• 04 Nov - 10 Nov, 2017
  • Mariam Khan
  • Interview

To many Noorena Shams is one who serves; to some she is a rebellious individual; a few know her to be a dreamer, but to the girl who aspires to achieve all her dreams, she is “a human with a mission who believes that everyone has been sent to this world for a purpose, and with the passage of time, I am getting closer to what I have been sent for.”

Noorena was born in Timergara, a small town in the district of Lower Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was in 2009 that the Pakistan army conducted an operation to drive the extremists out of Dir. “There were a series of attacks in different parts of the valley,” Noorena shares, whose house was closer to the army fort. “On July 10, 2010 at 1:30am a suicide attacker struck his car against the wall of the army (installation), and my home’s wall was next to it. There was another similar attack when all of us were sleeping and a few rocket (powered) bullets were fired at our gate and front walls,” says the sportswoman who has no idea who planned the attacks and why.

Growing up in Lower Dir, ‘an underdeveloped and unapproachable area’, Noorena cycled her way out of the barriers into an outdoor space where women are not mostly seen. “Out of curiosity I rode my cycle outside my house at the age of 10; it was one hell of an adventure,” she recollects the fond memory.

“I have practiced cricket with soldiers and my brothers in the plains of Dir and I was the only girl to be playing any sport amongst them,” Noorena says, adding “you can definitely say I rose from an area where no one would have ever imagined (a girl playing outdoors).”

When internationally people started recognising her, she did fear a backlash from her townspeople. “However, I was amazed to see the positive response and immense support I received from my people,” says the first international female athlete from Lower Dir in the past century, who is the current World Number 212 as ranked by the Professional Squash Association.

Her adventurous journey is one which landed her in the realm of disguise. “Noor Islam was never my idea,” shares Noorena about the days when she took up the mask of a boy, Noor Islam. When asked about the cloaked cruise of hers, she reveals, “I would say I was blessed with an angel who came to me in the form of a coach. The first time I met him in the (cricket) academy, I tried to convince him to let me play in an all-boys academy,” but it took a lot of effort for Noorena to convince him to let her play. “Through the trials, he was amazed at my grip and strong hitting point. He suggested that I cut my hair and on the card that he issued, he put his name as my father’s, introducing me (to the other boys) as his son,” she brings to mind the time when she had not hit puberty. “All of us were under-15 with no visible physical differences. But soon I started noticing biological changes in my teammates and me. Their voices were changing and they were getting facial hair, so we had to reveal my identity.” At that time she was the vice-captain of the team and was supported fully by her teammates when they found out that Noor was Noorena. “That was when I realised passion overpowered gender.”

Noorena had a tough time trying to convince people around her to accept her as an athlete. “The concept of being a student athlete or earning through sports is not popular here,” shares the girl who wanted people around her to accept her to be a little different. “People do accept the concept of getting academic education, but do not realise the need of physical education,” Nooreena says, pointing out that “being accepted in this society is tough; the society haunts your dreams,” shares the achiever who believes it’s all about accepting who you are and it is only then “you learn the art of being tough and achieve your dreams.”

She played cricket initially but bid farewell to the gentleman’s game ‘due to unusual circumstances’ when on a fine autumn day her friends decided to go for swimming classes. “I went to try my luck too but I found out it (swimming) was too expensive,” she tells me, but when swimming didn’t open its doors for her, she found a squash academy was right behind the swimming academy. “I just peeked in and found that it was free,” speaks the young lady who had no idea about the world she was going into. “I never knew I would play squash, but now I do not know how to quit.”

The black gown or abaya has become Noorena’s identity. “I wear it when I go to the squash court,” and she wants us to imagine “a woman wearing an abaya roaming around the city with a racket sticking out of her backpack,” she remarks how it is the most comfortable attire for her. Noorena does mention that wearing tights or shorts do garner unnecessary attention but when in the squash court, all the spectators “see is the quality of the game being played.”

This star-gazer has an extremely supportive primary circle and she accredits her mother to be the rock behind her success. “Being a single mother she has proven to be the strongest woman I have ever come across. She did not let the world come between our dreams,” Noorena talks about her mother who is “the first female contractor in the history of Malakand division whose devotion and struggle has pushed us to achieve all we have dreamed off.”

Her brothers too were always by her side. “They never shied from introducing me to their friends and always treated me as an equal,” says the blessed individual.

Noorena would often find herself as the only woman standing tall at certain platforms in a patriarchal society. “I have to be on my toes all the time. I have to plan how to earn,” she talks about her hurdles. “Initially, people would discourage me, but I have been working so hard that I have convinced them that I’ll have things done my way,” says the strong-willed lady.

Noorena faced challenges from all fours. “I have come across jealousy and mental harassment from my own fellows,” the fighter makes it known.

“Every challenge made me stronger. Those who could not suppress me, started claiming that everything I do is fake. My sponsors were snatched because of these (false) claims,” Noorena, the lady who had to support herself, tells me. “I have worked as a photographer at weddings, cartoonist at a local newspaper, writer and artist to support myself.” She was faced with threats too. “I stood up against harassment in sports, especially with girls. I handled a few rape cases alone and received calls and text messages claiming that (I’ll be) destroyed but every time I rose beyond that, becoming stronger.”

The 20-year-old vividly remembers the time when in early 2017 she was invited to address the UN Commission on the Status of Women. “It was a thrilling experience. It’s not everyday that you have been given a responsibility to speak your heart out about your blessings, problems and solutions,” shares the proud lady who has also represented Pakistan at Junior Olympics and won a silver medal for cycling. “I was 11 and very energetic. I do not remember what exactly my thoughts were on winning the medal, but probably, it must have been the best day of my life and thinking of that day still makes me very happy.”

As a child, cars always fascinated Noorena. “I used to explore different showrooms with my younger brother whenever our father used to take us for a visit,” and it is the love for automobiles that makes this warrior pursue a path not many here wish for. “I will be studying Automobile Engineering,” shares the lady who aims to become a Formula One racer. •