The table tennis camp at the Peshawar Table Tennis Club is in full swing.
Some 15 schoolgirls in green jerseys are busy working on their grip, stance, footwork, forehand and backhand drive, push, serves and return serves as a few senior players coach them. The enthusiasm of girls as they practice makes Pakistan junior table tennis champion Iqra Rehman very happy.
It wasn’t that long ago when the 19-year-old first discovered the game, which besides bringing her acclaim also posed so many challenges in her way to the top.
“It isn’t like things are easier for me now. Each day brings up a new challenge. I have just taught myself to take things in my stride now,” she smiles.
Iqra’s table tennis journey is both inspiring and motivating. “When I first started playing I didn’t even have my own racket. My sister and I shared one racket,” she says glancing at the plastic tubs lying next to the tables with extra rackets and lots and lots of ping pong balls.
“I am originally from Chitral,” the champion begins her story. “I started taking table tennis seriously when I was 15 years old, after passing my Matric exams. But I was introduced to the game in class six when my family moved to Peshawar and me and my sister, Nimra, who is only a year younger, were admitted to the Government Comprehensive Higher Secondary School for Girls,” she says.
“It was there that one day, when both of us had gone to the water cooler downstairs to fill up our water bottles, that we were met by a sports teacher, who casually asked us, judging from our skin colour and features perhaps, if we hailed from Chitral. Seeing us nod she smiled and said that some of her best table tennis players had also been from Chitral, but they had passed out from school now. Then she invited us to her table tennis class. Nimra obediently followed her but I made up some excuse and ran away,” Iqra laughs at the memory. “I was more into volleyball and football then, but that teacher didn’t give up on me.”
Two years passed like this. Then there was a table tennis camp being organised by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Table Tennis Association in which, somehow, because of her sister — who had started playing well by then — Irqa, too found herself getting roped in. “But there were four girls and three rackets between us. I only got to play when my sister was free and when I could borrow her racket. Quite frankly, I was fine with the arrangement because not having a racket was my excuse for not playing,” she laughs.
“Another two years passed, I was playing off and on. It was our ninth and 10th years in school and our mother also wanted us to concentrate more on our studies rather than sports. I must mention here that Nimra, who had received a double promotion in school, was studying in the same year as me. Then after matriculation, she announced that she wanted to take up table tennis more seriously. Our father said that her going to practice and play at the club was out of the question if she planned doing it alone. I had to accompany her. Again there was only one racket. Hers. I never tried getting one for myself. So she would play with it first and then I would also swing it around a bit,” Iqra says.
It was going on like this when one day her sister’s coach at the club noticed that the girls were sharing one racket. He then presented Iqra with a racket of her own. “That was when something changed. It was just a medium-level Chinese racket but it inspired me to play table tennis with all my heart. That’s when I also overtook Nimra in her game,” she says.
“The coach said to me that despite my playing so little he had noticed that my style was different from the others practicing at the club. He said that I had learnt shots when the others were learning footwork and stance. He said I played like a professional,” she says.
Working on improving her game further, Iqra started getting more praise from everyone who happened to watch her in action. But while a fan following grew around her she also created some enemies. “Another girl there, also a good player, became jealous. First she called me a showoff and then she started badmouthing me to the coach who used to encourage me. I used to go play at any table being supervised by any coach or senior and she would tell him that I did it because I had no faith in his coaching,” she says.
“At first it got to my coach, too. But then he asked me himself why I played at other tables to which I simply explained that I did it to not waste time since I didn’t like waiting for the others to finish at the table assigned to him. It was also a good warm-up, not to mention the extra practice, and he got my point,” she says.
“Then when that didn’t work my rival started pointing fingers at my character, saying I didn’t care about the table tennis game but liked indulging in other games women play to trap men. This time her allegations really got to me. Things became so bad after a while that my thoughts turned to myself and how I carried myself. I started experiencing anxiety,” she says.
“My coach would tell me to not pay heed to what people said and concentrate on my game but it wasn’t that simple.”
Iqra feels no embarrassment in saying that after a while she had to resort to therapy. “It wasn’t just what this girl was going around saying about me in our circles. It raised eyebrows even in my family when they got to hear about it. My father, his sister and my cousins all wanted me to give up playing, but it was too late for that. I had developed a love for the sport by then and couldn’t imagine giving it up,” she says.
“To satisfy them I would don a burqa and tell them I was going out to study but I would be wearing my practice kit underneath that garb. I got the courage to do this from my mother who has always been on my and my sister’s side. She would tell us, especially me, to not worry about anything the relatives said and follow my heart. And I did,” Iqra says.
“Not giving up I kept playing,” she says. Appearing for trials, getting selected for camps, getting selected in provincial and national squads and proving her mettle and winning at championships improved her ranking to make her the national junior female champion of Pakistan.
Due to infighting within the table tennis circles in Pakistan the sport itself has been badly affected and is at a standstill now. Iqra says that she is 19 and can no longer come under the category of a junior player, which is an under-18 category.
“But there is hardly any table tennis activity in the form of tournaments or championships going on here for us to compete in now. For international tournaments, too, you need to have a no objection certificate from the government or the Pakistan Sports Board [PSB] in order for the Federal Investigation Agency to let you travel and take part in any event abroad, which the players do not get because of the parallel table tennis bodies functioning here after the Pakistan Table Tennis Federation elections of last year,” Iqra explains.
“During the elections, one side got seven votes and the other three, following which both of them came out with their individual federations, which neither PSB nor the International Table Tennis Federation would recognise,” she points out.
“Hopefully things will be okay soon because both sides do realise that they are not helping the sport with this kind of attitude,” she says.
A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
With no big competitions coming up, Iqra, her younger sister and some of their coaches have started doing some social work. “Our coach founded the Absar Welfare Foundation, an NGO, working at empowering female players and athletes during 22-day training camps,” Iqra says.
“Helping other girls know about their strengths and sporting talent has also helped me in a way. I realised that 95 per cent of girls in KP are under pressure from their fathers, uncles or brothers to not pursue sports. Therefore, I have also insisted on arranging a sports psychiatrist to help them get through it and be as strong mentally as they are becoming physically. This is what helped me change my frame of mind and this is what is helping them as well.” she concludes.
Iqra is all about changing frames of mind.
The writer tweets @HasanShazia
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, July 8th, 2018