Boxing is not the most popular sport in Karachi and female boxers are a rare sight. So when I first heard that Younus Qambrani, a seasoned coach, had established Pak Shaheen, an exclusive girls boxing club, and that too in Lyari – notorious for its gang wars – I was prompted to immediately request an appointment with him to visit the facility. Given gender restrictions, I wasn’t sure whether Qambrani would allow a visit of this sort, but much to my surprise he graciously accepted my request and sent me a map to help me find his club.
Of all days, I found time to visit the facility on one of the hottest days in March, that too, on a weekday, fighting the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Mauripur road. The dusty link road leading to the boxing club had turned into a deep pit so I took a detour. After a few misses, I reached the club where Qambrani’s deputy, Nadir greeted me. Qambrani is a humble man in his late 40s. He met me inside the compound. In the distance I could see girls in their early to late teens preparing for their training sessions. A couple of Qambrani’s brothers have represented Pakistan in regional games but he has solely focused on coaching and has trained dozens of boxers over a long period in his professional career. Qambrani has coached various clubs in Lyari since the 1990s, but it was only in October last year that he established the area’s first exclusive club for girls.
How it all started
I asked him his motivation to initiate such a risky venture and he responded with several reasons why his passion for boxing led him to do something for women in his community. We live in an age where we need to get rid of taboos, he said. These girls could meet the requirements of this physically demanding sport to compete at the highest level possible if provided with good quality infrastructure and training. They perform even better than boys as they are much more focused, he said. I sensed a hint of pride when he spoke of his trainees, a testament to their commitment.
Qambrani found me a chair, ordered a cup and then excused himself to start the session.
History was made when three female boxers represented Pakistan in the regional games of the Olympic Council of Asia in February 2015. However most of the upcoming female boxers were associated with clubs in Peshawar and Lahore. The Sindh Sports Board now sponsors the Pak Shaheen Club as well as North Karachi Gymkhana in Gulshan, another Karachi neighbourhood. With this, the board is trying to provide female boxing enthusiasts a fighting chance to represent Pakistan at the international level.
Qambrani lead his students to the centre of the hall where the training began with a recitation from the Quran. A warm-up session followed. As I watched them, more visitors entered the hall. There was a foreign journalist, along with her Pakistani cameramen, who had also fixed an appointment with Qambrani for an interview.
The story of Pak Shaheen is an inspiring one. Lyari is a Karachi neighbourhood known for its gang wars that has largely been a no-go area for most of its citizens, let alone foreigners. Therefore news of a girls boxing club was received with much surprise.
“Has any sponsorship followed since the media attention?” I asked Qambrani.
Nothing much, he replied. He told me of a donor who helped him purchase gloves, weights and other items but the club still needed more infrastructure. One immediate requirement was the construction of a hall upstairs and gym infrastructure to help students get fit.
Most of the girls in the gym are his immediate family members, including two of his daughters. Other girls are from the neighbourhood and they come to the club after their morning classes at a nearby school. Qambrani is optimistic that other families will allow their girls to join his club once his students make a name for themselves.
As I watched, one of the cameramen asked me to get out of his frame as he shot the training session. The other offered me a cigarette, which I declined. The foreign journalist meanwhile interviewed Qambrani. She had many questions regarding the security situation in Lyari and if there had been any threats to the club. Qambrani’s answers, however, trailed off to funding problems. A few times, he mentioned his pride in managing a talented bunch of girls.
I spent the rest of my time there observing the girls practicing their jabs and hooks. There was laughter and camaraderie. Senior students helped juniors train and they shared water and laughter after a hard day’s training. The youngest of the lot, Qambrani’s niece Arisha, was not in the mood to call it a day and insisted that Nadir, the assistant coach help her practice some more. He pointed to me instead, asking me to take her portrait. She posed with her gloves in a punching position, showing determination and immense promise, something Lyari has not seen in a while.
All photographs by Farooq Somroo.