Fastest woman in South Asia breaks records — and taboos

Interview by Zofeen Ebrahim
InterPress Service

Naseem Hameed is South Asia's fastest woman. She came home to a riotous welcome after her South Asian Games victory. (Photo: M Fahim Siddiqi/IPS.)
Naseem Hameed is South Asia's fastest woman. She came home to a riotous welcome after her South Asian Games victory. (Photo: M Fahim Siddiqi/IPS.)

KARACHI — Dressed in an abaya (long, loose gown worn by women to cover their dress) and a headscarf, Naseem Hameed cannot be recognised as she alights from a crowded, rickety public bus to reach her destination — the sports stadium.

Not much has changed for the 23-year-old athlete after she bagged the title of fastest woman in South Asia in February. She won the women's 100- metre dash in 11.81 seconds at the South Asian Games in Bangladesh, becoming a national heroine.

But unknown to the 5-feet-2 in. tall Hameed, who lives in a 40 square- yard, one-room dwelling with her two siblings and parents in the crowded Korangi slum here in Karachi, her victory was also a win for many other Pakistani women, especially those who want to pursue a career in sports.

She is forcing Pakistan's male-dominated society — where women in sports is not often encouraged and often seen as inappropriate — to think differently about the power and potential of women.

In her winning time of 11.8 seconds, Hameed, who runs for the Army's sports team, empowered and inspired many. Right now, "sportswomen are barely noticed", she explains.

With more than 300 medals, a dozen shields and more than 150 cups of all sizes, she "dreams" of having a house with "one room exclusively to showcase my prizes."

In a telephone interview from the capital Islamabad, where she is training in an Army sports camp for the 31st National Games on Mar. 25, Hameed talks about her achievement, her aspirations and the need for a definitive policy for women in sports.

Q: Why did you choose running over all other sports? Was that your passion from the very beginning?

A: To tell you the truth, till I was about 12, I was least interested in sports. I dreamed of becoming a pilot as I'd read an interview of the first woman Pakistani pilot in a magazine and was quite inspired by her.

For me sports was a ‘games' class in school. It was much later, when I started winning and getting medals, that I began to take it more seriously. It felt good to go up to the victory stand amidst a rousing round of applause, get photographs taken and enjoy the two-minute fame.

I was selected in Grade 6 to join the school's athletic programme. A letter was sent to my parents to permit me to enroll in an athletics club. I was sure I would not be granted permission, so I faked my mother's signature and gave it in. For the next five years, I was their star performer in sprinting (100 metres, 200 metres and shot put).

My mother once came to the club and asked my coach, Mohammad Talib, if I was doing anything worthwhile every evening after school and Talib put her at ease. He told her there was no one like her daughter in the club. That was the last time my mother ever doubted me.

Q: Did you have any idea you would bag the coveted title of ‘Fastest Woman in South Asia'?

A: Honestly, no. We — my coach and I — were aiming for a bronze. I cannot even begin to tell you what it felt. I bowed before God, right there, on the track. My coach Maqsood Ahmed cried in jubilation. Later, in the quiet of my hotel room, I completely broke down. God has just been too kind.

Q: On your way back to Pakistan, did you expect the kind of resounding welcome that awaited you?

A: It was like a fairytale experience and the people's adulation has continued. I started off from Dhaka at 9 a.m. and reached my home late in the night. Even then people kept pouring into our home. We finally had dinner at 3 a.m., not that I was hungry! I was expecting the media to be at the airport, but not the thousands of people who had come to receive me.

Q: Apart from the nation's admiration, you have also received a lot of prizes.

A: I have received a total of 2.6 million Pakistani rupees (nearly 30,500 U.S. dollars). In addition, President Asif Ali Zardari has made me and Sara Nasir (a gold medalist in karate in the South Asian Games) sports ambassadors. I've been promised a plot of land by Sindh Governor Ishratul Ibad.

Q: And how many marriage proposals have you received since you became a celebrity?

A: No such luck! Right now marriage is not on the cards. I still have a few years to go and I would like to continue running undistracted.

Q: What do you do in your free time?

A: I am an avid listener of (the late Pakistani singer) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I love to watch Bruce Lee movies and wrestling with my father. I'm also a big horror movie buff! But my best time is still at the stadium. It's now in my blood.

Q: How difficult was it as a woman to pursue sports?

A: There were many in my family who would advise my mother against sending me for sports. They said it was neither appropriate nor safe for young girls to be going out of the house, let alone being sent for training for days on end, out of the city. Had it not been for my mother's support, I would have discontinued.

Q: Have you been able to break those taboos for other young women who want to come into this field?

A: This is already happening and not just in the arena of sports. People are coming and telling my mother, in the neighbourhood, how proud they are of me and that it has opened their eyes to their daughters' potential and that they are ready to give equal opportunities to them. My own colleagues in the camps have told me that their brothers and fathers have eased restrictions on them. I feel elated to have made that difference.

Q: Who has been your role model?

A: While I'm inspired by many Pakistani sportswomen like Shabana Akhtar (first Pakistani female athlete to participate in the Olympics, when she competed in the women's long jump event at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta), I never fail to get impressed by my mother's personality. She's been my strength. Defying all odds, she completed her studies but only till Grade 8, through private tuition, as she was not permitted to go to school. She was resolute that her daughters would be allowed to pursue their dreams, unlike her.

Q: What is the sports policy like and what has the government done for women in this field?

A: We still have a long way to go. Sports is low on our list of priorities and sportswomen are barely noticed. It has to change. There has to be a comprehensive policy for women in sports. We need trainers and coaches who are willing to train women, more funds need to be pumped in and job security given to them. I still don't hold a permanent job in the Army, who I represent.

8 March 2010 — Return to cover.