The 24-year-old Nadiya Nighat is preparing for training in her usual attentive fashion. A skipping rope is put in place, as are the cones, the bibs and the small goals. She wears a smile on her face because this is a dream come true.
Not that it has been easy to get to this point. Nighat is the first female football coach in Kashmir, the troubled Himalayan region between Pakistan and India, and the journey has been full of obstacles. But to see her coach is to witness what perseverance can do.
Nighat hails from Srinagar’s congested Rambagh area, near Lal Chowk, the famous clock tower, and has had to challenge perceptions and gender inequality ever since she fell in love with football.
“To be honest, at times, I felt down and out because of the insults and family pressure,” she says. “But I never lost the hope to keep trying at least. After all, we play to learn something in our lives. My dream is to train my players as long as possible, irrespective of gender.”
Nighat is determined to lift other young women up through football but also recalls the times, in the beginning, when she was bullied for playing. She was met with opposition everywhere she went.
“I remember, in 2013, I missed a final at Srinagar’s Polo Ground,” she says. “The opposition team questioned my inclusion in a team of boys, I couldn’t play and that moment left me crestfallen. At times I have felt pain inside when people have made comments, but things change and now the same people hail me for my work ethic.”
Brought up in a middle-class family, her participation in sport infuriated her parents to the extent that she was often beaten by her mother. That is not uncommon in the region but Nighat has made up with her parents, who are now proud of what she has achieved.
“Whenever I used to be outside for a couple of hours, my mother often came out to look for me,” she says. “She used to beat me for playing with boys but now, all this has changed and I have their full backing for what I am doing.” Her father, Mohammad Sidiq Batloo, says: “I am happy to see how far she has come after facing a lot of hardships. The way she fought, I am proud of her.”
In the summer of 2007, Mohammad Abdullah, a veteran coach, spotted Nighat and suggested she visit Amar Singh College. She joined the academy and trained alongside 47 boys, which pushed her to chase her dreams. “I owe a lot to Abdullah,” she says. “I still remember he told me that he would continue to teach me even if he had to stop training with the boys.”
Not content with breaking gender taboos, Nighat has always had an entrepreneurial streak in her. In 2015, aged 19, she set up the Jeeya Jaan [her nickname] 7 Football Club, inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Whenever I felt that I needed to improve on a few things, I would switch to YouTube to watch CR7 videos,” she says. “I also follow Jamshedpur FC and Kerala Blasters [Indian Super League clubs], Hilal Rasool Parry and Sajid Yousuf Dar for coaching bits.”
Coaching has always interested Nighat too and early on she completed her first coaching course with the Jammu and Kashmir Football Association (JKFA) and was soon training more than 40 children in different age groups.
“With time, the number increased gradually,” she says. “I am indebted to J&K Football Association which has helped me in every possible way. They have even provided 25 pairs of boots for my different groups.”
The JJ7 Football Club’s boys’ team ended up runners-up to IFC Nowgam in 2016 during the 32-team Khelo Kashmir [Play Kashmir] tournament. Nighat believes it helped her to be recognised in the male-dominated sport. She continues to play a pivotal role in grassroots development with the JKFA, even if the pandemic has restricted her to online demonstrations for her players, while coaching the women’s team at Real Kashmir FC.
In March, just before the pandemic started sweeping through India, Nighat completed her International Professional Scouting Organisation (IPSO) course, which set her back around 50,000 rupees (£520). “I believe in dignity and respect, and we are all accountable in one way or another to improve this sport,” she says. “We should respect each other’s values to make progress as a society, and I believe I am doing my bit.”
At her academy in Rambagh, she trains around 50 young players, including girls from different age groups. She aims to introduce free training for those aspiring youngsters whose parents cannot afford the enrolment costs. Over the past decade, her commitment to the sport and skills on the field have made Nighat a trailblazer for other female athletes in the region.
And the players who she is coaching are delighted to have a role model to look up to. “The best thing about Nadiya is her commitment towards the football and the way she puts in the hard yards by nursing her groups of players,” says one of Nighat’s players, Ruqaya, who is enrolled in her girl’s academy. “She wants best players in business and that’s her strength.”