While Kashmir is catching up in nurturing young talent in sports, as a society, it still remains fairly traditional. Even today, wearing shorts and playing 'boys' sports' are not entirely acceptable here. "I faced similar problems as any Kashmiri girl would while starting up a different interest. My parents were reluctant to support my passion at first but a few medals in my record changed their opinion. Currently, my parents support my dreams. I am a senior player and Rugby Development Officer,” says Irtiqa Ayoub, 23. She brags about the fact that she is championing a sport that was non-existent in Kashmir till a few years ago.
SheThePeople.TV spoke to Irtiqa Ayoub to know more about her passion for rugby and the challenges of making it big in a unchartered territory. Some edited snippets from the interview.
Irtiqa has won seven gold medals at the state level, and seven at the district level. She won a silver medal for Rugby 7’s in 2016 and 2017, and a gold medal for snow Rugby in 2017.
Irtiqa is in love with one of the brutal sport in the history of mankind. According to her, she is the youngest Rugby Development Officer (RDO) in Jammu and Kashmir, and also have coached hundreds of school and college kids. "First I used to play football and played with boys of my age. I’ve been in sports from last 7 years now," says the player from Safa Kadal, in Srinagar.
Recently, Irtiqa was felicitated with ‘Eminence Awards’, an honour dedicated to young achievers in the Kashmir valley.
Breaking the Mould
"While being the introvert kid in a school, playing various kinds of sports gave me solace. Football, Kho-Kho, Badminton, Volleyball or Cricket – you name it, I had mastered it all. Then one day at school, because of my teacher’s insistence, I participated in a Rugby game which till then I had no idea how to go about. I was hesitant, I hadn't even seen how the ball looked like. When the school teacher encouraged us, I decided to give it a try. I stayed, learnt, and conquered," claims Irtiqa.
She further added, "However, after a week I realised that I was going to enjoy this rough contact sport. I went to several national games and state games in which I performed very well."
Slowly she was appreciated with medals and became a known face to the locals. Though the idea of playing a sport did not go down well with her family, according to her, it’s a perception a lot of Kashmiri girls have to face, and fight against, to achieve their goals.
"My father was the proudest when he saw my pictures in magazines and the television."
"It started with school tournaments. Then I went into nationals but my family started disagreeing with me when I broke my nose. Rugby is a rough sport and since I come from a traditional Kashmiri family, my parents thought as a girl playing such a brutal sport is not natural. Also not a lot of girls take up rugby so when I got national calls, my parents were concerned about my security," she explained.
"It took me a while but I had worn them down. Then I started growing passion for the game and medals kept coming. At the starting it was unbelievably tough to comply with the game since the town I am from, it isn't normal for a young woman to leave her home to learn how to play rugby. Also, the first time I played on ice, it was difficult for me to learn the whole new set again," she added.
Aye Aye Coach
"I aspire to learn more. I have come a long way since I started but it's just the beginning. The scope and talent you'd find in Kashmir is strong. I have been coaching for about last one-and-a-half years and the amount of talent I find at the schools and colleges here is beyond expectation. I try to convince girls for activities of rugby sports and to my surprise they are already inspired. I believe we Kashmiris have great talent in every sport. We just need to believe in ourselves and work hard to perfect the state's future in sports," the coach advised.
Irtiqa believes girls and women should feel free and join any sports they want. "My family believes in me and my dad Sheikh Mohd is my inspiration.
"I wish to go abroad and train with the best teams as All blacks New Zealand and do something for my society for my community," Irtiqa showed gratitude.
Supporting culture and State aid
"Due to several reasons girls in the state are not being given any chance but there are many platforms now to achieve your dreams. J&K sports council organizes different events and activities for young people. They try to gain the attention of upcoming girl players and offer them new kits and gears. They make sure that every girl gets to play each and every sport," she added.
Accepting criticism is a big part of one's journey...
Irtiqa talks fearlessly about how young girls in the country should be empowered and given freedom of choice. Her achievements and form do make her co-players jealous sometimes, and this upsets Irtiqa.
"Society has a part to play but I don’t think it should affect me. The girls who have talent and are committed should pursue the game, but it is important for parents to support them. I think accepting criticism is a big part of one's journey. It keeps you motivated towards the goal," she claimed.
I love the adrenaline rush...
"I love the enthusiasm and the dedication of each and every player on and off the field. We can’t rely on a single person we’ve to work as a team to get through the line. I love the adrenaline rush during the game which keeps us boosted through the game," the champion told us.
For All the Girls out there
Irtiqa hopes other young women in her state too will take up the sport. However, she thinks it’s difficult to travel the road alone. “The mindsets need to change”.
Irtiqa requests all the girls to commit to their talents. "If once-a-shy-kid can do it, anybody can! But it is important for parents to stand beside their daughters – only with encouragement and proper facilities can they go far, fearlessly," she signs off.