How Amna is Levelling the Playing Field for Girls

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Amna, 24, makes her way to the front of a hotel conference room in Islamabad, Pakistan. It’s the last day of Right To Play’s Young Female Leaders in Sport leadership camp, and she has an announcement to make.

“I’ve started a cricket academy,” Amna says to the 25 other sports enthusiasts in the room. “For anyone interested in joining, I want to offer free coaching.”

Amna’s love of cricket is familiar to Right To Play staff at the leadership camp. While participating in a Right To Play school program in 2016, then 16-year-old Amna spent her spare time practicing her bat strokes and spoke shyly of her dream to one day meet the national women’s cricket team captain, Sana Mir.

Eight years later, Amna has done more than that. She plays with a city cricket club and has even faced off against her hero, Sana. But her greatest passion is running a cricket academy that provides girls with a safe place to play.

Amna’s journey to leadership in sports wasn’t an easy road. After everything she’s overcome to find her feet on the cricket pitch, Amna is determined to level the playing field for Pakistan’s female athletes.

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Amna (centre) at Right To Play’s Young Female Leaders in Sport leadership camp, where emerging women in sport come together to strengthen life and leadership skills.

BATTING BACK AT GENDER NORMS

Amna was in Grade 9 when a group of girls invited her to join their schoolyard cricket game. When she deftly batted the leather ball back on her first try, Amna felt her power and found her new passion.

But she couldn’t find a place to practice.

Amna grew up in Lyari where many ordinary activities, like going out alone or playing organized sports in public, are considered inappropriate for women and girls.

Amna’s father was hesitant about letting his daughter attend co-ed practice, worried it would jeopardize her marriage prospects. Eventually, he relented, moved by Amna’s enthusiasm for the sport. Amna was allowed to attend training as long as she had a chaperone.

Amna travelled to and from the cricket pitch with her mother, her bat safely stowed beneath layers of clothing. “We couldn’t openly carry our cricket equipment in our neighborhood,” explains Amna. “Doing so would subject us to threats.”

A COACH TO LEAN ON

Shortly after Amna started playing cricket, the Right To Play GOAL program started at her school.

During the program, Right To Play-trained Coach Jamal used sports and games to help Amna and her peers develop confidence and leadership skills. They also learned about menstrual management and financial literacy.

Jamal became a pillar of support for Amna. She helped Amna keep her passion for cricket alive while criticism from friends threatened to crush it.

“Instead of supporting me, my friends said things like, ‘you are only a girl, and you cannot play cricket,’” says Amna. “But the whole time, my Coach stood by me. She kept motivating me and telling me that I have potential.”

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In 2016, Right To Play Coach Jamal became Amna’s pillar of support, encouraging her participation in cricket when others dismissed and criticized her.

FINDING HER OWN WAY

With Jamal’s encouragement, Amna continued attending cricket practice. But household responsibilities kept Amna’s mother more and more occupied at home. Eventually, Amna lost her chaperone.

But she didn’t lose her drive. Amna was determined to keep playing, even though she knew her father wouldn’t let her attend training without her mother.

Amna figured enlisting her younger sister Khizra as a chaperone was better than going alone. Without their parents’ knowledge, the two girls travelled nervously to the cricket academy using public transportation.

Khizra loved watching Amna send balls arching across the pitch at practice. Before long, she found herself playing too. But when Amna’s father discovered that his daughters had been sneaking off to play, he pulled them both out of the academy and away from their dreams.

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CLAIMING HER RIGHT TO PLAY

Knocks that might stop some from playing sports weren’t enough to stop Amna. The communication skills she gained from the GOAL program gave Amna the confidence she needed to face her parents and advocate for her right to play.

Jamal was behind her. She visited Amna's parents and spoke about how important it was for Amna to access the same opportunities to play sports – and benefit from the life skills it brings – as boys. Amna’s parents’ understanding grew and gave way to a more honest and open relationship with their daughter.

“I learned to cultivate trust with my father and ultimately convinced him to support my aspirations,” says Amna. “Right To Play equipped me with the life skills necessary to pursue my dreams.”

A few months after they were forced to drop the sport they love, Amna and Khizra re-enrolled in the cricket academy. “Now my dad feels proud,” says Amna. “My parents are supportive of me and Khizra pursuing our goals.”

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Amna’s sister Khizra plays on Pakistan’s national cricket team for girls under 19. She owes her success to Amna, who stood up for the sisters’ right to play the sport they love.

SPORT FOR DEVELOPMENT

Jamal was there for Amna as she chased her dream. In a country still fighting for women’s rights, Amna knew she had to pass on that same support to younger girls who want to step off the sidelines and experience the power of play.

Amna harnessed the leadership and financial skills she learned from her experience with Right To Play to start her own cricket academy in 2018. It’s one of only a few cricket academies in Karachi that offers coaching to children under 10.

Amna's classes are free so that children experiencing poverty get their chance to participate. She fundraises to keep the academy and young players' dreams alive. Today, she has enrolled over 200 students of all ages, half of which are girls.

When Amna first noticed girls sticking to the sidelines during practice, she introduced mixed games that foster their leadership and a spirit of inclusion. Since then, she’s watched students like Eisha become unstoppable on the pitch.

“While I had dreams, I lacked direction until Right To Play came into my life. Cricket alone did not provide me with the strength that Right To Play did.” - Amna, Right To Play alumna

“I have seen Amna transferring her vibe and giving confidence to other girls,” says Eisha, 19. “Such efforts are very rare in Pakistan, and if we continue paving opportunities like these, it will be a huge benefit to women in sports.”

Participants in the Young Female Leaders in Sport leadership camp think so too. Some fielded forced marriage, discrimination, and harassment to pursue sports. And with leadership training from Right To Play, they’re taking their passion one step further, emerging as coaches, teachers, and entrepreneurs promoting equal opportunities for girls and boys – in sports and in life.

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Many young girls in Pakistan don’t see a place for themselves in sports. Amna and her peers at Right To Play's Young Female Leaders in Sport leadership camp aim to change that reality – and change the game.