Noorena Shams is a good squash player and a confident speaker.
This multi-talented sportsperson ended up playing squash after trying her hand at cycling, cricket (in the guise of a boy) and athletics, despite living in a very conservative environment.
She overcame a number of hurdles to represent the country at many international sporting and social forums with the distinction of being the first female athlete from Pakistan to have spoken at the Human Rights Council of the United Nations about issues of harassment in sports.
Born on October 10, 1997 in Lower Dir, Noorena started cycling in her neighbourhood at the age of 10. She would go out with her younger brother and cycle for hours. All of this was possible while her father, Shams-ul-Qamar, a local politician and businessman, would be away for work. It wasn’t easy for a girl in that conservative society to roam around freely. One day her father came to know about Noorena’s activities; fortunately, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for her.
“My father scolded me a little but later allowed me to participate in local cycling events,” Noorena says. “I gradually climbed the ladder of success to emerge as a prominent local cyclist. That was when I also started eyeing an international cycling competition in the US.”
In 2008, Noorena was gearing up for an amateur junior cycling event in Boston, USA organised by the IOC, but news of her father’s sudden demise disturbed the entire family.
“It was obviously very tough for me. But my mother and a few of my father’s friends encouraged and supported me to carry forward my late father’s wishes. I entered the championship and won the silver medal,” she says.
Later, Noorena gave up sports to focus on her studies. Her mother was looking after her late father’s business. This was also the time when turbulence started in Lower Dir and a lot of families migrated from the area. However, Noorena’s family chose to stay back. Bomb blasts were not uncommon in those days.
“My school was bombed as well, resulting in the discontinuing of our education,” she says. “I spent a year at home and started playing cricket with my brother and cousins. I have also played cricket with army soldiers in our compound,” she says, adding that Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi and Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga are her favourite cricketers, although she is an off-spinner.
Those troubled days came to an end, and Noorena was sent to Peshawar for studies. She stayed with her maternal aunt in Peshawar. While travelling between school and home she would watch boys playing at a cricket academy. “One day I visited that academy to seek admission and I somehow convinced the coach who, after giving me a boy’s haircut, introduced me to the other boys there as Noor-ul-Islam.
“My teammates started calling me Noori. Even after they realised that I was a girl, nobody there made fun of me or humiliated me and I kept on playing cricket for nine to 10 months while touring various cities for matches,” she says.
But in 2011, when she wanted to appear for trials to be selected in a district-level women’s cricket team, her mother put her foot down and objected to her ambitions — her mother had heard too many stories about harassment.
“Still, I continued playing in school and took part in athletics. By the time I finished my O-levels, I had bagged 63 medals in different athletics disciplines at school-level competitions. A few from district, national and international competitions, too,” she says.
Her love for sports kept on pushing Noorena. She thought about swimming as well, but had to surrender that thought. “Squash was the next thing that I was attracted to. In 2014, I got myself registered at the PAF Squash Academy in Peshawar. During this time I was continuously being told that I had crossed the learning age and couldn’t play. There was no coach, no facility whatsoever but I didn’t give up.”
Once she saw Amir Atlas being warmly greeted upon winning an Asian title. That standing ovation which he got motivated her deeply. “I wanted to do the same for my country,” she says.
Noorena started participating in local events but her performance was not too impressive. She next set her sights on the Hong Kong Junior event, for which she was sponsored by the famous singer and actor Ali Zafar. “I didn’t perform well at the event and couldn’t go beyond the first round. Still, the experience was worthwhile. I realised the gap between our training system and that of the international players,” she says.
Upon her return to Pakistan, Noorena was not allowed to continue her activities at the PAF Squash Academy because she had gone to the Hong Kong event without due permission. The objection was soon considered invalid because it was her right to compete there. Through this step she also opened the doors for local players to go and participate in events abroad.
In the meantime, she was invited to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women for the 2017 edition in New York. “Malala Yousufzai was invited to the CWS-61 but she wasn’t available due to her academic engagements. Then I was recommended by the Malala Fund,” she says.
“I moved to the Mohibullah Squash Academy and started playing with boys there. In 2016, after acquiring a Professional Squash Association [PSA] membership, I submitted an entry for the PSA Malaysian circuit-1 in Kuala Lumpur. I had to face a lot of hardship in getting a visa as my passport got misplaced during the process. I somehow got the new passport made, and later, after getting the visa, reached only a couple of hours before the first-round match of the tournament. Of course, I lost,” she says. At that time she was financially supported by singer Zeb Bangash.
Noorena’s next international tournament was Bendigo Squash in Australia that was held in July 2017. Here she managed to improve on her record and reached the quarter-final stage, only to lose to Australia’s number one player. She says that she sold her photographic work to generate funds for the tour while Pakistan Super League’s franchise Peshawar Zalmi also chipped in for her visa expenses.
“I had had a considerable amount of experience by then and I understood the shortcomings in my training and playing regime. I went to Australia again in November 2017 to participate in the Australian Open. I was then sponsored by an Islamabad-based businessman. From then on I started feeling at ease about my finances and was able to concentrate on my game,” she says.
In the meantime, she was invited to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women for the 2017 edition in New York. “Malala Yousufzai was invited to the CWS-61 but she wasn’t available due to her academic engagements. Then I was recommended by the Malala Fund,” she says. She was a panelist in a discussion where she spoke about women’s rights and problems in sports.
In December 2017, Noorena participated in the Pakistan Open Squash Championship in Islamabad where a majority of the Pakistani players, including Noorena, were knocked out in the first round. “That was surprising for me. Then I thought about the gap between the training and practice of Pakistani and international players. I approached the top professional coach Amir Wagih and sought admission to his academy in Washington DC. I reached the US in February 2018,” she says.
“Those six months were really tough. I didn’t have any proper accommodation. I stayed with friends I made through Facebook. I played four tournaments and also made some money to travel to different cities to feature in local events there. I returned to Pakistan with phenomenal experience and an improvement in my world ranking, from 230 to 130,” she says.
In July 2018, Noorena travelled to Bristol to attend the Elite Squash Academy and spend about one-and-a-half month there. “The time at the academy was remarkable. I learnt a great deal under the top coach Hadrian Stiff. I had had a rollercoaster journey but my self-confidence was boosted. Right now my entire focus is on the national championship next year. I will make a mark at the national circuit this time round,” Noorena says.
The writer tweets @mak_asif
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, November 25th, 2018