Development of Freestyle Wresting
March 12, 2023

We Are Defined by the Storms We Survive

The Girl From Kashmir Who Found Purpose in Football

Surrounded by picturesque mountains, melodious trees, whispering breeze, there is this lush green ground where a girl hardly eight years of age is dribbling the football all by herself. She is so immersed in the sport that she hasn’t even noticed her sibling insisting to call her back home where their mother is waiting for them to study. Eventually the sibling had to get hold of the football to gain her attention, and almost compel her to return home.

The place is Mirpur, Azad Kashmir, and the little girl is adamant upon one day playing at national level. Settled in Kashmir for generations, she was to spend most part of her life there. As for her dreams, well, the odds were stacked against them as there weren’t many openings for girls there at that time.

Who knew life would change so drastically for her on a pleasant Saturday morning. It was as if the sky fell on her family, the neighbourhood and the infact the entire region. They were hit by an earthquake of unimaginable magnitude, that would affect more than 500,000 families, leave above 3.5 million people homeless, damage over 780,000 buildings, including 17,000 schools and many hospitals. 

Life would never remain the same for the eight-year-old Habba Zahra. Thankfully, her family survived but they had to relocate from Kashmir to Islamabad, and start all over again at the new place.

Habba Zahra as a child, pictured sitting in a garden.

Habba was in for a completely new and different life, one that would eventually alter her forever. The abrupt relocation meant moving out of the comfort zone that primarily included her childhood friends, familiar teachers and the larger family. The pace and mannerism were all different at the new place now, and she felt she was in a competition where academic grades were closely monitored and so children were expected to excel.

Habba was a good student but her heart was in football. She would make it a point to play football whenever and wherever she could.  Habba’s passion for football was strong but the opportunities to play around her were bleak. Left with no option for girls, she started training with an only-boys football club.

“I used to be the only girl playing in the ground. All the boys made condescending comments in the beginning. In any given setting, I had to prove that I was a good player, while the boys were never questioned for their ability to play well. They already had their teams and tournaments, but the girls never even participated.”

This catapulted Habba to establish an all-girls football team at her school. She went and knocked on the door of every classroom, and dragged every girl who showed even an ounce of interest onto the field. This often got her into trouble with the school administration, but that never stopped her. Even after all that effort, the girls often refused to play and were easily demotivated by all the odds stacked against them. After many days and nights of intense emotional and physical labor, Habba had an all-girls football team in front of her, under her captaincy. And it wasn’t just any football team, it was one that went on to win many inter-school tournaments, and would stand the test of time.

“Girls from my old school still reach out to me even today, after over a decade, thanking me for starting a legacy. It feels unreal.”

Time progressed, and Habba excelled both in her studies and football. Habba made it through to university. She set up the first ever women football team of her university and was not only its captain but the defacto coach as well. A dejavu moment for Habba as she had achieved the same at her school earlier in life.

Habba was making her mark through football wherever she went, but she felt strongly that she was missing out on something so dear to her – her dream of playing for the national team. While she was successful in establishing an all-girls football team in her school, and later at her university, the reality was still that there were very few opportunities for girls to play on a national level.

Through her perseverance, Habba continued playing and eventually she came across country’s first women’s football club. There Habba found a great coach in Shahid Ahmed Khan, someone she reveres to date, and considers him one of the best things that happened to him in his football career.

Habba resting after a match in her Young Rising Stars kit.

Her perseverance and determination led her to score 8 goals in one match at a national championship, a moment that she claims was one of the best moments of her football journey.

Habba now holds 13 gold medals, 12 silver medals, and 5 bronze medals. She has volunteered as a football trainer numerous times, and her aim is to eventually make a free-of-cost school for girls that want to play but don’t have the opportunity.


The road has always been bumpy for her. After achieving so much, Habba still faces criticism from people who thought football would be a short-lived hobby for her. She’s been resilient in the face of adversity, nepotism, and all other obstacles that are rampant at sports bodies in the country.  

Habba often visits Kashmir with her family to stay rooted in their culture and keep the bond intact with the loved ones. She considers herself a daughter of Kashmir. Her ancestral place runs very deep with her. When she recalls that fateful morning of 2005 when the earthquake struck, you can clearly notice her tone lowering down, eyes lit up and then there is a pause when she finds it difficult to speak for some time.

When she regains her feeble voice, she proudly remarks that although what was lost on that day can never be recovered but in a very small way, she feels she contributed towards bringing back some joy in the lives of Kashmiri girls through breaking the barriers through football.

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