Noorena Shams, adorned by a few out of her total 63 gold, 24 silver, and 5 bronze medals as well as a star pendant of recognition from the government of Khyberpakhtoon Khwa.
Cyclist, squash player, cricketer, debater and Pakistani, the many identities of Noorena Shams Ul Qamar.
Only 19 years old, Pakistani athlete Noorena Shams Ul Qamar has not only excelled at the male dominated sport of cricket in Pakistan, but as a cyclist and squash player currently ranked #35 in Asia. She tells Shirzanan about her motivations, the obstacles she faced, including having to dress as a boy, and how she hopes to inspire other women.
Tell us about yourself. What inspires you?
The urge to do something for my country and the need to see our Pakistani flag on top are what inspire me. I want to make my country and my people proud.
Tragically, your father died when you were quite young. Was the pursuit of sports more challenging without him?
I was born to a really good and wealthy family which faced a sudden downturn after my father’s death. I had a lot of problems convincing my mother to let me play sports and to earn money at a young age. I started making cartoons for a local newspaper and used the money to buy my first racket and shoes. My mother and siblings thought I had a sponsor. I kept the truth private and I declined TV and newspaper interviews because I had fear, and still have fear, that if my family learned of all my struggles they would ask me to stop because they care for me.
After my father’s death, I wanted to do something to keep his name alive and that’s the passion I have which brought me to this level. I am Noorena Shams Ul Qamar, and Shams Ul Qamar is still with us.
Your dedication is evident in the extreme measures you take to practice and play sports. Please describe.
I trained for a few months on the bicycle from 3 am to 7 am so I could get an empty track to practice for my national tours. I did not cycle in the morning because of the traffic, while at the night, I used to be queen of the roads! Except for my hostel gate keeper and my younger sister, no one knew.
Is it true you disguised yourself as a boy in order to play sports?
Yes, I cut my hair and dressed like a boy to get into the cricket academy – because it was the best and strictly for boys. With the help of a few players and my coach, I managed to disguise my identity and emerged as “Noor Islam” to play for the under 15 boys’ team for one year.
As a boy, it was easier for me to travel on public transport and to cycle around the city. A soldier while at war always camouflages himself to be invisible and to target his goal more easily. I too was just being a soldier in the battlefield of life. It helped me a lot for a short while.
But you eventually admitted you were a girl.
When I started playing cricket as a boy, I did so because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be accepted by society or the team as a girl athlete. When my identity was revealed, I was shocked that my teammates demanded I should be brought back because they couldn’t score well without me. Later, when I quit cricket and became a squash player, I didn’t plan to tell anyone in my community. However, it became a part of my life and it was hard to hide the sports.
I was afraid when the first article was published about me. I worried that my brothers or neighbors might not accept me, but everything went the other way around. I am accepted, I am appreciated, and I am respected as an athlete.
Do you think Pakistani society is growing more accepting of female sports women in general?
People have started accepting females in sports and the athletes are honored in many places. Unfortunately, we do face problems including lack of sponsors, financial crises, questions around equal participation or equal pay, etc.. But, I believe that these problems don’t come from Pakistani citizens but rather from the people who manage all these sports.
There are a few problems such as the government sending more boys than girls internationally to participate in tournaments. I do not blame the squash federation because the government gives our sport less than 1/4 of the total sports budget. The biggest share is given to cricket and football which is not fair.
Prize money isn’t equal in most of the sports, either.
Prize money is one thing, but is it also true that female athletes aren’t paid enough to cover their sports fees?
It is true that women are not paid equally to men, but we can help one another. I pay my national tour expenditures by working as a freelance photographer, blogger, and artist. I support the current Pakistani under-15 number one female athlete by paying her travel and equipment. Recently, she didn’t have money to buy a racket and I stepped forward and raised money to buy one. However, there has also been times where we slept outside near the courts because we lacked funding for accommodation.
Now, new struggling players turn their faces towards me for help financially and I get satisfaction that I am doing my duty as a Pakistani.
I would like to stand up for all those who face difficultires and discrimination.
Why do you think women-only tournaments don’t get enough media coverage or sponsors?
You will be amazed that it is sometimes the opposite. A few British reporters knew me, and when I introduced our top male player to them, they were shocked. The reporters had never heard about them before. Certain sports are projected to the world. In our country, citizens love cricket and it is something that unites the whole nation. Players are recognized and they are respected because they get media coverage – male and female both. The day our TV channels start broadcasting different sports events, it will lead to a revival in other sports.
Many women athletes are not famous enough for sponsors to invest cash into their brands. The day these brands start investing in these struggling athletes, you’ll see, it will bring cameras to them.
What advice would you give to a young girl whose parents object to her participation in sports? How could she change their minds?
My advice to all girls is that achievements or opportunities never come to your home – you have to make a door for them in your life. You have to get up and show your parents that I am made for this. If you set an example for your surroundings it will not only help you to convince your parents but also bring a big change to people around you.
Sports help women physically and mentally. It prepares women to be global leaders.
There are so many talented young girls in sports. How can media help them to get noticed?
In Pakistan, most athletes are from really poor families. I suggest that Shirzanan get in collaboration with the local TV channels and use commercials to attract new girls to sports. TV is the only thing available in their houses. The fact that they didn’t attend schools make them unable to read the newspapers.
For players like me, use of social media is the best way to convey what we are doing.
I have a few initiatives to start and promote on social media in the near future. When we start valuing sports like academics then it might change people’s whole perspective, especially for women in sports. We need to project it positively so the parents would love to have their daughters in cricket, squash, or boxing the way they admire them as doctors.
There is a misconception that women in sports give up their career after marriage and that’s the reason why they are not taken seriously! What’s your take on this?
I might be really young to say all these things but the amount of money parents spend on weddings can be spent to invest in their daughter’s career. It might change the whole scenario as she would be a known sportswoman and it would be an honor for a guy to marry a champion. Hopefully, he would not stop her from pursuing her career. The concept should be corrected about married women that cannot carry their career ahead after marriage. There are several examples of women who are married and are great athletes. Boxer Mary Kom won a gold medal after having two kids.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishments so far?
One of my greatest accomplishments so far was being the only South Asian under-13 cyclist to have won a silver Junior Olympics medal. I was also recently honored by being named 9th out of 100 most inspirational women in Pakistan by Paperazzi Magazine (March 2016).
Yet, for a few years you were not aware of the value your silver medal from the Junior Olympics represented.
In Pakistan it’s very unfortunate that many athletes don’t know the worth of what they have achieved. My success was not celebrated much, so when I was a kid, I actually thought that it was just a piece of metal and should be kept aside. I put it in a box for many years so I would not lose it. Eventually, a local TV anchor contacted me for an interview regarding it.
Do you have a coach or a mentor who advises you?
I have a coach who is like a fatherly figure to me. He is Shahzad Mohib Khan, the son of former world champion Mohib Ullah Khan, who always help me choose the right way. He guides me on every step I take to get success in squash. Other than him, it’s squash player Farhan Zaman who acts as an elder brother and guides me how to work on my physical and mental conditions, female squash player Sadia Gul who always helps me choose right matches to play, Ahsan Ayaz helps get through the tough practice situations, and Munawar Zaman who helps me get my entry paperwork done. Sir Adil and Sir Guddu always make sure I fight to the fullest inside the court. I am blessed with good people around.
And outside of sports?
I have also been fortunate to get support from my urdu teacher who knew when I started making and selling cartoons. When I had trouble with books and tuition, a university professor provided stepped in with help.
Do you have any shirzanan – any “female heroes” in sport?
Naseeb Hameed is a great role model who won the title asfastest lgir of South Asia. She was from the community of street children. When her career ended, she supported and trained different street children to earn medals on an international level.
You are also talented in academics and a 3-time All-Pakistan debate champion who has joined many Model UN events. Do you have favorite topics you like to argue?
Haha! Once I start debating I cannot stop, but one thing which bugs me all the time and I would really love to debate is how we are making our country dependent on others. It explains a lot about how we are lagging behind in many things.
Tell us a few of your future goals – in sport and in life.
My goals are to serve the nation and its people in every possible way – especially by playing squash for Pakistan, starting some initiatives to support other female athletes, and studying engineering and manufacturing.