Pakistan squash needs to hit an evolution process: Noorena Shams

Pakistani pro-squash player, Noorena Shams caught up with Sportageous to talk about the limited opportunities Pakistan has to offer female athletes. In this exclusive, she shares how she attributes her success to her raw passion for the sport and her thirst to become a professional.

Noor, as she likes to be called, shares her insights into the future of squash in Pakistan, moving away from cricket as the only sport in the country and more. Read her story here.

We’re proud to present this exclusive in partnership with Magnus Sports.

Shams - A profile
Noorena Shams poses. Courtesy: Magnus Sports.

Zushan Hashmi: Tell me a little bit about yourself outside of the game, and how you got involved?

Noorena Shams: I am a small-town girl from the Northwestern side of Pakistan, who went to the same regular school as all the kids around, lived the same life as that of my peers. Lived in an era of war against extremists just like others in the area.

The only difference is I got to live my dreams and saw the world, but at the sake of losing my father and childhood. This might come across as dramatic, but when I am asked to introduce myself, I rarely know how to do that.

I am a female athlete who plays squash because that is my passion; I am some-what a philanthropist because the causes I try to work on are close to my heart. I am a dreamer and a human.

As per my CV, my introduction goes something like this: I am a Pakistani athlete and an activist. Professionally I have played squash in different tournaments around the world.

My highest ranking was 120. Currently, I rank 238 in the world by the Professional Squash Association. I have remained in the top 30 Asian squash players during my junior career.

I have played cricket and have been a cyclist for a brief span of time. I am the youngest member of the sports management committee by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government and I am the only athlete to hold this office.

I’ve also been listed amongst 24 inspirational figures by UNDP Pakistan 2016 and voted as one of the 50 most influential ladies of Pakistan by The News.

As an activist, I am the first-ever athlete from Pakistan to have spoken at the United Nations Human Rights Council social forum in Geneva for the rights of athletes of South Asia.

I have spoken at the United Nations Commission on the status of women in New York in 2017 and I have been trying to help many students and athletes financially through my social media presence. I have recently been listed among young activists serving in COVID-19 by the United Nations Youth Envoy.

During the Army operation of 2009, all the schools were shut and I had a chance to just play with a few soldiers, brothers and cousins in a field outside my house.

How were you keeping yourself busy amid the lockdown in Pakistan?

I had my exams in the first week of May, so I spent the initial stage of the lockdown with books.

I hosted a few athletes of Pakistan on an online show by the name of Live with Noorena by Magnus Sports. I’ve also been reading a lot of books and have worked on a few community welfare projects. I had to keep my training going, so I kept doing that and as my top priority. 

Tell us a bit about your journey as an athlete in three different sports? You’ve professionally competed in cycling, cricket and squash. What were those experiences like?

I got to try all these sports because I just loved them. I never thought I could play with professional athletes. I was simply a female athlete who plays squash, I just wanted to try everything, even though I was uncertain whether I would be good at sports, but the fact that I could play was the biggest achievement in itself.

Cycling was something that allowed me to sneak out of my house in Dir. Every day was an adventure, the young Noor could not recognise the advantage of cycling at a high altitude, which really helped me perform well in competitions!

I participated in junior-level competitions which I was able to do because of the support of my father and his friends. Unfortunately, when he died, I did not think of cycling again because of the uncertain circumstances until I was 17 or 18. I tried to make a comeback but it required a lot of commitment and many resources.

I tried to make it work for me, and am still trying. As far as cricket and squash go, these two sports again were my escape from the world. I started playing cricket in 2009 when our part of the world was under lockdown in my valley.

During the Army operation of 2009, all the schools were shut and I had a chance to just play with a few soldiers, brothers and cousins in a field outside my house.

I just loved the energy and passion I was experiencing while playing the sport. And the same goes for squash, I did not even know how this sport was being played. I just wanted to play and not for recognition, not for anything else, but just to play, that’s it.

I just wanted to play all these sports. It was the hunger to play well that has helped me to turn professional, and I am super glad about it. For squash, I had to work a lot on my finances. In the start, I had nothing. I have worked as a cartoonist, photographer, blogger, model or anything that has helped me support my sporting career financially. 

Noorena Shams, Squash player strikes a pose with her racket
Noorena Shams on a squash court. Courtesy: Magnus Sports.

At 15, you were forced to disguise yourself as a boy to play cricket. Can you tell us a bit more about that story?

It might come as a surprise to many people, but many girls have done this around the world. If not just to play sports but to do various things.

A girl in my school, back in Dir, had to pretend to be a boy just so she could come to school. She was my brother’s friend and we honestly had no idea about her identity, until her single parent revealed it. I did not realise or understand at a very young age of 10 or 11 but it stayed with me for a long time. My cousin went to an all-boys’ school in Bajaur agency for 5 or so years. Here she did not change her appearance and just stood there being the only girl in an entire school. That requires a lot of courage.

I was sent to Peshawar for my studies and I wanted to play cricket but my school did not have such a facility for girls. I wanted to play the same way as I used to back home.

I had no idea how big this city was or what it had to offer, but one day coming back from school, I saw a few boys playing in a big college ground. One day, I asked my aunt if I could play there? In response to that, she laughed.

It took me at least a week to ask again until one of the coaches stepped forward and let me play. I believe he saw something in my talent. He asked me if I was okay with cutting my hair to which I replied that I had no problem. He cut my hair and let me play and get trained, then I was the happiest.

Though my family had no idea, all they noticed was that I was getting tan. Cutting my hair brought chaos at home. 

I could finally be Noor, and run around, bowl or bat! A dream, until my fellow teammates, underwent puberty. Initially, I had unthreaded upper lips or a unibrow so at first, it wasn’t too difficult to fit in.

Later, however, many problems occurred. My voice wasn’t changing, but their voices were getting stronger and heavier. I even tried to make my voice sound hoarser, but it was impossible.

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We had to break the news. Just the coach knew and a player. Other than that, I was Noor for everyone. We told them and it was awkward and uncomfortable, but then again it was the sport that was speaking.

I remained on the team but then I had to move on. Though my circumstances were not in my favour, I am glad I was able to play.

No drop of water comes to your mouth, instead you have to move towards the glass. You have to create your own opportunities, be patient and love every day of your progress. Do not think of being a champion alone. Love being a player. Love the process towards the top and that is the key. 

Do you think such issues are still commonplace in Pakistan, or is this changing?

I would not lie or sugar coat this by saying no, because yes, they are still prevalent. It is changing but at its own pace.

The culture we have in our country forces us to leave our identities and lives as it wants us to be. I would say it is like this in different parts of the world. My mother who is a single parent works as a contractor in such a male-dominant field, that too makes it so hard for her to work. Her abilities are more often overlooked because of her gender.

When I look back at myself on that cricket ground pretending to be someone else, I feel how much of a burden it is. We instil thoughts in a child’s brain that something can or cannot be done on the mere basis of their gender.

These issues only complicate stuff. Right from the roles at home to schools and workplaces.

Humans were created to live in harmony and acceptance towards each other. Cultures, myths, misogyny and many other things just ruin that peaceful image or concept of existing as a human.

The issues are there but people like you and me are working towards making it better and better for the generations coming later. That should always be highlighted. 

 Is the lack of opportunities to compete in one sport all-year-round for female athletes in Pakistan, forcing them to partake and compete in several sports across the season?

I would agree with that. Not only competing, but the infrastructure to support training is one of the biggest. There is a lack of proper planning. Not only for females but all athletes.

It seems like sometimes, us sportswomen, are our own coaches, nutritionists and even mental therapists.

Financial problems are a cherry on the top. Most of these athletes, especially females, come from very humble backgrounds, and that is where the real root cause lies.

I recall how I had to train among 300 men in Qayyum stadium for my fitness program just because the quality of male coaching was better than that of women. I was just a female athlete who plays squash and I wanted to have the opportunity of availing the best possible training for this. Even if it cost me to train among them all.

You are very passionate about social activism, tell me a little bit about the work you have done in that space?

When there is no voice to help you, you become that voice yourself. I have always spoken against what is wrong. I did not even know the process was called”activism. I just knew what felt wrong was wrong and wanted to speak against it.

As per the definition of social activism, I believe I am an activist by birth. My name is based on a myth which claims that if you give a certain name to a girl then she will have a brother born after her.

As surprising as it may sound, it exists. My name is pronounced as NOOR-E-NA derived from NOOR-E-NISHTA which means no more girls. Similar names are KHATM-E-DUKHTAR and BUS BIBI. There are many NOORENAY in my village.

My grandmother gave me my name. I would call myself Noor and my parents too. I would say I have rebelled against it since birth. If all that is called social activism then I am glad I am an activist.

What has it been like working with the UN, and being a part of various initiatives against the harassment of women and Muslim women in sports?

The Equality League organization gave the opportunity to work on issues of Muslim women in sports. Here, I used to see many Muslim sportswomen coming together and working on it. The unity and the respect towards each made it so special.

As far as the UN is concerned, I am extremely delighted and thankful to their support for always supporting my voice. Let it be UNWOMEN, or UNDP, or UNHCR I have been extremely grateful. I am looking forward to working on more such initiatives. 

Noorena Shams, Pakistan squash player poses with her racket
Noorena Shams poses with her racket. Courtesy: Magnus Sports.

And how about your debating career?

I guess if there is anything that really runs in our family then that is debating. All my siblings and parents have been good debaters. Or maybe you can say we are just very outspoken.

I remember my father being on a stage and addressing people and I have always loved that, I guess that is where I got it from. Though the last time that I ever took part in any debating competition was 2014. I believe it was my interest and I am glad that I was given a chance to actually pursue it.

I was 9 when I went to Swat and then Islamabad to represent my school in a contest. My father was extremely proud. Maybe just because he was a political personality, and he saw me taking after him. 

How do you maintain a lifestyle that enables you to compete professionally and pursue your other passions as well?

I once met a very famous singer and he asked me if I have ever attended his concert and I said no because my training always comes first. That was a bit of an awkward moment, honestly.

Another singer was seated next to me on a flight to Karachi and he personally invited me to his show. As thrilled as I was I had to say no to that because I had an exam that day.

It has always been a rollercoaster, but honestly that keeps my energy up. Always being on the toes. I would say you always set priorities and learn to say no to everything that doesn’t add up to your life.

I remove all those things that mentally drain me or keep me away from my passions. My mother lives in Dir, while I live in Peshawar. I have struggled to get time to stay with my family. I make sure I study and train fully while I am in Peshawar so I can get time to go back home.

In the start it was always crazy, but now I am kind of getting a hold of it. Lockdown was a blessing in disguise in that I got to spend time with my family for this long in years. It gave my body the break it needed. Plus, I keep everything simple, from clothes to food so it doesn’t really make it tough to choose or time-consuming. My family and friends were very supportive too. They have always helped me in working on my schedules too.

Our coaches are teaching in the US, Malaysia and so on today, while there was a time when Egypt too wanted to learn from us.

What is the state of squash in Pakistan today? Particularly for female athletes?

Honestly, it is not that bad. As much as I have seen other sports in Pakistan apart from cricket, squash is planned and doing well, but again there is always room for improvement and I believe we have a lot of room for improvement.

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We have the talent and very hardworking squash players, but we need a solid plan for them. I myself, am a female athlete who plays squash, I love the game.

The passion is there, the hunger is there, but we need a little more of an advanced system now. It will start happening only if we accept our shortcomings.

The system is to bring out the best in coaches and players both. It goes for females too. We need an advanced system now. 

 They do not broadcast Pakistani squash on a large scale, yet people still dream of Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan and several other greats from the bygone eras. What went wrong for squash in the country, generally?

I believe Pakistan squash needs to hit an evolution process following the rest of the world It hasn’t evolved ever since the big names. That technique and system worked from Jahangir Khan to Amir Atlas Khan in 2014, but no longer.

As a female athlete who plays squash, I believe our sport has changed a lot. As technology has changed, so has our sport, it is more technical, mental and advanced than it was before. 

Pakistan has the talent in both coaches and players but as I mentioned before we need to accept that we have something less. Our coaches are teaching in the US, Malaysia and so on today, while there was a time when Egypt too wanted to learn from us. Seems like we have stopped learning. As a whole nation. We dwell on the past or we just love to stay in the past.

We love to celebrate the victory alone and not the process. A plant has to be watered every day to grow it into a tree. That is what is missing. We have confined our nation to one sport when it comes to broadcasting.

It is impossible that a country of such an enormous population just loves one sport. It has to be shown on TV and then comes to the choices of people. Thanks to social media for changing it now.

Schools, too, play a huge role. If kids have access to courts, they definitely will develop their interest in the sport, but again there is no access and no infrastructure to support it. 

 Alongside yourself, we now see a handful of young Pakistani women breaking into the top 200 or so of the PSA rankings, there must be some positive movement to enable this?

In 2009, Carla Khan, a great athlete was ranked in top 20s and remained one of the top players from Pakistan. She had beaten Nicol David. Maria Toorpakai too remained in the top 50s.

Back in 2015I tried to get PSA membership but as a female athlete who plays squash, I did not have much support. I was told only told that the top 5 players can avail that and I had to rebel against that too. We are mostly told that only players supported by departments or the federation can get it.

I did not have any department, so I had to convince the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa squash association to help me get one. I remember I had to argue for a month to convince the association secretary. 

It makes me so happy to see how many girls have such awareness that they can get the membership without an association. They are far more talented and deserve every opportunity to prove themselves.

I get so happy when I see the list of Pakistani female athletes growing in the rankings. Not just any female athlete who plays squash, but others as well. It shows the abundance of talent we have.

Sadia Gul, Maria Toorpakai, Muqadas Ashraf, Carla Khan, Saima Shokat, Sammar Anjum and many senior players played a role in keeping the PSA rankings going and should always be credited for this even if they had departments to support and help them. 

We love to celebrate the victory only and not the process. A plant has to be watered every day to grow it into a tree. That is what is missing. We have confined our nation to one sport when it comes to broadcasting.

There are other Muslim countries where women are dominating at the sport, such as Malaysia, but particularly, Egypt. What does Pakistan squash need to do to reach that level for female squash players in the country?

Education, infrastructure, culture, financial security, the system and so many factors enable a nation to be on the top. Many Muslim countries have adapted but their culture is supportive, unlike ours.

It is unfortunate, but the good news is that our women have the courage to break all those barriers. We need a lot of help from the corporate sector, in terms of finances. We need to work to reduce the pressure and level of harassment in different sectors. If Malaysia and Egypt can have them, we too can be at the top.

In fact, some female players from Malaysia have Pakistani coaches too, from what I understand. Sports is a choice and choice is a human right. Firstly accepting that women too are human and it’s their right, is the first step to make it happen. 

 What has been the highlight of your squash career?

I have struggled a lot to even get the opportunity of quality coaching or even merely to get a court to practice in. I would say the year 2019 when I finally got to train with excellent coaches and got a few sponsors has been the highlight of my career so far.

I know it sounds very insignificant, but just the fact that as a female athlete who plays squash, I can train well at home. Also making the policy or sitting with the government to work on the system that gave me a tough time, has made me the happiest. 

You often talk about how supportive the PSA has been of your career and squash aspirations. Tell me a little bit about that?

The PSA has been very supportive in every way. Especially Ashley Bernhard, one of the board members.

Whenever I have a question or anything to share with the team, they have welcomed it in an amazing way.

The PSA community in itself is great. Players are well connected. You can just send a message to any top player and they get back to you. 

What would you say to young aspiring women in Pakistan who want to enter the squash courts, or any other sport and become pros?

Just get a squash racket and get into the court. If you cannot get on a court then start hitting at home, this will be the first time you will love the walls at home. I too, was simply a female athlete who plays squash. My passion and determination drove me here.

Do not listen to anyone who says you can not do it. You can do it. It is you who make the way for yourself and others.

No drop of water comes to your mouth instead you have to move towards the glass. You have to create your own opportunities, be patient and love every day of your progress. Do not think of being a champion only. Love being a player. Love the process towards the top and that is the key. 

Any other comments/thoughts?

Be kind towards everyone that crosses your path. That is it. 

You can follow Noorena Shams on Twitter and Facebook.
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Sarah Fatima assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow her on LinkedIn

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