Contributed by: Wesley Hull Friday, January 11 2019 @ 08:09 pm ACDT
You start by heading north from Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, towards the border with China. Eventually you link up with the Karakorum Highway, passing through never ending vistas of amazing mountain scenery. It isn’t the Himalayas, but a magical land in its own right. Then you arrive at the village of Gilgit Baltistan.
Here, Saliha Baig Jaturi is running Aussie Rules footy clinics. Not only does she face the challenges of being a woman in a Muslim country, where particular expectations on women can restrict what a woman can do, she is also selling Australia’s national game to kids and older villagers who know little or nothing about the game.
The other big challenge is snow. The mountains on the Pakistan/China border zone rank amongst the highest in the world and have the cold to prove it.
What Saliha is delivering here, on behalf of, ostensibly, the AFL, is a sport that should probably be promoted with bigger budgets, more people from the AFL and more equipment. Yet, none of this phases Saliha and her companions as they take the game they fell in love with at the IC17 tournament in Melbourne as members of the Pakistan Shaheens women’s team.
Michael Gallus, her coach at the Shaheens and the founder of the Footys4all Foundation said that “I was Saliha’s football coach at Pakistan AFLIC17. I am extremely proud of her in the way she has been inspired by her trip to Australia to play AFL and represent Pakistan to provide sporting and AFL opportunities in the face of great difficulties to children and youth of her country in remote areas. It is one thing to experience representation of your country in a sport - it is another thing to represent your country by improving it through your experience which is what Saliha is doing here with these sporting clinics.”
“We talk about being cold playing football in winter here in Australia, but we have nothing to whinge about compared to the inspiring boys and girls of Pakistan attending the Al shams sports club for women-5 day winter camp for boys and girls in sub zero freezing [conditions] and snowing conditions at the Hunza Altit ground at the small Pakistani village in Gilgit Baltistan.”
“I am so proud of these inspiring Pakistani AFLIC17 female footballers who have returned to their home country and through their own experience here in Australia playing football are now being the leaders in providing sporting opportunities for their fellow countrywomen and children no matter where they are or what the conditions.”
Saliha herself is humble, and possibly surprised by the interest in the amazing things she is achieving.
“I belong to one of the backward [meaning remote] villages of Pakistan. I started my career in sports from the age of 12. My brother is playing sports in the Pakistani military force. I learnt from him to play football and volleyball. I am a player of volleyball but I play all the games including footy, squash cricket ,football [soccer], badminton and more. I have a supporting family who helped me throughout my life. Currently, I am working on Australian footy in my village. I want to promote [Australian] footy and make it an international game of my country.”
“Besides this I am also working as a professional coach with the special Olympics of Pakistan. I am also giving training to children with and without disabilities in my village. I try my level best to keep the gender balance but I have no more facilities to train them. I have only one footy which was given by Michael [Gallus] on my best performance in a game in Melbourne.”
“The Shaheens footy club taught me how to do team work it gave me good platform through which I [could] introduce footy in my village. I had a very good experience with the people of Melbourne.”
“I faced many problems [gender, funding, equipment, location] at the beginning but now I involve those people who are the hurdles in my pathway. I involve both girls and boys as well as senior citizens.”
“I teach them that sports are not only all about playing game. It is all about team work, patience and physical fitness.”
“I have a very supportive family and I want to continue my struggles for my dad into the future. My dad is no longer with me but I want to complete the desires of my father.”
What Saliha is achieving is nothing short of inspirational. She has not allowed distance, geography, gender, cultural and religious beliefs, socio-economics or lack of equipment stop her from giving to kids and older people something new, something fun and something active.
From here the message should be passed on to those who can make a difference. Follow the directions at the beginning of this story and get some footballs to her in northern Pakistan. She is an incredible ambassador and deserves our support because what Saliha is doing transcends sport – it is about humanity.
Thank-you, Saliha. Not just for the footy, but the inspiration and determination you have shown us all and the bravery that goes with it.