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Remembering Pakistan's Shahida Raza, one year on from her death

By Zoya Zia

Shahida Raza was one of Pakistan’s brightest athletic stars and a devoted mother. The 29-year-old competed in multiple sports but was best known for captaining Pakistan’s national hockey team, representing her country with pride and honour. Last February, she died alongside at least 94 other migrants after their boat sank off of the Italian coast. As we mark the anniversary of Raza’s death, International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, Brown Girl Sport reflects on Shahida Raza’s lasting impact. 


Known lovingly as ‘Chintu’ by her teammates, Raza left Pakistan seeking a better life not only for herself, but also for her son, Hassan. Raza’s legacy is as much about her role as a mother as it is her sporting success. Born partially paralysed, three-year-old Hassan needed medical treatment that Raza could not obtain in Karachi - one of many factors pushing her to embark on a journey from her home in Quetta to Iran, then Turkey, with the aim of eventually reaching Italy or Australia where she hoped to seek asylum. 


Raised in the mountainous areas of Quetta in western Pakistan, Raza found a love for sport as a young girl. What started out as having fun on the field soon shifted to a potential career in her teens, as she joined the Balochistan hockey academy. Showing undeniable spirit and skill, she quickly impressed her coaches. Raza followed a pathway to the hockey national league in 2007 and before long, she became captain of the national women’s hockey team. 


“Ever since her childhood, Shahida had a passion for sport. She hoped to make her family and country proud,” her sister Sadia told Dawn News in Pakistan.

Photo by: Pakistan Hockey Federation


Raza faced difficulties making it to training at times, unable to afford the cost of public transport. But she persisted in pursuing her dreams, and as well as hockey, also played football for Balochistan women’s football club, reaching eight national finals with the team. She made history in 2010 when she played as part of the first Pakistan Women’s national football team, debuting at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship.


“She brought great skill and knowledge because she was coming with a background in hockey,” her football coach Tariq Lufti told The Express Tribune. “I was very impressed with her agility and her understanding of the game. It was very instinctive and natural.” 


Already excelling at two sports, Raza’s athleticism and sense of teamwork appeared boundless and she continued to blaze a trail. She competed in kickboxing and martial arts. As she represented Pakistan internationally, brought back medals from overseas and gained attention for her abilities, she pushed past social pressures and barriers to continue her career. 


“That was Shahida, filled with passion for sports,” her friend Summaiya Mushtaq  told The Express Tribune. “She never played for appreciation or to show others, she was self-driven and she motivated others too. It was the most amazing quality of hers to make everyone feel good and at ease. I think her mark on everyone was that she was always smiling.”


Although her achievements could be described in terms of medals - gold at the 2016 International Wushu Championship and silver at the 2019 South Asian Games, among others – her impact far exceeds these symbols of victory. She grew up in the Hazara Shia community, a religious and ethnic minority which has faced persecution by terrorist groups in recent decades. According to the National Commission for Human Rights Pakistan, thousands have been killed in suicide bombings and targeted attacks since 1999. Many Hazaras have been forced to leave Pakistan due to the recurring threat of violence and a lack of economic opportunity. The United Nations, Amnesty International and other international bodies have condemned the discrimination and attacks against Hazaras, noting that more must be done to support and protect their communities.


Despite these obstacles, Raza carried herself with dignity and perseverance. After Pakistan’s national hockey team conceded 37 goals in the Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) Cup in 2012 and only scored four, she held her head high. 


“We need an academy, a series of national and international tournaments,” Raza told Dawn. “Trust in us and we will deliver.” 

Photo by: Reuters


Mushtaq also remembers her friend’s unwillingness to give up, no matter the odds. “She would often say ‘choro ye log apna kerte hain, hum apna kerenge (leave them, we’ll improve our game) when it comes to seeing men’s hockey or other athletes because she always believed in being original. She never blindly followed anyone. She was a person of her own.”


Raza’s passion for sport took her to Malaysia, Qatar, Sri Lanka, China and Iran, giving her a space to be herself. After her first-born died in childbirth, she gave birth to her son Hassan and committed to caring for him. She later made a comeback to sport, eager to continue. 


“It was fascinating to see Shahida come back to the sport,” Mushtaq told The Express Tribune. “Her son was born and fell ill, so keeping him healthy and looking for ways to get him on his two feet became the purpose of her life. She also knew sports and she loved sports, therefore she made a comeback, and we were all stunned of course.”


In the end, Raza gave sport her all and gained international status, but she found herself among released from teams and struggled to find another job in Quetta. As the sole breadwinner in her family, she felt pressure to get back on her feet. The stakes were even higher because her son required medical treatment and Raza was raising him single-handedly. “She only wanted her three-year-old disabled son to move, laugh and cry like other children,” her sister explained to the Associated Press. “She risked her own life after hospitals in Pakistan told her that overseas medical aid could be the only option.”


Raza was left with no job after years of service to different sporting leagues. “The truth is when federations need players, the players are always there, but when the players need their federations and departments, they are never given any response,” said Mushtaq. “If there were more opportunities and fairness in Pakistan for athletes, and especially for women, then she would have been alive today.”


When headlines about the ‘migrant crisis’ appear on the news, they often muddle realities on the ground and paint migrants under a broad brush. But stories like Shahida Raza’s should be told and remembered. 


“There was no match for Shahida,” said Mushtaq.


Raza flew to Turkey in October 2022 and spent three months there before boarding a small wooden boat with hundreds of others. She represents one of many stories of migrants who make the difficult choice to leave their loved ones in desperation. To her family, friends and anyone inspired by her determination to excel at every sport she played, Shahida was not just a number. She was a person, a mother and an athlete. 


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