Malika-e-Noor is a young Pakistani footballer hailing from the Karakorum mountains on the outskirts of Islamabad. The 2017 documentary Bend It Like Malika highlights the difficulties facing young female footballers in Pakistan and the irrepressible spirit with which they pursue their sport.
In this short feature we follow the story of Malika, current vice-captain of the Pakistani women’s national football team. She is shown playing football with her teammates throughout the documentary, her personal life and sporting ambition presented as one and the same due to the strong relationships she has made through it. The unity and support the players offer each other is as heart-warming as it is necessary for these underrepresented and underappreciated sportswomen. Their support for each other extends outside the pitch too, as they all struggle for acceptance in the face of a male-dominated system.
The achievements of Pakistani women in football are all too often ignored and their talent underplayed as a result of this gender bias. However, these women are not dissuaded. From travelling to and from practice in groups for their safety and sharing the limited equipment many of them make do with, their close-knit sisterhoods are what makes it possible for these women to start making themselves known in the world of football.
Despite these societal hurdles, Malika’s abilities were fostered by her devoted coach, enabling her to play on an international level. Her entire family are supportive of her efforts despite the immense pressure of upholding cultural norms that would dissuade most families. ‘Bend It Like Malika’ presents audiences with a new and uncelebrated image of Pakistani femininity in the world of competitive sports, one that is best exemplified through Malika and her teammates.
This documentary highlights the struggle for recognition that faces female footballers in Pakistan. Their games are given little media coverage and their talent is largely ignored. However, it is clear that their sporting ambitions are not driven by their desire for fame but simply by their love of football. This story of unwavering determination and empowerment is an inspirational viewing experience for all ages.
We interviewed filmmaker Mustafa Sabri about the making of the documentary and the future of Pakistani women’s football:
The women in ‘Bend It Like Malika’ are clearly inspirational, what in particular made you want to tell their story?
Women choosing careers in sports has been very challenging due to the deeply rooted patriarchal systems of Pakistan where women do not have the freedom to step out alone let alone play in a male-dominated arena. But seeing their courage, enthusiasm, and interest in playing football to represent Pakistan at a national and international level inspired me to tell their stories.
Media attention for Pakistani women’s football is so minimal, so how did you hear about Malika’s story?
I was the official photographer for the SAFF 2014 event where I met these brilliant young women including Malika who, along with her two other sisters, is playing football at the national level. I was intrigued to meet her parents to show through my lens how they supported her despite the societal pressures and taboos.
Aside from Malika’s story this documentary also focuses on the tragic loss of Shahlyla Baloch, who died in 2016. Why did you also want to include her story?
During the same event, I met Hajira, who was leading the women’s national football team, and Shahlyla Baloch, who possessed extraordinary qualities. Looking at Baloch’s games, my friends and I would discuss how she would achieve her goals if she had practiced in a more progressive society. But later that year we were shocked to hear about her sudden death. Right then and there I decided to make a documentary to promote women’s football before it is too late.
What do you hope to see for Pakistani women’s football in the future and what steps do you think need to be taken to get to that point?
FIFA has banned football in Pakistan for the past couple of years, which has affected not only women’s football but also men’s football careers. If FIFA lifts the ban from Pakistan we can create international opportunities for the youth who would want to choose it as a profession. Secondly, there’s a scarcity of women-only football clubs and academies where women can train. Each major city has only a few platforms which only the privileged can access. I believe that state institutions can play a significant role in creating spaces for its youth so that they can engage in healthy activities. We can start at the grassroots to train kids by enrolling them in local clubs so that they can develop their football style from childhood. And by the time they are in their youth they will be well-trained and prepared to compete at the national and international level.
Isra Morley is in her final year studying English Literature and Latin at the University of Glasgow. Raised in Cardiff by an Indian mother and a Greek and Welsh convert father, Islam and the pursuit of its understanding have always been central to her life and writing. Having written articles for various Islamic publications, and taken part in assorted creative writing courses, she is currently an intern with the Alchemiya Journal.
Read about more Muslim sports heroes in our article about Muslim Olympic Champions and Trailblazers.