SRINAGAR: Conflict is integral to life in Kashmir, but despite the challenges, people -- especially the young -- are trying to make the most of diverse pursuits. One area where young Kashmiris, especially girls, have stood out, is in sports.

Sports has a unique ability to unify and empower, and nowhere is this more visible than in conflict torn Kashmir. Youth, especially in recent years, are trying their best to look beyond war and conflict, and a key area where they’ve done so is sports.

Kashmiri girls, in particular, have stood out, bringing attention to the state for their various sporting accomplishments. It is now quite a common sight in the valley to see girls practicing vigorously in the early mornings and evenings.

That said, with the incessant political instability in the valley, it is very difficult to produce sports players or take sports on as a mainstream career.

On talking to Bilquis Mir, an international coach for Water Sports who hails from the downtown area of Srinagar which is mostly under curfew, said, “a strong woman is not one who does not cry, a strong woman is the one who cries, fights and gets up again”. She believes that Kashmiri girls have a tremendous potential to compete in whatever field they are put their mind to, because it is the youth that mainly bears the brunt of violence which makes them even stronger.

Jabeena Akhter, who won a bronze for the country in April this year in Wucho shared an incident that reveals the challenges still present. During her practice she had to walk tens of kilometers at the time of unrest when there was hardly any vehicle seen on the roads.

She said, “I couldn’t even realize that I had covered so much of distance to reach to the practice session because of the passion towards my game”.

23 year old Sheikh Sajida, senior rugby player, recalls the hardships that she faced in the morning practice session in 2016 unrest, said, “I used to go to polo ground that is situated in the heart of the city, Lal chowk and I could hardly see any civilian on the streets. I used to go to the field on my bicycle and had to bump into the army men on the roads”.

“Many times, I was stopped by the army men that would totally frighten me to the last bone because I would not know what would happen to me the next moment. I had to lie to them that I live the next lane until I reached my destination”, she further added.

There are associations and trainees who work with the players but these international women players who have fulfilled their dreams by reaching the highest level have set up their respective academies and given full support and training to the upcoming players from the state. There is a sense of giving back, and a community is thus being nurtured and is growing.

With each passing year, the number of women participating in sporting activities is increasing at an amazing rate.

According to the statistics provided by Youth Services and Sports, there has been a considerable increase in the participation of women in different games.

In 2016 unrest, the total number of women that participated at different levels was 6886 by 31 December 2017.

In 2017 till November 30,, the total number of women that participated was 7724.

An official from Youth Services and Sports said, “The 2016 unrest hardly affected the participation in the national games. We had sent the same number of women teams outside that we used to in previous years.”

Mir, who had started the Water Sports Academy in 2008, has seen a tremendous increase in the number of girls from 3 to 200 in 2017 and she feels extremely happy about it. “I train my players for the international level, so that they win their national level medals at minimum”, she says with a smile.

Sajida, who also runs rugby classes in University of Kashmir trains the players of both genders of all the age groups. Girl participation in her classes has also increased from 11 to 80 players this year. “I get immense happiness while seeing them getting trained and I do it free of cost.”

Akhter also runs an academy in Baramulla which she started in 2008. She has set up many Wucho clubs in different areas of the district. Every year 30 students from her academy participate in the state championship.

“In every club under my academy, at least 35 players are getting trained”, she said.

Not only in Rugby, wucho, water sports, but also cricket, football, badminton and basketball are areas where girls are showing their mettle.

Unjuman Farooq, 26, has been the first women from India to bring the gold medal to the country in the senior category at the international Thang Tha Martial Arts championship held at Imphal, Manipur in 2011.

She has participated in 16 nationals including three Federation Cups and considers her father as her role model. She is also looking forward to achieving the status of being a Black Belt this year.

South Kashmir’s Anantnag district which is mainly affected by the conflict has produced a cricket player Rubaiya Syed who recently played for the north zone women’s team in an inter zone tournament organized by BCCI in Mumbai. She has also played in Ranji Trophy.

Jammu & Kashmir Football Association (JKFA) has sent its first ever girls team to participate in 6th National under 15 championship this year.

All said and done, there’s much to celebrate when it comes to Kashmir’s sporting achievements in recent years, with girls taking the lead.