Fatima Saleem Still Hopes To Use Sports To Empower Pakistani Girls

Throughout her life in Pakistan, Fatima Saleem has seen how ongoing war can affect the mindset of a nation. The most recent example also hit closest to home, when terrorists attacked a school in Peshawar in December. Seven gunmen associated with the Taliban stormed a military-run school in northwestern Pakistan and opened fire, killing 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.

The country was traumatized, and adults were scared to send kids back to school. "But," Saleem says, "we still must send them."

The journalist has long resolved to change minds and reset the psyche of her countrymen. Her agent for such change? Sports.

"Sports has always been a means to bring all nations to one common place," Saleem says. "Whether they are rival cultures or nations, sports breaks all such boundaries and brings them face to face in a positive manner."

Raised with three brothers and a father who were dedicated fans in her cricket-loving country, Saleem loved sports from an early age, watching cricket, soccer and field hockey for hours with her family. She also swam competitively in her youth.

She rolled that love of the game into a career, becoming a sports anchor for national network Geo News, where she became one of the few female sports journalists in the region.

After college, she interviewed for a job as a sports anchor and reporter at Geo English. She told her interviewers that her dream was to cover sports. "They said, 'Great. Here's a mike. You start tomorrow!'" she recalls.

And so without much more training, she was sent out into the field to talk to fans -- male fans -- to get their opinions on famous cricketer Shoaib Akhtar and his off-field antics that had been very much in the news.

It went so well that the network wanted to try her as a co-anchor for a sports show. "And since that day, there was no looking back," she says. The first major event she covered was the Beijing Olympics, then the Cricket World Cup in 2009.

She had a little apprehension about getting into sports journalism as a woman in Pakistan: "A woman with a mike and a camera talking about sports? People didn't accept it at first. They didn't take me seriously. I got a lot of hate mail on social media, especially being a woman wearing my blazers and Western clothes talking about sports."

But she was ready for the pushback and stuck with it: "They just got sick and tired of sending negative comments, and they soon realized I was here to stay."

Having the support from her network has helped, as well.

Abdul Waheed Khan, a senior editor and host at Geo and one of Saleem's longtime mentors, always believed she had the energy and insight to become a great sports news anchor. "Fatima's strength has always been her interest in sports. ... She has brought fresh ideas to the table and became a part of the team by being involved in every aspect of a show and its preparation," he says, adding that a soccer assignment he once gave her "remains one of the best packages on football in Pakistan, as she ventured into every aspect of the game."

Saleem's presence has also had a positive impact on the station's ratings, Khan says. Her knowledge and presence commands respect from the players and the largely male audience.

Despite Saleem's professional success, she couldn't ignore a large segment of the Pakistani population she felt could benefit from a sport-forward attitude: women.

"Women start working in the home from a very young age instead of hitting the playground," Saleem says, so they have no idea what they are missing. Those who do play sports find themselves lacking support, venues where they can follow modesty dress codes, properly trained coaches, and other female teammates.

All of that makes the struggle to get and stay in the game that much harder. Saleem says that's what made her give up on swimming at the age of 11.

But giving up never sat right with her. She felt a need to change that course for her countrywomen, giving them a deeper, more authentic involvement in sporting life. She believed that change needed to start at the family level, with mothers and fathers supporting the idea of daughters kicking, running, jumping and enjoying all facets of sports.

"Our girls deserve to enjoy a proper childhood, not just to be babysitters when they are babies themselves," Saleem says.

Enter Go Girl Pakistan, an organization Saleem launched in February 2014 so girls ages 5 to 12 could have a safe place to play soccer and other sports via no-cost clinics run by professional, women coaches. She started with clinics in Karachi that served about 100 girls, with plans to expand to other cities in Pakistan.

Saleem admits to some early trepidation; she was worried that parents would object to sending their daughters to the clinics. The best way to allay that concern, she says, was to involve the parents, getting them out on the field with their daughters. Go Girl started hosting free "Daddy & Me" soccer clinics, followed by "Mommy & Me" events. "It worked like magic!" Saleem says. Soon parents were joined by uncles, aunts and friends to play with and root for their daughters.

"There were some very emotional moments at these events, too," Saleem says. "We managed to revive some long-lost relationships."

Saleem solidified her idea for Go Girl Pakistan in 2013 as a participant in the Global Sports Mentoring Program, a joint effort between espnW and the U.S. Department of State. Trina Bolton, a program officer at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, credited Saleem's dynamism and fearlessness for helping get Go Girl off the ground. "She figured out a way to create a positive, community-wide experience for young girls through her clinics," Bolton says.

However, funding constraints do at times mean programs are paused. Money must be collected to pay coaches and rent venues for the clinics. Go Girl has managed to nab soccer balls, cones and goalpost markers by way of donation, and Saleem has applied for and received grants.

In fact, Go Girl, with new grant funding, was slated to start up again in January with a program that would go to about 20 schools per month. But the Peshawar attack and subsequent violence -- including grenades being lobbed near another school, this time in Karachi in early February -- have, for now, halted all progress with the program. The threat of violence, Saleem says, led the government to suspend afterschool activities.

"It's not safe to have children, especially girls, out on open fields. We must put these children's safety first," Saleem says.

Through the disappointment of the program's suspension amid an unsettling time, the children offer her hope.

Three weeks after the Peshawar attack, children -- some still wearing bandages and wounds -- returned to school. They were determined, Saleem says, to not let fear win. She calls this courage the Malala effect. After seeing 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a victim of an attack who went on to win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, the children are inspired.

"We have thousands of Malalas now," Saleem says. "And all of them want to continue to learn and move forward."