The New Afridi Problem

Shahid Afridi’s comments about female athletes were repugnant and destructive, and he has to recognize how damaging they can be coming from the most popular cricketer in Pakistan.

By Mustafa Hameed

By Pakistani standards, the defeat to Sri Lanka in last weekend’s Asia Cup final was uncommonly conventional: when Pakistan loses – especially in tournament finals – it tends to be in spectacular fashion. But to take nothing away from Sri Lanka’s composed, triumphant performance, for many fans the Cup reached its climax a few days earlier, when Pakistan and India played out a new episode in their cricket rivalry.

That was the match when Shahid Afridi turned a late-order collapse into one of Pakistan’s most dramatic victories over the old rival. With back-to-back sixes in the final over, Afridi took Pakistan to victory by a single wicket, with two balls to spare, and echoed Javed Miandad’s last-ball six against the Indians in 1986.

His next innings, against Bangladesh, was even more extraordinary: Afridi strode out with Pakistan lagging behind the run rate, hit five sixes from his first nine balls, picked up an injury, hit two more sixes, and got out all in less than five overs. He picked up his 50 in just 18 deliveries, and Pakistani fans at large were in love again.

So it was a shock, in the wake of this happy renaissance, to see interview footage surface online earlier this week of Afridi making extraordinarily chauvinistic comments. When an interviewer asks him for his opinion on women’s cricket being expanded and tryouts being held in the relatively conservative city of Peshawar, Afridi responded [translated from Urdu]:

“In our women’s hands is a lot of maza [enjoyment, taste]. They make really good food.”

The reporter, visibly somewhat uncomfortable, tried to press on with his question before Afridi cut him off, saying, “Thank you, you got your answer.”

It’s true, as the sportswriter Osman Samiuddin wrote after last week’s India match, that Afridi is “a Pakistani sort of hero.” He has an impatient charisma. When he bats, his contempt for procedure (and, often, common sense) is like a renegade cop’s: he either connects and excites or holes out in a fiery disaster. Even his “star man” celebration is equal parts endearing and vain, a display out of the daydreams of a 12-year-old playing with his neighborhood friends. And by all accounts he is a supportive, encouraging teammate—the younger members of the squad, some of whom watched his most famous performances as children, look up to Shahid bhai as a team leader and veteran.

But that devil-may-care bravado has a flipside. Just as quickly as he is prone to getting himself out after one or two good strikes, Afridi can blow up his own spot publicly. This isn’t the first time he’s courted controversy with his statements. Many cricket fans will remember the 2011 World Cup semi-final, also against India. After praising and congratulating Indian fans in his post-match comments, he went on a talk show days later and awkwardly claimed that Indians “could never have hearts like Pakistanis,” promptly denting whatever progress had been made in smoothing relations between the two fan bases after a successful World Cup.

That sort of jingoistic fan-baiting, though tacky, may be expected from a professional athlete in an international game: English and Australian cricketers do it, too, absent some of the subtext of edgy Indo-Pak relations. Afridi’s recent comments about female athletes pose a larger problem, with more troubling implications.

First, it’s important to contextualize this. Pakistani society is thoroughly multifaceted, and it’s impossible to generalize collective attitudes towards women based on any single factors, be they economic, religious, ethnic, or anything else. This is a nation which has been led by a female head of state (something even the U.S. hasn’t had yet), where a woman is the only Oscar-winner, and where women occupy many positions of leadership, power, and visibility all across the country. Men and women alike, in all social classes and stations, have fought for women’s rights throughout the country’s history.

On the other hand, many portions of Pakistani society do reject women’s participation in public life, some claiming the authority of “Islam” and others citing tradition. Such views are pervasive in some segments of society.

Women’s sports have suffered from that attitude as much as any other field. The proposal for a national women’s cricket team, brought forward by two sisters, Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, was at first blocked by Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1997 after the idea was met with death threats and lawsuits. Despite those obstacles, the women’s team was ultimately established with the support of the Pakistan Cricket Board and began playing international matches later that year.

Since then, the team has developed steadily, though it’s met barriers along the way. At first there was debate over what clothing would be allowed (after some time in shalwar kameez, they now play in standard jerseys). Then it was whether men would be permitted to watch their matches. Later on, it was whether the women’s team could have men as coaches.

So it’s been an awkward growing process for this vulnerable sporting community, and a decade or so of conflict, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, and the see-saw of religion’s role in national politics have not made things any easier.

Which takes us back to Afridi, the Pakistani sort of hero, as capable of inspiring as he is of depressing. The interview appears to have been conducted in October 2013, but somehow slipped under the radar until now. Responses have started to surface as the video gained exposure. Alia Chughtai at Dawn.com penned an op-ed titled “Why I won’t be cheering for Shahid Afridi anymore,” pointing out the substantial contributions women have made to Pakistani society and calling on Afridi to recognize the influence of his statements as a national figure. From the other side, Farwa Zahra wrote a blog for The Express Tribune arguing that Afridi is entitled to his own views. “His job is to play cricket, not make statements about women’s liberation,” Zahra writes.

The problem with Zahra’s stance is that Afridi didn’t just “not make statements about women’s liberation”—what he said during that interview actively went against the development of the women’s game in Pakistan. Even if he didn’t mean the remark and, as he claims, it was an out-of-context joke (as if that would be any better?), it stokes the fires of misogyny in Pakistan, damaging the efforts of women’s rights activists and providing fodder to those who would see women excluded from sport and public life altogether.

For his part, Afridi has said the comments were out of context and don’t represent his views, pointing to his past efforts to find sponsors for the women’s team. And at least one women’s team member, Kainat Imtiaz, has come forward to defend him, saying that he always encouraged and supported them as they were coming up through the ranks.

Unfortunately, a certain degree of damage has already been done. Different iterations of the video have been viewed tens of thousands of times online, and Afridi’s backtracking won’t prevent the comments from perpetuating the boys’ club attitude of most sports in Pakistan.

And outside the adult misogynists, whose position is bolstered by those remarks from the most admired athlete in Pakistan, what about the kids playing cricket on playgrounds and alleys around the country? It’s all too easy to imagine a 10-year-old girl rejected from a game by a group of neighborhood boys who can point to their favorite cricketer saying that girls should stay in the kitchen.

Shahid Afridi has been the most popular athlete in Pakistan for almost a generation. He is a UNICEF ambassador against polio. He is also a father to four daughters. His comments in that October interview were repugnant and damaging to women’s aspirations in the country. Even if he claims they were out of context, his public comments wield considerable influence—and he can’t approach them with the same cavalier recklessness that he takes to his batting.

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