With the changing tide of aspiration and hope in Kashmir, a new range of sports heroes have emerged in the valley. Afreen Hyder is one such talent who has made a name for her taekwando skills. Akasha Usmani spoke to her.
Afreen Hyder is a rising talent in martial arts in Kashmir. She specialises in taekwando.
Akasha Usmani (AU): What really sparked your interest in taekwondo?
Afreen Hyder (AH): It started with a hobby when I was in the second grade, around seven-years-old. I saw some students practicing at school and I thought of giving it a try. For me it was very interesting as I was interested in action movies, so I thought of getting started with this.
AU: What are the challenges that you faced while pursuing this sport?
AH: I didn’t have any proper guidance in Kashmir because there are no proper academies for any sports, especially taekwondo or any other martial arts. There is no professionalism, or someone who you can follow. This was a major setback for me because there was no one who would have guided me. I would have been at a much better place if I had someone who would have guided me.
The second challenge is that more state support is needed. I recently left my job, gave my resignation back in February because I was the coach for Kashmir province for Khelo India Academy and at the same time, I wanted to play because my career as an athlete was not over but the support was not there and I ended up leaving my job but at the same time if you talk about any other state. For example - I used to practice in Madhya Pradesh and there is this academy called MP Academy, their coaches are allowed to play, they have a very friendly sports atmosphere. This is needed more in Kashmir.
The society in Kashmir is not supportive. I was lucky to have my parents. They were always supportive, especially my mother. She raised me as a single mother and she has always been very supportive. She has been like a backbone for me in my journey. But if we talk about society, I have had lot of negativity around me since the time I have been playing so I will say it is in a equal proportion - 50 percent of the positive and 50 percent of the negative
AU: What is it like to represent India at an International level? Any special memories that you would like to share with us?
AH: It is a whole different feeling, it is something you work hard for, for all these years. I would first talk about the national - which I already said in 2017 when I won the first ever official medal for Jammu and Kashmir. It was the first medal in an official national in the history of Jammu and Kashmir and I became the only athlete from Kashmir to be in the world ranking and in the all-India rankings. This is more of an achievement for me.
People from Kashmir, especially girls, follow me and get inspired. They treat me as their idol so that is more of an achievement for me.
AU: Has the conflict in Kashmir affected your training in any sense?
AH: Yes, the conflict in Kashmir has affected my training. My only aim was to get out of the place after completing my school because of the lockdowns we had every now and then. I remember I had to go for a school game national and we had an inter school competition before that - I couldn't play because of the Burhan Wani incident so that has affected me deeply because it was already difficult for me to continue training there without any guidance and not knowing what lies ahead. On top of that, going through all the lockdowns was very difficult.
Not just that - It was very hard to wear an Indian jersey there because everyone kept throwing tantrums. There were people who didn't even consider me a Kashmiri because I represent India and I wear an Indian jersey but things have been changing in Kashmir. For the last 2-3 years, I have seen a great change in Kashmir especially in sports. There have been many players, especially girls, coming up.
AU: Are there any academies in Kashmir where people can get professional training?
AH: As such there are no academies in Kashmir where people can get professional training because I feel it is not the academy but it is the coaches who don't have proper training, they don't have proper courses, they don't have anything. For example - I was chosen to be the coach for Kashmir province and I was the head coach for Khelo India Taekwondo Academy which was situated in Srinagar, at the same time I was a mentor and they had this scheme where they would choose senior athletes from different sports and so that they can guide their juniors and just because I had a lot of achievements so they chose me for the job. They had a problem because I was training with my students. We don’t have that sports culture there and I think nothing will happen until there is someone who can inspire the children and there is no system for this.
I will give you my example - I started playing in 2007 but I started playing professionally in 2015 because since then I have wasted all my years who used to take me to fake nationals and internationals, which was of no-use. I always aimed for the Olympics, I used to think I want to go to the Olympics as I am getting a gold medal in nationals and internationals then why am I not going to the Olympics? So later i got to know that these were all fake and then I started playing in 2015, I realized it's a whole different world and this Taekwondo is different from what I was playing and I didn’t understand why I supported those people so I really don’t see professionalism and sports culture over there so if someone ask me that they want to play professionally, I suggest they should get out of Kashmir.
I think they should prioritize Olympics sports rather than giving attention to sports which are not even in the Asian games and the Olympics. There are people from the sports facility only who prioritize these sports and fake associations just for their own good.
AU: Women in Kashmir are now actively taking up sports in Kashmir. Do you think times have changed? How do you think women are breaking barriers and how has society accepted this?
AH: As I said earlier, there have been girls who are taking up sports in Kashmir. Kashmir has been changing and is changing and I would say, it is a good change. We have a lot of female athletes in different sports, especially in Olympic sports. They are doing well in their sports, I think a little push if they get the proper facilities, it would be much better and we can also have Olympians.
At the same time I think the society has not completely accepted, only to an extent. When I when I used to go for nationals, there were a lot of girls with me who used to get selected in different categories and they couldn’t come to play because their parents didn’t allow them and I remember people from good family and backgrounds didn’t allow their daughters to play. I remember talking to their parents and telling them to let them play. There have been a lot of girls who couldn’t take up sports because of societal pressure and the pressure from their parents because their parents didn’t understand. But things are changing and today you can see a major difference.
AU: What are your plans for the future?
AH: I am aiming for the world championships and then Asian Games. My long term goal is the Olympics. I really want to be there. This is my aim and my priority, nothing else comes before that.