Karishma Ali


  • 23 Nov - 29 Nov, 2019
  • Eman Saleem
  • Interview

Making it to an international football field, seguing into fashion weeks and then taking her name into Forbes 30 under 30, all at just 21 years of age is Karishma Ali, dismantling the patriarchal mindset which doubts a woman’s potential wrong. To say that this young Chitrali midfielder changed the game for female participation in sports on the world stage would be putting it mildly; Ali also started the Chitral Women Handicraft Center, enabling the local women to practice their cultural heritage, all the way to Milan Fashion Week 2019 for Stella Jean. Here’s more from the athlete juggling education, profession and activism.

When did football become such a big part of you?

At the age of 9. I remember watching the World Cup and I knew that this is exactly what I wanted to do. Play football, which actually was very weird for a girl from Chitral back then because girls did not participate in any kind of sport.

Tell me about the challenges you face in playing football in the mountainous areas?

First and main for me, of course was the society not accepting that I play football. They were rigidly against me starting a sports club for girls. Other problems were the lack of sporting facilities and opportunities for girls at which the boys play a tournament almost every month.

In the face of extremism and challenges, how did you come out victorious at holding a football camp in Chitral?

My parents’ support has been a source of survival for me to make it through all the crazy days. When you are honest, focused and are aware of the impact your work has on others, nothing can stop you, be it direct threads or social media harassment. This is what I have learned from my own experience.

How do you persuade parents to allow their girls to play football?

I had to work on myself first. You can never persuade others to do something that you do without having some achievements in the field yourself. My team won a silver medal in the Jubilee Games 2016 and I still remember I was called to a gathering in my town which is Karimabad, Chitral. The leaders of the area gathered to ask me what could be done for the other girls in Chitral who wanted to follow my footsteps. That was such a big moment for me. The residents in my town, especially Karimabad, Chitral are very proud of me and consider me a leader which is very special to me so it has not been difficult for me to persuade parents to let their daughters join our sports club.

How has the reception for the Sports Club in Chitral changed over time and how has it affected the girls enrolled?

Honestly, I expected it would be really hard to get girls to participate in our first football camp and tournament which was held last year. We had printed only 20 participation forms but on the first day of the tournament I received 60 forms and I was super confused. The girls had photocopied the forms so that they could participate, something I will never forget. From that moment forward, I knew that I would never stop working for them.

How did you come to collaborate with Stella Jean and set up the Chitrali Women Handicraft Center?

Stella and I were introduced by a mutual friend, Zahir Rahimtoola. I am truly inspired by Stella as a person and by her work. Her focus is sustainable fashion, not just beautiful clothes which is why I agreed to work on this project with her. 46 artisans from my handicraft center together with 16 Kalash women produced the embroidery on her collection for 2020 which was displayed on the Milan Fashion Week ‘19.

How has the CWHC impacted the lives of the women employed and where do you envision to taking this?

I don’t believe in solo success. I do not feel good about all my achievements unless I have helped others to improve their lives and achieve their goals and my life motto is to give back to the society. Earlier this year, I started the CWHC without even knowing how to go about it. I just knew I wanted to help the women in the area. After four months, we received an email from Stella and that was just so amazing. We have had so many beautiful stories from women who worked on this project. There were mothers who were able to proudly pay their children’s fee and financially able to help their families for the first time. Some of them earned more than their husbands which was a very empowering feeling for them. I believe their lives will be changed in the most positive way when they are financially free.

What’s next on your list?

I have big plans for both Chitral Women Sports Club and Chitral Women Handicraft Center. With the commitment of these amazing little girls and talented artisans we will change the whole area. The beautiful thing about people at home is, they are always willing to invest in education and when these women earn, they will be able to send their kids to better schools. For the little girls on the other hand, I have formed a female football team for Chitral and we are ready to participate in tournaments. I know not all 145 girls are going to be professional athletes but the outcomes of participation is not limited to this.