Where rugby is the new religion

SETTING NEW GOALS  The girls are truly passionate about rugby Pic by the author

“I feel I am doing something great... This challenge has been the best experience of my life,” says Saliah Yusuf (18), a Class 12 student in Srinagar.

Saliah, who recently captained the national rugby team, has earned a rare honour: She is one of the two Kashmiri girls to qualify for the first phase of an International Rugby Board course. Saba Akhtar (17) is the other qualifier. The two will be travelling to Pune for the 10-day course to be conducted by officials from the Ireland-based Rugby Board. Saliah is also scheduled to attend another training camp to become a Rugby Development Officer, after which, she would be able to coach budding players and earn Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 a month.

In a state torn by violence for the past two decades, an entire generation has missed out on normal life. Women have been the worst victims of the violence.
Given this scenario, it is nothing less than amazing that there are 450 registered rugby women players across Kashmir since 2004, when the sport was first introduced to women here. Many families and schools now encourage their girls to take up the game and some aspirants are seriously thinking of making it a career.

Strong moms, sporty daughters

“In traditional Kashmiri society, a career in sports and that too for a girl is still a distant dream. That my family is allowing me to play outside the state is a big thing,” acknowledges Sajida Yusuf, Saliah’s younger sister, who studies in Class 9 at Linton Hall School, Srinagar. Both sisters, however, give credit to their mother — a widow — for encouraging them to play rugby. “My mom says, ‘You are my sons, go and face the world’. She takes care of our diet chart. Since it is a physical game that needs strength and agility, the diet has to be a balanced mix of proteins and carbohydrates. Fatty food is totally prohibited,” says Sajida. “Rugby means strength, stamina, mental sharpness and agility. A player cannot afford a size zero figure!”

Today, it’s not out of the ordinary to see young Kashmiri women dressed in T-shirts and track pants — some even sporting their hijab (head scarf worn by Muslim women) — jostling on the sports field. “We wish to outshine the boys,” says Aqsa Mustaq (16) from Srinagar.

Such is the passion for the sport that in the Yusuf household rugby is like religion. The two sisters follow a strict regimen and devote an hour every day for the game in school, and at home on holidays. They also attend the practice organised by the Kashmir Rugby Association at the famed Polo Grounds every Sunday. “At the National Rugby Championship, we played against the top teams in India and performed well. We have to work hard. More coaching camps will improve our performance, which will fetch Kashmiri girls berths on the Indian team,” says Saliah.
Saliah has proved her mettle as she was among the 26 girls from all over India to qualify for the rugby national camp in Mumbai recently. But while Saliah has her sister to give her company, Rutba Amin (18) is a torch bearer of sorts — being the only girl in her family to participate in any kind of sport. Ecstatic about their daughter’s potential on the field, the Amins agreed to send her to the national camp in Mumbai for two weeks earlier this year.

“My parents support me and I hope to  play at the state and national level,” says Qurat-ul-ain, who is studying medicine.

Sweat, toil and success

Initially, the girls played with the oval rugby ball just to chill out with friends but now they play for a host of reasons. For some, it’s their way of cocking a snook at a male-dominated society; for others, it offers a chance to travel; and for a few it’s the thrill of meeting new people.

“A few years ago, when the game was introduced in Kashmir among boys, we never dreamt that it would become so popular among girls. Rugby is genetically suited to Kashmiris,” says Sarmand Hafez, Joint Director Tourism and a promoter of the sport.
However, the Yusuf sisters, Rutba Amin and others are lucky to have family support. Others are not so fortunate. Salma Akhtar (name changed) is an excellent rugby player but despite being selected to play in the nationals she was unable to participate because her parents did not want to send her outside Kashmir. “My coach says I am a talented player but my parents think that rugby is only for men. Despite their objections, I do play local matches,” she declares.

The Rugby Association of Kashmir is doing everything possible to polish the skills of its players for which it has hired an American coach, Gregory Bruce. Scores of players, including women of all age groups, have received essential tips from Bruce, who has played for the Boston Irish club in the US.

Mohamed Iqbal, a former national rugby player, who has been appointed as Rugby Development Officer of Jammu & Kashmir by the Indian Rugby Association, has trained about 350 Kashmiri girls. He says a majority of the girls come from educated, affluent families. Admitting that training women players isn’t always easy for a male coach, he recalls, “In the beginning, most families didn’t want their daughters to play rugby fearing they would hurt their teeth or break bones and then nobody would marry them. We promoted the game in the local schools. We kept in touch with parents to try to convince them there was nothing wrong with rugby and when the parents were convinced of their daughters’ safety they began sending them for coaching camps and tournaments too.”

Iqbal’s task has been made easier by the fact that the girls are enthusiastic. “They are eager to learn. Sometimes, difficulties do creep in and for that we need female supervisors while coaching,” he says. Efforts are on to get a female coach. Saliah and Saba have already been accredited to the Indian Rugby Association and could be possible coaches.

The popularity of rugby among girls can be gauged from the number of matches and tournaments being hosted in the state. Over 10 teams from various schools in Jammu & Kashmir participated in the recently-conducted Girls Rugby State Championships, played at the sub-junior, junior, under-20 and senior levels. The Kashmir Rugby Association is also working towards an exchange programme with New Zealand and the US. This spells good news for many young women who have defied tradition and even  family pressures to excel on the rugby fields of Kashmir.

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