Inspirational Ali leading by example in Pakistan

14 May 2020
  • Karishma Ali is a passionate football who has represented Pakistan

  • Still just 22, she has started a pioneering sports club in her region

  • Ali’s talents have also taken her to the catwalk in Milan and into Forbes magazine

When she was growing up in a village in the remote Pakistani region of Chitral, Karishma Ali was asked by her father what she wanted to do in life. “Something different,” came her immediate, instinctive reply.

Yet despite that childhood longing – and the ability and fierce hunger needed to pursue her dreams – even Ali herself can barely believe what she has since achieved.

That she became a footballer and represented Pakistan, given that women in Chitral had no tradition of playing the game, is remarkable enough. But add to that the setting up of her region’s first women’s sports club, taking to the catwalk at last year’s Milan Fashion Week and featuring in a Forbes’ ‘30 Under 30’ list for innovation and entrepreneurship – not to mention doing it all before the age of 22 – and it seems to verge on the incredible.

Even now, when COVID-19 would have been expected to apply a temporary stop to her dizzying list of achievements, Ali has been raising funds to feed local families and provide sought-after PPE equipment to the region’s health workers. Somehow, she also found time to speak to, telling us about a life less ordinary and the forces that have driven her.

“I grew up in a patriarchal society willing to do something different,” she said. “It was never acceptable for girls to play sport. A good girl was one who would get married early, never talk about her rights and stay in the kitchen.

“But I wanted to play football. At the time, that was very weird for a girl from Chitral - the only time I could play was when I’d go on a picnic with my father. But I’ve always believed in making the impossible possible. I knew I’d become a footballer one day.

“I moved to Islamabad after primary school, although I would go back to my hometown and teach English as a volunteer at a local school. In 2016, when I got selected to represent Pakistan at the Jubilee Games, I saw a post on Facebook saying I was the only girl from Chitral playing football. I was proud, of course, but it got me thinking that I shouldn’t be the only one when the population of women in Chitral is over 220,000.

“That was when I decided to start the Chitral Women’s Sports Club. I wanted to bring a change for the girls and women back home who had a dream of doing something and becoming something more than just a housewife.”

Chitral Womens Sports Club training.

It was a decision that spoke not only for Ali’s ambition, but her bravery. It would have been understandable, after all, had she opted to keep a low profile given the sinister reaction to her sporting exploits.

As she explained: “When I got selected to represent Pakistan, I saw a Facebook page from Chitral had a post about me. The comments were very disturbing. One wrote that my legs 'should be cut off' and another that I 'should be killed before I make other girls play football'.

“But I kept fighting for the young girls back home and I like to think that I’ve won. From being the only girl in Chitral playing football, I now have 100 taking part in the game at our sports club.

“Girls who participate in our camps (held amid the mountains of the spectacular Hindu Kush range) belong to underprivileged families, which is why all activities are fully funded for them. I wanted to empower these young girls, and show people that girls can achieve anything when you provide them with equal opportunities.”

Ali herself is the embodiment of that ‘sky’s the limit’ ethos. Beyond her feats in football, she surpassed her own childhood dreams when an unlikely collaboration with Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean led to showcasing Chitral handiwork at Milan Fashion Week.

“After that, I really did believe that anything in this world is possible,” she reflected. “I'm studying business at university and for ages I’d been thinking about an initiative that would help women back home. At the start of 2019, I started the Chitral Women’s Handicraft Centre, which focuses on creating products that highlight the cultural heritage of Chitral in a modern way.

“I was then introduced to Stella, who is a dear friend now. She wanted Chitrali-Kalash embroidery on her dresses and the artisans at my handicraft centre produced 400 metres of embroidery within a month. I was then invited by Stella to attend Milan to witness the artisans’ work, which was already a big surprise, but then she gave me a bigger surprise by inviting me to close the show with her!”

Given all that Ali has achieved at such a young age, it will not surprise you that she has big plans for the future. And while COVID-19 may have put those on ice, she has responded to the pandemic in a typically determined, productive and impressive way.

“Most of the people in Chitral work as labourers in different cities, but because of the lockdown they have lost their jobs and returned home," she explained. "There are some who do not have enough money to feed their families, so I started to raise funds to provide rations to those who are in need of help and provide equipment to doctors and medical staff.

“So far I have managed to provide rations to 125 families and provide equipment including PPE suits, masks, gloves, face shields and goggles to doctors in the local hospital. I will continue to do what I can to help because, after all, we are in this together.”

Chitral, like so many other villages, towns and cities, faces a tough and uncertain post-pandemic future. But if Karishma Ali is representative of its citizens’ resolve and can-do spirit, one can only feel confident in its ability to bounce back in style.