old IT professional and the founder of Karachi Ladies Football Club. She sounded a little guarded and hesitant at the beginning but soon opened up as I nudged her to reflect further on her story. "This woman has a life-model for others like her" I realized. I adjusted my seat and made sure I had everything near at hand. I didn't wish to be interrupted.
"Childhood was not easy for me." Shafaq reflected. " I had trouble learning like the kid in that movie Taare Zameen Par. But I had my grandfather who thankfully understood what I was going through. He never gave up on me and took one whole year to train me to see complex things in an easier way. I barely passed in class that year."
She paused for a while recalling in more detail her childhood days.
"You know, there was this incident in school. We were being taught Environmental Science and in my exercise copy, in 26 pages, I had written 26 different spellings of the word 'Environment'. I was taken to the principal's office. But then after my grandfather helped me, I started to get a hang of things and in 9th class, I improved so much that I got 68% in Biology. I needed 70 % to take-up Biology in the next class. My class teacher, however, knew how hard I had worked and was kind enough to promote me to the next class with Biology. I did my Higher Secondary studies in Aga Khan Higher Secondary School in Karachi."
"So Shafaq, when you struggled so much with school work and studies, how did you get into football? When did that happen?" I probed.
"Good thing you brought that up! Well, because I couldn't understand much when it comes to conventional education, sports served as an escape route for me. I loved playing because I felt good about it. I felt alive. I was good at it too. Football happened over time.
I got into football properly while in college at the Institute of Business Administration. I will come to that soon." she smiled.
"I come from a humble background. I didn't have the means to go to a University like IBA. I was initially mentally prepared that I would have to go to a government university only. However, IBA had a career session at our Higher Secondary Institution and informed us about scholarships available. I decided to give it a try. I had two months in hand. I prepared for the entrance examination and managed finally to clear the test and the interview. I stepped into IBA as a student of Computer Application. I enjoyed coding. It was IBA which opened up for me opportunities to pursue my interest in sports, particularly football. This university practically changed my life."
"Tell me more! Was football an obvious choice for girls on campus?" I asked
"Not exactly. But there were few people who did play. In Pakistan, we don't exactly have safe open grounds to practice the game. Also, you have to wear shorts while playing so that is looked down upon culturally."
I waited for her to continue. I could tell from her tone that we were moving towards the most important part of her story.
"At IBA I actually realized how much I loved football and that I was also really good at it. I started the IBA Football team for women with a few friends and named it IBA United and was one of the few girls selected to play for the Balochistan United Club. I played for Balochistan United Club for 7 to 8 months and also played at the tournament for IBA United." Shafaq recalled happily.
"Tell me more about your life during those years Shafaq." I insisted
From the limited knowledge that I had about the culture in Pakistan, I knew that Shafaq's unconventional choice was probably not welcomed and applauded by her community. As it turns out, I was right! But there was more to this trailblazer's story than just the usual challenges. I listened as she opened up more about her past.
"As a young girl when I would play in the neighborhood with the boys and started showing interest in sports, my family and community were initially concerned. I was told that I would become muscular which does not look good for a girl and that I should not wear sports and play because that somehow led to more judgment about my character and approach to life in my community. I sometimes would lie and sneak out to play but I never stopped.
When I was 13 years old, my father got injured due to an accident. He could not work. My mom started a beauty parlor and I started doing odd jobs for my own expenses. I remember I went for my first job interview after graduation wearing broken sandals and the same dress that I had worn at the IBA interview because over 4 years, I couldn't find the means to buy myself new clothes or shoes. At the interview, interestingly, my love for football really helped. The interviewer found my sports background intriguing. I started working for Unilever Hindustan projects.
This job led me to work on projects in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Sometimes I think, if my grandfather wouldn't have been there to help me, God knows where I would have been. But it all worked out in the end. I got a well-paying job which helped me to find my feet and invest in Football."
Shafaq's voice was bubbling with enthusiasm at this point.
"After 3 years in my first job role as IT consultant, I moved on to become IT Project Lead at Friesland Campina Engro Pakistan. The team I was given to manage comprised of all men. Initially, I wondered if I could manage this because it was a new role for me. However, soon I not only grew into the role but also managed to become the life of the office group. I managed to get them to cycle with me every week because I wanted to cycle! " she chuckled
I was already discovering a unique leader in Shafaq. She was very good at team building as a sports person by nature and instinct. She somehow found the means and creative avenues to apply her team-building instincts at work too. I waited for her to continue with her story.
"My time in Myanmar changed my point of view about a lot of things. I unlearned much of the conditioned knowledge. After I came back and moved on to my next job, I had decided to invest in what meant a lot to me: football. I started the Karachi Ladies' Football Club in 2018. I knew how difficult it was for girls to play because there were no safe grounds, barely any coaches, facilities for training. I started working on providing all these important services and facilities through the club. At present we have around 50 girls training in my club with coaches and sponsors too. My club became the ground for enabling girls and women to come forward and start playing if they wished to. I would often even have to counsel parents to allow their girls to play. Many parents come and check out the facilities and then allow their girls to train with us. We have only women coaches and trainers and the grounds are safe and is an enclosed space so we have been attracting attention and winning the confidence of parents when they have to take the decision to let their girls play.
I see football as a way of exercising agency. In that sense, I am an enabler. There is one girl who comes with a background of limited means. She works at a bank in the day, goes to the university in the evening and plays football on weekends. Football is her place to be herself and find some peace in doing something she loves. Many women have come up to me and thanked me for giving them this space." Shafaq narrated happily.
She was smiling a lot by now, buoyed up by her accomplishment in being an "enabler" of women's agency in her community. But this is not all that there is to the leader that this young woman is. There was more to come.
"Our Karachi Ladies Football Club does not only have an 'A team' that has had the record of winning many tournaments but we also visit orphanages to raise awareness on different issues. I have spent every Eid with the orphanage kids for years.
There is one specific incident that is very special to me. There is this girl in the orphanage who is a little unstable behaviorally. She didn't have friends in the orphanage. We selected her to play football with our team and that led her to evolve in self-esteem. She was applauded by her orphanage mates and very soon, she became quite a celebrity amongst her newfound friends. She found acceptance which was very important to her given her feeling of isolation and friendlessness. Oh, and I also help a young dyslexic boy to see complex things simply and learn faster."
"That's beautiful Shafaq. So thoughtful of you!" I was genuinely touched with the depth of Shafaq's understanding of solutions in terms of people's needs. For a girl who never had that kind of understanding and empathy coming in from most people, it was heartwarming to see how she actively chose to be the person who could change the way things are done by embodying such change.
"I mean, my grandfather didn't give up on me right so I felt I should not give up on this dyslexic kid or the girl from the orphanage.All we need is to be accepted, appreciated, and motivated to find our strengths. These days I write about discrimination through short blogs called Black or White."
"I will definitely follow your page," I promised.
"Any concluding thoughts Shafaq?" I asked
"Being Dyslexic makes me see the world differently and that is how I lead differently. This is actually a blessing!"
"It indeed is. We can all see that now. Thank you for everything that you do for others Shafaq."
"Thank you for listening."