Sana held on tightly to the edge of the railing as she leaned forward, bellowing advice at her team.
Her instructions drowned in the cheers and applause from an engrossed audience gathered at the Wapda Sports Complex. They were there to watch the country’s first ever National Women’s Kabaddi (Asian style) Championship which had kicked off last month.
The anti-raiders sidestepped back and forth on the mat in perfect synchronisation daring the lone raider to tag them. Within 15 seconds a spritely raider stepped over the midline, the Baulk line, and tagged a member of the opposition.
The seven-member defensive unit swiftly moved in for the tackle, surrounding the raider. Sana gasped, her knuckles now white from gripping the railing, as she watched the raider duck neatly, leap over the Baulk line and fight off a back hold to reach the court safely.
Sana let out a whoop of joy and turned around to explain that her team, representing Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), was one of the underdogs at the championship. “They only started playing two months ago and now they’re facing one of the most formidable teams in the country!”
The traditional tag-wrestling game requires players to master breath control, raid and dodging, strength to tackle and hold a raider. The sport is indigenous to the region and Pakistan has produced some of the most celebrated kabaddi players in the world. However, historically the hallowed akharas and kabaddi training centres have been the sole domain of men.
Prowess at the sport traditionally has been synonymous with masculine pride, celebrated in pop culture and literature for its undertones of Punjabi machismo.
The decision to introduce kabaddi to women in the country has been appreciated so far. However, the sport is yet to take off here as it has for men.
Sarwar Rana, the general secretary of the Pakistan Kabaddi Federation added there have been hiccups, not to mention, resistance from women’s families. Sarwar hopes the government and media encourage this enterprise, stating, “We need more and more young women to break new ground.”
‘I am a daughter of the Punjab’
The GB team stood aside and clapped politely as the team representing the Punjab did a victory lap on the mat. Sana was downcast, but she ran onto the court to hug her team. She had skipped university to come out and support them.
“Ah well, what did she expect,” Iqra Ashraf, a young girl in neat braids and shiny dark blue tracks sighed. “The only teams worth mentioning at all are the Wapda and Army club teams,” she added before wishing she “was on the Wapda team.”
The 18-year-old is in her second year of Intermediate studies at Punjab College in Faisalabad and was on the team representing Islamabad. She was drawn to the sport because she fancied herself as an all-rounder, having represented her college at national level in handball, netball, volleyball, cricket and basketball, in which she plays defense. There was a call for team selection two months ago, when the championship was announced.
Ashraf had jumped at the opportunity, hoping to make it to one of the “better” teams, “but I found out that the Wapda team had already been selected…I’ll make it next year though. I’m that good,” she said proudly.
She admitted that the teams representing the provinces had been hastily put together and given a few weeks of training. The Wapda and Army teams had played at international events, trained for over a year and had funds at their disposal.
“The team from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa don’t even have uniforms,” she whispered, as the next match between Wapda and KP began.
The Pakistan Kabaddi Federation general secretary admitted that the team was not prepared for the tournament. “We’re proud of them,” He said the fact that KP had fielded a team at all was something to celebrate rather than discourage. Balochistan hadn’t registered a single team.
“That’s because there’s gender segregation at every level and our cultural attitudes bar women from certain spaces,” Rai Masood Kharal, assistant manager of the Pakistan Kabbadi Federation, explained. “We realised that it might be too soon to expect such an initiative from Balochistan…but we are immensely proud of KP,” he added.
“It is unfortunate that it’s taken this long for us to host a national kabaddi championship for women,” Wapda MD Amir Ahmed said regretting the delay, adding, “the game is indigenous to our area and the women of our country are indomitable. I hope it catches on fast.”
He said although the realisation had come late, it had been spurred by the fact that neighbouring countries had the best women’s kabaddi teams in the world. The Iranian team has won its country several laurels, as has India’s. “Pakistan has lagged behind but we’re catching up,” Ahmed claimed optimistically.
Women’s kabaddi has gained international media attention, as more platforms have emerged for the sport in the last few years. Pakistan has also sent its women’s national kabbadi team to Iran for training. The aggressive sport has its heartwarming moments of cross border cooperation.
During the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, in a match where India was defending its championship against the increasingly formidable team from Iran, one of the Iranian raiders accidently displaced her hijab while the raid was on. As her focus wavered, the stage was set for a successful defense. Instead, the anti-raiders stopped to help fix her hijab.
Similarly, Tayyab Gilani’s journey as an international kabaddi observer and commentator began during his trips to India to watch kabaddi tournaments. Gilani’s elocution is en pointe.
“I learned from commentators in India, came back and taught others how to engage an audience and run commentary during a match,” Gilani recalls. The night before a match, he sits in his room alone and plays out the next day’s tournament in his head. He claims to cater his verses to the mood, adding, “I wrote ‘mein dhi des Punjab di’ for this championship.”
Gilani recently authored a book, Kabaddi Maindan de Heeray, which details the accomplishments of the top 104 players between 1933 and 2014. On his personal favourite Gilani launched into a detailed description of Sultan Shah Aadhaywala. Captain of the most famous kabaddi team in the entire subcontinent in 1933, he added that Aadhaywala was gifted “50 acres of land for him being that good.”
Ayesha Bibi sat in the audience at the Wapda Sports Complex, pride etched in every line of her face. She sat with her young daughters watching a team practice during the lunch break.
“My niece comes from a family of pehlwans (wrestlers) and sportsmen who have excelled in various sports at the national level,” she said. Ayesha Bibi protected her niece from an early marriage a few years back. She revealed, “Her [the niece]parents had passed away and her brothers tried to get her married. She was only 16 years old. I put my foot down.”
The young girl had wanted to become a professional kabaddi player. “She was really good… so I told her to try out for a club and leave,” Ayesha remembered. With her family estranged, the aunt remains the sole supporter.
Several players spoke about their mothers, sisters and aunts who had taken a stand for them in the face of opposition from other family members. A Kabaddi Federation official lamented the loss of one of the best players he had come across in many years because her family had stopped her from playing the sport.
Eyes on the prize
Pointing at some of the girls in her team, Khazeema Saeed, captain of the Wapda and Pakistan kabaddi teams, listed off their accomplishments, which included proficiency in martial arts, basketball, jiu-jitsu, archery, cricket and wushu among others. Saeed led her team to victory on the tournament’s final match between the Army and Wapda with a 29-43 scoreline.
Commenting on the turnout and response to the championship, Rana Sarwar said it was encouraging. He said they had also wised up to a lot of problems in training players who weren’t on a department’s payroll. “We’re going to send coaches and set up camps in GB and KP in the coming months,” he said.
He said by holding the championship, the Pakistan Kabaddi Federation had made history. “We are proud of the players who did such a good job in the last few days and hope to see even more teams sign up for the championship next year.”