For Noorena Shams, the quest for excellence in her chosen sports has mirrored her quest to improve the perception and promote the strength of women and girls in her native Pakistan.
“I have been a cyclist, a cricketer and a world-ranked squash player for my country, and I am very, very proud to be a human rights activist,” she said.
Shams’ push to participate and excel in sports as well as advocate for human rights, has had her taking chances and using a bit of subterfuge to achieve her goals.
When she was 11 years old, Shams would sneak outside her family compound in a remote village in Pakistan and ride around, hoping to improve her cycling technique. Her father eventually found out and rather than being angry with her, and he made sure she received training. She made her way to junior Olympics in 2008 as a cyclist.
At 15, she wanted to play cricket and so disguised herself as a boy. For a year she was part of the Boys’ National Under-15 Cricket team, much of it as vice-captain.
Now at 21, Shams is a champion squash player, placing 129th in the world. Once again, to prove the point that gender is no barrier to sport, she disguised herself as a man and took on all comers during an informal squash session for UN Women Pakistan.
“I want to make sure that the next generation of female athletes do not have the same issues I encountered on my sporting journey,” she said.
Shams is from Lower Dir in Pakistan, described as one of the most under-developed regions in the country. During recent violence in the region, schools closed and many women had difficulties to move freely. However, Shams said, living through the battles taught her perseverance, resilience and prepared her for taking on sport so visibly.
Shams advocates for girls’ education through her foundation (Noorena Shams Foundation) featured on the Malala Fund. She also promotes female empowerment through sport. Shams was one of the featured speakers during the recent UN Human Rights Council Social Forum, which looked at the link between sports, the Olympic ideal and human rights. It was important to her to participate, so she could highlight the challenges of Pakistani athletes and be the voice for so many voiceless.
“I believe that my participation is very important because of so many unknown girls, so many teen boys, transgender, anyone in my country who needs recognition and a voice…I am their voice here,” she said.
Shams recently spoke with the UN Human Rights Office and shared a little of her history and why sports are a human right.
Link to podcast.
12 October 2018