GSB Interview

Karishma Ali Lifts Girls Up and Sparks #ClimateComeback in Pakistan through Soccer


Karishma Ali’s story is so powerful, so important that we are dispensing with the traditional introduction to a GSB interview. I hope you are as moved and motivated by reading it as I was by talking with her.

GreenSportsBlog: Karishma, you were born and grew up in Chitral (chi-TRAHL) in patriarchal Northern Pakistan where girls were not allowed to play sports at all. Yet you got into soccer/football. How did that happen?

Karishma Ali: Well Lew, when I was nine years old in 2006, we were able to watch the Men’s World Cup from Germany on TV. I fell in love with it immediately! My dad was always into sports, and he encouraged me to watch and wanted me to play. But, as you noted, that was not allowed in my region by the old, male leadership.

GSB: So, how did you get the opportunity to play?

Karishma: I have to thank my dad. He and my mom are both educators and he always wanted the best for us — I have a younger sister and brother — in terms of education and also sports. Because he saw that we could do it. His worldview is much broader than most of the men in our region.

So, I moved to the capital city of Islamabad eight hours away when I was 12. I got into sports right away. I could see real football, up close. It was incredible! What seemed impossible was now possible. Soon, I was playing for the school team, and it was like a dream! And then after a while I became captain.

Karishma Ali prepares to shoot (Photo credit: Highlanders of Islamabad)


GSB: What made you such a fast learner and good player?

Karishma: First of all, I saw the privilege of being able to play in the first place. This was a gift from my parents. So, I would do anything to play and to improve. I would not be outworked. I’d go to school early, at 6 or 7 AM to practice before classes in 40° C (104° F) during summers, I didn’t care. I trained every day with my coach. I started out as a winger and now I play as a left back…

GSB: …A very physical position.

Karishma: Exactly! I LOVE the physical part. We come from the mountains and have strong bones and constitutions. So, I love to tackle — a key part of the back’s job — and then to attack!

GSB: I’m getting a sense of your style. OK, let’s go back to high school. You became captain and then what happened?

Karishma: When I was 14, a coach from a local club saw me play in a school tournament and asked me if I can join his team. From there my football journey started. In 2015, I participated in trials for a team that was meant to participate in the International Jubilee games in Dubai. I made it through the trials.

GSB: WOW! Congratulations! What was the reaction in Chitral?

Karishma: Unfortunately, it was very bad. Girls didn’t play sports in my region at the time. They are married off at very young ages and then are expected to be quiet and produce and raise kids. It is a horrible existence.

In fact, women’s football in general is not popular all over Pakistan. Only in certain cities and in some parts of the north of Pakistan can girls play football. And because of this, and the fact that so few resources are devoted to girls soccer even in the cities, only about two to five percent of all girls play the sport.

So, I faced a lot of challenges and resistance when I started playing. There was a point when I wanted to give up playing football because I was scared for my family’s safety. But my dad told me, ‘People are going to try to bring you down, but you shouldn’t give up.’

GSB: What were they saying and doing to try to hurt you?

Karishma: That I was a threat to our culture. They compared sports to prostitution. And I got threats.

GSB: My God! How awful. How did you feel?

Karishma: I was very frightened. I thought about leaving the sport, but dad kept encouraging me to not give up. ‘You’re playing for every girl who is coming up after you,’ he said.

And you know what? That encouragement was what I needed to fight back. Our culture needs to change. Boys and men can do whatever they want. Girls and women? We have to be perfect; we have to be ‘honorable’ and pure. We are expected to stay home. And this holds our society back, economically, socially, in every way.

My dad challenged me, saying ‘You can be successful on the football pitch but is that really winning? Giving back is the real success!’

I heard him. I looked at this as a war and I was going to fight against this destructive culture, be great at what I do, and I was going to win!

GSB: So, what did you do?

Karishma: In June 2018, when I was 20, I started, with my parent’s encouragement, the Chitral Women’s Sports Club, now the Karishma Ali Foundation, to give girls a chance to practice their right to play sports and stay healthy. It came from two questions I was asking myself: Are there more girls like me in the Chitral area? Are there more parents like mine? We sought out sponsors, but no companies wanted to help. One man even said, ‘You are literally digging your own grave!’ Can you believe that?

GSB: Based on what you’ve been telling me, sadly I can believe it…

Karishma: I know. But like I said, nothing would stop me. So, I collected funds from my friends and my family to buy kits for the girls and printed 20 participation forms, thinking maybe only five would show up.

Well, the next day, 60 girls from 8 to 18 years old showed up with completed forms — they had copied them and shared them with their friends. It was incredible!

We ended up having a seven-day camp and a one-day tournament. Only moms could come to watch! The girls LOVED IT! They were so happy and open, and not scared at all.

GSB: That is unbelievable, Karishma! But how did you pull it off? I mean, where did you play? I can’t imagine the men in Chitral allowing girls to play soccer in public in town.

Karishma: You’re of course right, Lew. That would have been impossible. We needed a safe place to play and so it had to be outside the town. It was not comfortable for them to play among people within the village and we surely would have been stopped by someone. So, the girls walked two hours each way to a hidden area out of town that was near the base of a mountain. No one bothered us there and we turned that area into a makeshift field and that’s where the football camp took place.

Girls practice soccer/football dribbling on a hardscrabble pitch outside of Chitral, thanks to the Karishma Ali Foundation (Photo credit: Karishma Ali Foundation)


Team photo of the soccer-playing (and loving) girls of the Karishma Ali Foundation (Photo credit: Karishma Ali Foundation)


GSB: Again, unbelievable! But were you able to keep that under wraps? The men had to find out eventually, no?

Karishma: We tried to keep it quiet but eventually it came out. And then it got crazy! Someone posted a photo of the girls playing — in trousers because there is no way girls can wear shorts in public — with me photoshopped in playing in shorts in Islamabad. The men back home used those pictures to start a campaign against us.

GSB: What happened with that campaign?

Karishma:..It was very hard for us to do anything about it. Some people phoned my dad too. This went on for four or five months. Finally, I spoke with a minister at the time, Maleeka Bokhari who happens to be a woman, in Islamabad. She told me that we have the right to play sports and that she would protect me.

GSB: WOW! How did that change things?

Karishma: It was incredible. The next year, we won a grant from Women Win, which allowed us to bring in pro coaches and expand to volleyball. Since then, we’ve added more girls, play in a bigger area, and have diversified our offerings to include art therapy, feminine hygiene, and health education courses. All of this is so important because access to sports and art are so crucial to mental health. And we are hurting on that scale; sadly, suicide among girls and women is way too high in our region.

GSB: The misogyny is tragic on so many levels, including as it relates to boys! If they are taught that girls and women are to be subjugated, then they will subjugate them when they get older. What might having boys be involved look like?

Karishma: I agree wholeheartedly. And we’ve already involved some boys with our program. They volunteer to help make the grounds playable and help us on social media. We plan to develop this further.

GSB: How is the establishment in Chitral reacting to the boys getting involved?

Karishma: They never say anything to the boys. They always direct the conversation towards women and shaming them. However, I am proud to see some of the educated young boys fighting back saying it is the right of girls to play sports. At the end of the day, we cannot do this alone. We need male allies and we have been fortunate to have some on our team and as partners.

GSB: Now, let’s remind our readers that you’re running the Karishma Ali Foundation while you’re still playing professionally in Islamabad. How is that going?

Karishma: I am playing professionally with the Highlanders in Islamabad and while that is going well, I am currently dealing with an injury that is keeping me out of a regional tournament. I am working hard to get back on the pitch, with hopes of playing again in October.

Now, my injury does not slow my work with the girls in Chitral, which continues apace. Once my playing days are over, in addition to that work, I also want to get into soccer management in some fashion. It needs to be so much better, and I can help make that happen!

Karishma Ali (#2, 2nd from left, front row) with her Islamabad Highlanders teammates (Photo credit: Highlanders of Islamabad)


GSB: I know you can! Now, pivoting over to the environment and climate change, how does that figure into life in Chitral, your interests, and your work?

Karishma: Living in the Hindu Kush range means it is almost impossible to ignore climate change and the environment. I’ve always been concerned about it. We live under glaciers. Not long ago, our village would be cool in the summer but nowadays, the summers are often oppressively hot. The mountains are warmer too and that’s the real problem because the snow and glaciers are melting and, since we’re in the valley, we’re in the path of terrible mudslides and are getting hit with awful flooding.

When this happens, the roads can get washed away and then we’re completely cut off from the outside world! And the women are most impacted. The mudslides and floods mean that we have no access to local clean water, so they must walk for miles in each direction to find it.

GSB: We don’t want today’s girls and girls who will be coming up in the future to be as impacted by the impacts of climate change as women currently are. What can you and your organization do to make sure that is the case?

Karishma: I want to educate girls in the region on climate change and its impacts and what can be done about it through sports. That’s why I’m excited to be part of the EcoAthletes Champions team! We would love to partner with EcoAthletes to educate and inspire our girls in the football and volleyball programs on climate to help them take the initiative.

I would also be so proud to have some of our girls be able to go to the University of Chitral — the Karishma Ali Foundation has signed a memo of understanding (MOU) with the school to work towards gender equality to empower women to have greater opportunities in sports. With that being the case, I can envision EcoAthletes working with the women students at the university to educate them about the opportunities at the intersection of sports, the environment and climate.

GSB: Now THAT would be a #ClimateComeback! And talk about inspiration…YOU are the Malala[1] of girls/womens football in Pakistan! 

Karishma: Thank you so much.

[1] Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani female education activist and became the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate at the age of 17, the youngest person to ever receive that award.

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