By Sumir Kaul
Baramulla (Kashmir), Oct 2 Her hijab firmly in place, she slings her bat across her shoulders and rides her Scooty to college and practice, challenging not just her rivals on the cricket field but also societal and religious stereotypes.
As captain of the women's cricket team in Baramulla's Government Women's College, Insha is one of the young women setting trends in this suburban town in north Kashmir and in the Valley.
"Bekhauff azad rehna hai mujhe (I want to stay independent without any fear)," sings the 21-year-old fourth semester student of the Government Women's College who successfully led her team to lift this year's inter-university cricket championship in the Valley last week.
Her brave words -- taken from the title track of Aamir Khan's talk show "Satyamev Jayate" -- are echoed by others who walk the tightrope between tradition and passion, playing cricket even if it means doing so with their hijabs, a scarf covering the head and neck. Some even play with the burqa.
Like Rabya, a first year student, an all-rounder who manages to bat, bowl and field with the burqa when she's in Baramulla. When she plays in Srinagar, she opts for the hijab.
"I cannot go against the wishes of my teachers at Darasgah (religious school where she gets her Islamic teaching)," said Rabya.
The all-rounder on the team, the daughter of a daily wage labourer, is from the Jamaat-e-Islamia dominated old town of Baramulla.
Insha, too, wore her burqa when she first started playing, but the patriarchal society in which lives did not take it well and often taunted her. An undeterred Insha now wears a hijab and confidently drives her Scooty to college with her bat.
"The journey has not been smooth. When I walked in my tracks with a cricket bat, people would complain to my father. My family was supportive," said Insha, a multi-talented sportsperson who has represented the Jammu and Kashmir women teams in not just cricket but also volleyball.
Her passion for cricket was noticed by her Urdu professor and was backed by college authorities who levelled a small ground for cricket practice.
"I was amazed by Insha's performance and wanted her to do something in the field. However, lack of infrastructure in our college and the absence of any clear-cut policy on sports were stumbling blocks," said Rehmat-ullah Mir, who attributes his broad-minded thinking to his education in Hyderabad from where he completed his Ph.D in Urdu.
"A campaign on social media was started with the hope of getting some help, but the comments from the male-dominated society were discouraging. Then, with the help of the college principal, we decided to form a team and compete within the university," he added.
Building a team was a herculean task.
Two physical trainers of the college -- Gurdeep Singh and Showkat Ahmed - helped train women students. Insha, who had played at the national level, helped with additional inputs on warm-up exercises.
"I learnt stretching and warm-up exercises during my camps outside the state. We also want to do something in sports and have petitioned the government many times for opening a training centre here but to no avail," she said.
The other big hurdle was overcoming familial opposition. Consent from parents was mandatory.
"We have some good players like Rabya. Her parents agreed but only if she was allowed to play with her burqa on. Others also gave their consent but only if they are allowed to wear their hijab," said coach Gurdeep Singh.
When the entire team was being photographed after winning the inter-university tournament, Rabya was the only girl who walked away as her religious teachings prohibited her from getting photographed.
Rabya knows cricket may just be a transient phase in her life and she might have to one day give it up. Being the eldest of four siblings, she said she knows she has to set "an example".
Insha's father Bashir Ahmed Mir, who runs a fruit business in Baramulla, said he is proud of his daughter and hopes she will continue with cricket.
"Kuch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna," he said, recalling an old Bollywood song.
"I don't care about what people say and would rather focus on what my daughter wants. She was a tomboy from the time she was a child. All I wanted her to do is pursue her dream. I am thankful to her coaches Gurdeep Saheb and Showkat Ahmed for training her well. Cricket is only a game but they have developed in her a fighting spirit," he added.
Gardener Mohammed Ashraf Parray, who doubles up as groundsman, also takes pride in the girls' achievements.
"I feel very happy when these students play and win. I feel that my efforts have not gone waste," he said.
He regrets the many restrictions on girls. "Today, girls are equal to boys in everything. Then why this discrimination?"