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Podcast / December 15 2022

Boxing provides a path out of poverty for girls in Pakistan

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Aliya Soomro was not yet 10 years old when she heard that a boxing coach near her home was training young girls. Aliya lives in Lyari, a densely populated neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan known for gang violence and dangerous streets. When she heard about this gym where she could learn to box, Aliya jumped at the chance. And while her conservative family and community were concerned at first, boxing soon proved to be a potential path out of poverty for Aliya. Now, other young girls in Lyari are getting the chance to follow their athletic dreams.

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Seeing the very limited access some women and girls have to sport in different countries can be a difficult pill to swallow. I think it was in 2012, I was asked to be a part of the Empowering Women and Girls through Sport Initiative. I traveled to so many different countries on behalf of the State Department, really sharing my story in sport. You know, I grew up 30 minutes west of New York City in a small town in New Jersey. And I was in a sport where I was often the only brown face, you know, in the sport of fencing. I was certainly the only kid who wore hijab. And I—I know that sport changed my life. One thing that I’ve always loved about sport is not just its power to change the world or,  like, a community, but think of it from a smaller level how it changes, you know, that kid, and how they feel about themselves. Really them discovering, you know, their own abilities and the power that they have. 


From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.



And I’m executive producer Karen Given. For our last episode of the season, we have a story from reporter Mariya Karimjee. Mariya lives in Karachi, Pakistan. That’s where she came across a young woman whose life has been forever changed by sport. Here’s Mariya.



Boxer Aliya Soomro is used to being underestimated. She’s 17, but is a tiny waif of a girl, around five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds. And when she first started boxing around 10 years ago, everyone dismissed it as being a whim.





People would tell me that I don’t look like a boxer, and said, “Look at your condition.” After I fought in the game, people said, “The one who doesn’t look like a boxer is the one, while the one who does look like a boxer is never the one.”


MARIYA: Even her mother didn’t take her seriously.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: At the start, I mean, my mother would look at me and say that I won’t be able to do it. Girls in our society are considered weak, and they won’t be able to talk. If anyone says anything to them, they will be afraid and sit back.


MARIYA: Aliya lives with her family in Lyari, an urban slum of Karachi that’s got the population of Manhattan crammed into an area that’s roughly 15 percent of its size. Poverty rates here are high, literacy is low, and the area remains fairly conservative, even by Karachi standards. Lyari is also infamous for being one of the most violent areas of Karachi. From 2003 to 2015, a brutal turf war between two rival gangs broke out. Things got really bad, with hundreds of people killed in the infighting. Aliya, who was a kid at this time, grew up surrounded by the sound of gunfire popping in the streets.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: People were scared to even come here. And at the time, there was gang war. There was war among our people. Whenever we stepped outside the house, or if our brothers, fathers or sons stepped outside, we would fear if they would get shot.


MARIYA: During the height of the violence, around 800 people were killed every year. And the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, started a crime prevention operation in Karachi, rounding up weapons, arresting perpetrators. Aliya looked up to the Rangers. They made her neighborhood safe.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: Lots of people were afraid to come to our area, saying, “This is danger area.” So that’s what it was like. My thinking was, when I saw how Pakistan Ranger soldiers—one by one, soldiers would be martyred in front of us. In our homes, we’d find bullets from the firing. They’d get in from outside, in our homes. We couldn’t even keep ourselves safe at home. We were terrified. But they, without any fear—though they were also somebody’s sons, even though they were also somebody’s brothers—but they still, without fear, they were fighting our fight. Fighting for the country. Fighting for our homeland.


MARIYA: Right now, Lyari is more or less peaceful, although the rangers and police still intermittently conduct raids.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: There’s still many people who are still thinking about what it was like before. They’re still scared that if we try and do something, someone may do something to us. Or in the background, they may do something to some children. This is the fear. This is what they’re still scared of.


MARIYA: Despite all of the violence in Lyari, or perhaps because of it, the neighborhood has a rep for turning out incredible athletes. Some of Pakistan’s best footballers are from there, and the neighborhood loves boxing so much that Muhammad Ali himself visited Lyari back in the 1980s. But as much as Lyari’s residents are proud of their athletes, they don’t always see sports as a route for girls.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: Mostly girls are confined to the four walls of the house, degrading the girl. When she reaches a certain age, she is married. They do not consider what a boy can study, the girl can do even more than that. And what the boy can do, the girl can also do more than that.


MARIYA: When she was a kid, Aliya learned that her maternal grandfather had been a boxer, a good one.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: After listening to the family’s history, I was after everyone in the house to start boxing and make a name for the family in the sport, which no one else managed to do. Once I decided I want to learn, I made everyone’s life miserable. I kept insisting, insisting that I wanted to train.


MARIYA: Aliya and her mother found a club close by. Coincidentally, it was owned by a distant relation of Aliya’s mother, Younis Qambrani. 




MARIYA: Coach Younis told me that even during his childhood he wondered why there was no boxing for girls. 




MARIYA: He brought it up to the Secretary of the Pakistan Federation, a man who used to be a legendary fighter. But the secretary, he dismissed Coach Younis. He said girls couldn’t box because they had weak chins. 




MARIYA: Coach Younis still decided to teach his daughters. He told me, “I always thought our children should be powerful. If there’s power, there’s everything.” 




MARIYA: Aliya’s mom says she told Coach Younis not to actually train her daughter. Just let her watch and do her schoolwork. But Aliya, she wasn’t just sitting in the corner. She was learning to fight and getting recognized for it.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: I had no idea. Then one day, when I was at work cooking, the baji told me that a girl from Lyari was on TV. “Look!” I told her that this is my daughter. She was like, “No, no.” When I returned home, I scolded her and spanked her a lot. Her father was saying, “She’s a small girl. Why are you hitting her?” I said that she’s a girl. He said, “Nowadays girls can get farther in life than boys. You’re an educated woman. Why are you being so old-fashioned about this? Let it be. Allah knows best.” Now, look. Allah has given her grace, and she’s gotten so ahead.


MARIYA: Still, Aliya’s mom was worried. Would boxing limit her daughter’s prospects?




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: Neighbors would gossip that we’ve put a girl in this field, and she should be given religious education. “What have you done? Make her do work that boys do? It’s not appropriate.”


MARIYA: Over 90 percent of women in Pakistan do not play any sports. In more conservative areas, even the idea is unorthodox. And few of the women who are able to access sports manage to go pro.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: When I started then, my father was told, “Don’t you have any shame? You’re teaching boxing to your daughter. Teach her namaz. Make her recite Quran. Convey her the message of Allah. What are you teaching her?”


MARIYA: But for Aliya, it wasn’t just the disapproval of the neighborhood that was difficult. She also had to scrape together the financial means to box. A lot of the time, she’d get to a competition and realize she didn’t have what she needed.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: For equipment, I faced a lot of difficulties. Sometimes I didn’t have one thing, and then, didn’t have another thing. Shoes were torn. Bag was torn. There was no track suit, no boxing kit. How will I fight? I don’t have a mouthguard. I need money. If you have money, you can get anything. But since I didn’t have money, how am I going to do it?


MARIYA: Aliya had to get creative.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: I would check to see if someone has completed their training with a punching bag. I would train after them. This one time, I asked someone if I could use the bag if they were done training. But two to three people refused. Then this girl, who was also like me, offered me to take it because she was done.


MARIYA: Today, Aliya is still making do without her own equipment.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: Coach Younis has taken out his daughter’s equipment and given that to me. I’m using his daughter’s things to train. But, you know, there’s a limit to everything. When will this end? How long am I going to be using someone else’s things? Even while I’m using it, what if she doesn’t like it one day? Coach Younis doesn’t say anything, but what if someday something happens? There is a problem; she says that you’re using my stuff every day. Even if it is said as a joke, if someone says, “Just joking,” it’s a big deal. It’s an insult. It is insulting. But I’m desperate. I have to endure it.


IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. 




IBTIHAJ: And now back to our story.


MARIYA: Initially, when Aliya was training, there weren’t any formalized opportunities for her to fight. No women’s boxing league. But as soon as the league was created, Aliya began winning. Sometimes she’d fight other girls who weren’t in her weight class. Other times, she’d fight anyone who’d provide her with any sort of challenge. For years, she was undefeated in her class, a rare feat. And as her talent increased, so did the attention, especially at Kakri Ground, the large sporting and events field in Lyari, where Aliya had first been dismissed by her community.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: When I last fought against Malaika Zahid in Balochistan and knocked her out in the second round, then I came to Lyari. And after coming back, people who didn’t earlier know me started recognizing. Then I was chief guest at Kakri Ground. And the people there, the ground where I was criticized, was the place where I was given respect. And people said, “She is our daughter.”


MARIYA: And other girls who box started using Aliya as a benchmark, constantly measuring themselves against her talent.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: I mean, the girl was from Faqir Colony. She was heavier in weight than myself, but shorter in height. She came to fight. She had passion and could play. She lost the fight against me. After that, whenever she would see me anywhere, she would directly tell me—




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: “Come. I’ll beat you in the ring. Come. I’ll beat you in the ring.” This is how our fights took place. Slowly, slowly, she began bickering with me outside the ring and said, “I’ve beaten you. I’ve been treated unfairly.” So whenever she would come, she would say, “I’ll beat you! I’ll beat you!”


MARIYA: Aliya may well be the best female boxer in Pakistan. Her coach certainly thinks so. But as Aliya points out, that might not mean as much as you think it does.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: If I was in India, or any other country, and had I been known on social media, then so many clubs would have been established under my name. But Pakistan is the only country where athletes are not respected at all. Even our institution, Pakistan Boxing Federation, is also not being respected. Even those running the federation are not at fault, because if they aren’t getting the funds themselves, how will we kids get the support we need?


MARIYA: Aliya has big dreams. She’d like to go to the Olympics; travel abroad for tournaments. But until she can scrape together the funds and the support of the federation, none of that is likely. And in the meantime, girls who trained to become boxers are leaving the sport. That girl who always wanted to fight Aliya? Aliya told me that she, too, has stopped boxing. But Aliya is one of the lucky ones. Three years ago, she caught the interest of the Pakistan Rangers, the same rangers who kept Lyari safe during Aliya’s childhood.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: DG Omar Ahmed Bukhari promised me and ensured that I’m not only Pakistan’s, but Pakistan Rangers’ daughter, and that they’ll always stand by my side. He said, “Don’t think of me as a DG in Pakistan Rangers. Think of me like a common man.” There were all of these wing commanders, other officers sitting there, and he gave me a relationship to them.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: “This is an uncle. That’s an uncle. That’s a brother. That’s a son. If that’s my son, then he’s your family, too.”


MARIYA: The Rangers give Aliya a small stipend so that she can continue to box, about 5,000 rupees a month, which isn’t much. It covers about a week of Aliya’s family’s groceries. But in addition to the stipend, the Rangers have also taken a real interest in Aliya’s education and future.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: When I started speaking to them, they said, “Wow, you’re very comfortable talking. Do you have an education?” I told them that I’ve done matriculation and need to start college.


MARIYA: The Rangers were impressed. They congratulated Aliya’s dad for bringing up a well-spoken, confident young woman. And Aliya went on to complete her last years of school on the Rangers’ dime. Aliya is getting ready to sit for an exam that could make her a wing commander in the Pakistan Rangers, which does have women among its ranks. And working for the Rangers will end up changing Aliya’s life. For starters, it will give her and her family a hefty paycheck, enough to possibly move them out of their flat in Lyari and into a safer neighborhood. It means her dad could work less. Aliya’s mom could quit her job, and Aliya would have more time to focus on training.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: When I’m given the resources, if my requirements are fulfilled, my equipment is provided to me. Then, I have a dream I want to fulfill of admitting both of my brothers in the Army public school. And I will do it. I want to see my one brother get recruited in Pakistan Navy and the other in the armed forces.


MARIYA: I met Aliya at her gym, and we agreed to walk over to our house. Before heading out, she gently suggested I pack up my recording kit. Lyari is safer than it used to be, but perhaps I shouldn’t walk around with expensive tech. When we reached her house, a long, skinny building with a tiled facade, she looked at me sheepishly. “Sorry about the danger stairs,” she said. We walked inside, then began climbing these steep concrete slabs of stairs. They abutted a wall, but there was no railing. I felt bad that she felt the need to apologize. But as we reached the third story, I realized the stairs ended. There was just a wooden ladder nailed into the wall. “Danger stairs,” Aliya told me. Once I got to the top, I couldn’t find anything to hold on to. Aliya reached out her arm, and I grasped it. Despite everything I knew about her athletic talents, I was still surprised by her strength. 




MARIYA: Aliya and I had spoken already about her family’s financial difficulties, but her father helped me understand just how much more dire the situation was. 




MARIYA: Aliya’s fame and hard work has gotten them out of a few scrapes. Last year, during the monsoon, their roof caved in. A local nonprofit connected to Aliya helped them rebuild. But Aliya’s dad still struggles to make ends meet. 




MARIYA: He’s a construction worker. There’s weeks that he isn’t able to find work or bring home any money. Sometimes they starve. But Aliya says things would be much worse if not for her father. She calls him Baba.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: I face a lot of difficulties when I go to fight. Sometimes, when Baba doesn’t have the money to give me for commute, I have to walk. Places that I have to reach early, I arrive late to. We have to starve sometimes, because sometimes there is food, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes when there is food, we eat at one time. And if it isn’t there, then we’re on hunger strike.


MARIYA: Learning about the odds stacked against Aliya—realizing that despite being one of the best boxers in the region, she sometimes doesn’t have enough food to eat—it made me mad. I’ve been a reporter in Pakistan for over a decade now, and I’m rarely as impressed with someone as I am with Aliya. She’s remarkable, funny and wise and really aware of how much more the world could offer her and what she’s able to offer the world. But while Aliya’s boxing career and support from the Rangers hasn’t pulled her family out of poverty yet, her parents told me that Aliya’s story has changed things for girls and women in Lyari, and the community is no longer pressuring Aliya to get married.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: No, nobody’s saying that. What’s the use of her hard work if she gets married? People are now even supporting us, because we worked hard. They talk against getting her married, and support Aliya in moving forward. Right now, they’re able to see that a girl is getting ahead and our neighborhood’s name is becoming glorified. The country’s, too. They’re also finding the confidence. Before, they were saying that they were against their kids doing this, but now, they are also encouraging their own kids to get ahead.


MARIYA: Aliya agrees.




FEMALE TRANSLATOR: In our society, if one girl like me can get to a position and become something, accomplish something, then, because of me, those who aren’t even allowed to go outside will get permission to do that. And in those houses, even if one girl becomes a boxer, then Lyari has a huge population. There will be over at least a hundred girls who will be into boxing, and they will do so thinking that if Aliya Soomro can do it despite the difficulties, we will also do it. 


ALIYA: Inshallah.




IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our executive producer is Karen Given.


KAREN: Today’s story came from reporter Mariya Karimjee, with translations and additional producing by Rabia Mushtaq. Voiceovers by Aneela Shaikh and Aaiza Alam Baqai. We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave a review.


IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.