Breaking Stereotypes

Rugby is gaining popularity in Kashmir, not just among boys, but in girls also. A team of girls from Kashmir recently made it to the finals of a premier rugby national tournament. Saima Bhat reports.

The first match was against a team from Delhi, and all odds were stacked against the team from Kashmir. “Girls from Kashmir were not even supposed to be playing the game,” says Soliha Yousuf, the captain of the girl’s rugby team from Kashmir.

That they had reached Pune to play in the ‘All India Senior Girls Tournament’ held in August, was a big achievement for them. Most of the players in the team aged between 14-16 years of age had started out playing rugby just to “chill out”, but soon fell in love with the game.

At home, the team did not even have a permanent rugby playground to practice on, but they made sure that whenever they got free time, they put it into the game.

“Sportsperson’s life is practice but here in Kashmir, our rugby team has only Sunday’s for practice and for that day also we first have to seek permission. We have to play in the field meant for other sports, since we have no other choice,” says Dhuha Qazi, a player.

But all this was not visible in the game against Delhi Lions-a Delhi based team, who were taken by surprise completely. “When we play, we play for pride and give it our best try. When we went into the game against Delhi, we forgot everything else and gave it our best try,” says Soliha.

The team won against the much-fancied team from Delhi and went on to win two more games, against “much trained” opposition. “The win against Delhi boosted our confidence, and we did not look back,” adds Soliha.

The team qualified for the finals against Bangalore. The match was progressing well and both the teams were equally poised. But as ill luck would have it, two players from the Kashmir team got injured and Bangalore had a narrow win. “I think we would have won if there would have been no injuries,” says Bisma, a player. “But even reaching up to the final was a big achievement for us,” she adds.

The playing skills of the team got noticed at the Pune event, and Soliha along with one other player, Saba Akhtar was selected to the International Rugby Board (IRB) level I tournaments. It would have been the first time that Kashmiri girls were going to play in an international event but as ill luck would have it, it did not work out. Soliha injured her leg in practice and Saba could not go.

Now, Soliha has been selected for a 2nd International camp where she is going to play for India in the ‘Asian five Nations tournament’.

Soliha’s selection in the international event, along with the performance of her team in Pune, has come as a boost to the rugby players in the valley, particularly girls.

Presently there are 450 registered rugby women players with the J&K Rugby Association and the overall strength of this association is more than 1500 players.

For girls like Soliha who play rugby, the game is not just a game, but a passion. “I cleared the engineering entrance exam (AIEEE) last year but didn’t appear for counselling as I was called up for the tournament in Pune. I decided to sacrifice the opportunity for the sake of the game.”

And for the game, the girls have not just braved the training conditions and the injuries which rugby players are prone to, but also faced opposition from their parents.

“My mother was against my decision first, but when I persisted she started supporting me,” says Soliha. But for many, the condition for playing rugby is scoring good marks in examinations.

“Initially the parents were non-supportive as there are high risks of getting injured and because of the conservative society of Kashmir. But with time their hostility has changed into support for their daughters. It is because of the monetary support from the parents that the girls are able to play and participate in tournaments,” says Irfan Aziz Bhutta, the chief coach, J&K Rugby Association.

Last year, the association hired an American coach, Gregory Bruce along with Rahul Bose, an actor and rugby enthusiast, to polish the rugby skills of the players.

Rugby, as of now, is not a registered game in Kashmir but the people associated with this game are trying hard to get it in the list of registered games in State government.

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