Rugby is a very niche sport in India, but that hasn’t stopped Irtiqa Ayoub making national headlines in the game out in Kashmir. Irtiqa started playing rugby at the age of 16 and her passion soon saw her becoming the youngest Rugby Development Officer in the state, winning national championships along the way. She has gone on to coach hundreds of school children and has her sights set on one day playing for India. But it has by no means been an easy route. It wasn’t until her physical education teacher suggested she try rugby that she’d even heard of it, ‘I didn’t know what rugby was or even that it was played in India let alone Kashmir’. Weeks and months of training later and she got selected to play for her local team. That team went onto win gold at the state level. She was then invited to play in the national championships, and this is where her journey hit a road bump.
‘My father disapproved of me playing rugby. Because of the social structure we have in India, there’s already a lot of restrictions on women. Women are usually not allowed to go out anywhere unescorted, especially to another state. So my father had many reservations. But I kept talking to him and asking him just to watch me play.’ When Irtiqa was finally able to persuade her father to watch her play, everything changed. ‘He was not only proud, he became my biggest supporter. He pulled me out of low periods and told me it’s not easy to become a star’.
Cultural barriers weren’t the only obstacles Irtiqa had to overcome in order to excel in the game she loves. In Kashmir playing ‘snow rugby’ is an inevitability. ‘In 5ft of deep snow your legs get stuck. Running in those conditions is unimaginable, but we don’t have a choice – Kashmir is covered in snow! It is a completely unique condition to play rugby in. Yes it is challenging, but I don’t believe in giving up. It’s not part of my dictionary’.
Irtiqa very much sees her role and responsibility as paving the way for other girls to do the same ‘I want all girls to feel free and to join any sport they want.’