Nargis Hameedullah has had to fight for her dreams all her life – both on and off the field.
The 19-year-old is a Pakistani karateka based in Quetta, capital of the western province of Balochistan.
Nargis belongs to the Hazara community, one of Pakistan’s most persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. But that has not stopped her from beating the odds.
At the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia last month, Nargis became Pakistan’s first female athlete to win an individual medal at the multi-sport competition when she won bronze in the plus-68 kilogramme event.
“I always wanted to be the one to bring about a change,” Nargis told Al Jazeera. “I’m very happy to be able to write my name in history.”
Nargis’ success lit up a marginalised community that has been a target of ethnic and sectarian violence for decades.
At least 509 Hazaras, who are mainly Shia Muslims, have been killed in Quetta since 2013, according to the government’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).
The killings have mostly been part of a sustained campaign of shootings and bombings by armed sectarian groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
But as Nargis returned to her hometown of Hazara Town, a low-income ethnic neighbourhood in the western outskirts of Quetta, she was showered with rose petals by school children who lined up on the streets.
The beat of the “dhol”, a drum, accompanied by the flute, was complemented by a beaming Nargis who was surrounded by dancing residents who gave her a hero’s welcome.
Nargis relished her time in the spotlight, but she said her rise to stardom in Pakistan has not come without bumps.
Hameedullah was given a hero’s welcome on her return home from the Asian Games [Nargis Hameedullah]
February 16, 2013 is a day still etched in Nargis’ mind.
A bomb attack by the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group at a busy vegetable market in Hazara Town killed at least 84 people. Nargis’ maternal grandmother’s brother was among those who died.
“It [his death] really shook me and it affected the entire family,” she said. “I will never forget that day.”
At least nine members of the Hazara Shia community have been killed in a series of attacks since March this year.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Hazaras are particularly vulnerable, because of their distinctive East Asian ethnic features as well as Shia religious affiliation.
Nargis’ train journeys to Lahore and Islamabad for tournaments and training camps are always full of anxiety, with thoughts of the next target killing weighing on her mind.
“As a player, I train physically, my strength has increased, but emotionally and mentally, I have really been affected [by these bomb blasts].”
For the roughly 600,000 Hazaras living in Quetta, security is a major concern. With multiple checkpoints, blocked areas and only one road to enter and exit the community enclave, navigating around the city is not easy, said Nargis.
“A lot of the girls say that any day we could become victims of target killing, so what’s the use of playing? Mentally, I get really disturbed by the security situation.”
She grew up amid violence and security threats, picking up mixed martial arts aged five before making the transition to karate in 2010.
Nargis now juggles almost four hours of training each day with her studies and English tuition at an academy.
“I have got a lot of support from my family. Whenever I go [for tournaments], they make a lot of sacrifices, taking care of my travel expenses.”
Her father works at a local flower shop and mother is doing overnight shifts as a nurse to make ends meet. While there is a lot of opposition from outside the Hazara group, Nargis is all too familiar with the negative remarks from within the conservative community.
But her parents have continued to support their daughter’s athletic career.
“People tell us to focus on her education, and they criticise us and talk a lot,” her mother, Qamargul Hameedullah, said.
Even if I win the world title, and my hijab is a bit off, the Hazara community will not appreciate that
Nargis Hameedullah, Pakistani karate player
“My relatives always say ‘why does Nargis need to play sports, she should select some other career or job and then support the family’,” Nargis said. “They say, ‘she just kicks and punches, what will she get out of it?'”
The hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, is also a “major issue for the Hazara people”, her mother added. Nargis wears one and is “very fearful” of it coming off during her fights.
“Even if I win the world title, and my hijab is a bit off, the Hazara community will not appreciate that.”
Despite the challenges, Nargis is striving to make her name in a country that has traditionally had success in sports like cricket, squash and hockey.
Nargis was not the first Hazara to make the country proud in karate. Her senior, 30-year-old Kulsoom Hazara, who also hails from Quetta, has won gold at the South Asian karate championships for the past three years.
“A few years ago, people had the mindset that what do girls have to do with sports or karate,” said Nargis. “Even now, some families say that, but there have been a lot of changes. Families are sending girls to different sports clubs for karate, taekwondo, wushu.
“We have a lot of martial arts clubs [in our community] and mostly, the participants are women.”
One of those clubs is the Hazara Shotokan Karate Academy on Kirani Road run by Nargis’ long-time coach and former national player Ghulam Ali.
The 2004 South Asian Games (SAF) gold-medallist, Ali, said he has noticed women from his community, making strides not only in sports, but other fields as well.
“Presently, in Hazara Town and Mari Abad [another predominantly Hazara suburb], there are more girls than boys participating in everything,” said Ali, who trains more than 80 girls at the club.
“After a long period of restrictions, they [Hazara women] are getting more freedom. In the past, we faced a lot of oppression, but now we are getting some chance. And we’re trying to get involved in every field – in universities, shops, businesses, sports. It’s really great.”
Ali is confident that more women will draw inspiration from Nargis.
The teenager, meanwhile, is now dreaming to qualify for the Olympics.
“I want to raise my country’s flag and would also like to hear the national anthem being played and everyone standing up in respect.”