In this episode, learn how football pioneers Akhona Makalima (FIFA and South Africa Premier Soccer League referee, South Africa) and Rabia Qadir (Founding CEO, Galaxy Sport Academy) are shattering social barriers to help the next generations of girls on and off the pitch.
Carole (0:05): Welcome to the Strong Women, Better World podcast series, a global storytelling project, created by strong women using the power of sport, education, and social innovation to create a better world. Each week, we travel to another corner of the earth and we exchange ideas while exploring Title IX’s ripple effects around the globe. Hello, hello. I am your host and ref, Carole Ponchon, from Lyon, France. And it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the metaphorical ring as two fearless women spar about their trailblazing journeys in sport. Buckle up and get ready to rumble. In today's episode, we travel to South Africa and Pakistan to hear from two strong women who share a passion for sport and its potential to advance people's lives. In the right corner from South Africa is Akhona Makalima. The country’s first FIFA accredited female soccer referee. So she is the real ref today. And Akhona has officiated in the South African premier soccer league, as well as the Sessile Women's League, since 2015. Lately, she was the only female central referee to serve in the under 20 African Cup of Nations. In addition to her officiating role, Akhona is a wellness role consultant and a radio presenter. A pioneering football lover, she is driven by raw determination and her will to open doors for others. Her desire for success cannot be tamed and she will shine in the ring. Welcome, Akhona.
Akhona (1:41): Thank you. Hello, hello. It's good to be here.
Carole (1:45): And we are joined in the left corner by Rabia Qadir from Pakistan. Another powerful multi-tasker and female leader in sport. Rabia is a recognized sport anchor and a founding CEO of Galaxy Sport Academy, a girls only sport academy. All in addition to being a celebrated member of the Pakistani national field hockey team, which she captained. As one of few successful female entrepreneurs in her country and an advocate who will encourage young girls to be involved with sport on and off the pitch. Rabia is a true role model who knows how to handle pressure and push forward, a champion's mindset that she will undoubtedly bring to the ring. Welcome, Rabia.
Rabia (2:29): Hello. I'm so excited about today's episode.
Carole (2:32): Ladies, I'm so happy to have you two here today, and I cannot wait to hear from you two and learn about your pioneering work and how you're standing on the shoulders of other Title IX Titans. The ring is yours. So off we go for round one.
Akhona (2:52): Oh my goodness, I am so excited. Thank you so very much, Ms. Ref, I am grateful to spend this short time with you. Jump straight into the deep end. I want people to understand a bit about you. So I'm going to start with two fun questions. Are you ready? So if you were an animal what would you be?
Rabia (3:17): If I'm animal, it is Falcon.
Akhona (3:19): Nice. And why would you want to be a falcon, if I may ask?
Rabia (3:23): Because of free fly, independency, freedom. That's why I like it.
Akhona (3:31): Woo. I love that. And the second question now is, what influential woman in history would you like to spend a day with?
Rabia (3:42): I am impressed, uh in start, someone's changed in my mind. The name changed, but now Malala, I think is a very influential women because of her interview recently last week it's published. So it makes so controversies, but I support her because whatever she say, it's right. I would love to spend a day with her.
Akhona (4:03): Oh, that is beautiful. That is really amazing, sis. Thank you so much for sharing and getting us warmed up. Now, let's get into the match with the more substantive questions. Few people know that in 2019, I was invited by the Galaxy Sports Academy, and contributed to the wonderful work you are doing. Before we delve into the phenomenal experience I'd like to have you first set the context for us. I came across a brutal fact that struck me much, only 1% of Pakistan women are engaged in entrepreneurship and one of the lowest proportions in the world. What are the barriers that prevent women from developing an entrepreneurial mindset in your country?
Rabia (4:57): I agree with you. This is very tricky question, and it's really near to my heart. In Pakistan they don't consider women as a workforce. They just know and want that women only work are just like taking care of the family; children, cooking, cleaning, simple or if we say looking after all the domestic work, this is the first struggle. And in my point of view, second big reason is lack of education. I think only 25% families give the education to the girl and 85% families don't want to spend money on girls, education. And sports, not at all. They don't want to play the girls play to sports. So if there is no education, then how can they start the businesses and become an entrepreneur? It's so difficult for them. Same issue in sports. There are no sports entrepreneurship study in Pakistan. It's 2021, and we don't have an education department just like sports entrepreneurship. You can imagine it's so difficult. These are all the barriers and sports is not the priority. I just know two or three women entrepreneurship regarding sports business, but nobody's successful.
Akhona (6:19): Oh, my goodness, darling. It really sounds like a lot, indeed. You know what I think we, we definitely need to applaud people like you that take a leap of faith. It sets new lights with your own success with the Galaxy Sports Academy. Tell me now about how you manage to grow your academy to where you can now welcome 20 underprivileged girls. Each year, providing them with meals, travel costs and sports equipment. I was there. I saw it. I experienced it. Tell us about that.
Rabia (6:53): Yep. Yes, you was there. You was there. And, you know, it's so difficult, but I tell you one thing when I started playing sports, so my family, my teachers support me, but at the same time, when I see my friends, they face lots of struggle because of their family doesn’t support them. And, they just, you can say they just vanished, leave sports and get married in really early ages. So it's so heartbreaking for me. So then I decided when I grow up. When I grow up and I help them. So I make Galaxy Sports Academy. So in start it was so difficult. Can you imagine, Akhona, if everyday you can say my heart turned into hundreds of pieces. And every night I cry because nobody cared about my work, nobody cared about sports. So every night I’m crying and say, “Why I start this? Why I put myself in so much trouble?” But when I wake up in the morning, then you can tell, I just start again from the scratch. I forget everything from yesterday. And I just started again. So being up there, I know what is the struggle and when I was going through, so it helps me in my work how to face the harassment, nepotism. It started, we worked so hard. We try to collaborate every department, every school, every organization, but they hesitate and they don't want to work because they say sports is not our priority. And girls sports, not at all, girl, are you mad? So this, these words are really, really heartbreaking for me. They just make fun of me and laugh at me, say, and, and say, “Hey guys, listen, what she say.” These are really, you can say painful things, but slowly in my surrounding, within two years, society started accepting this change and the girls can play. They realize, and they send their girls in my ground. When I get the ground, after two years struggle, when then they send their girls. And then my family support me, my family especially make, my mother and my father, make lunch for them. And they say we make it so you can take it in your ground and eat with your girls. And my teachers, I talk to my teachers and my coaches, especially. So they agree. They give them a free education and also training session, especially soccer, basketball, athletics. So they get the, in started, they get the free education and training. And after two more years, in 2012, we properly start our organization. But in 2016, after GSMP.
Carole (9:49): Ladies, sorry to interrupt. This is the ref speaking. And I feel like I must raise a yellow card. You've just mentioned the GSMP and I bet we need to provide some context to our audience. So the GSMP stands for the Global Sports Mentoring Program. It's a sport diplomacy, women's empowerment initiative, sponsored by the U.S Department of State and implemented by the one and only team at the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. And actually the three of us are alumni of this program.
Rabia (10:25): I realize how to work properly in a proper way. Step-by-step. So nothing create mess. And now lots of organizations, government departments, and sports federations collaborate with us and to support the girls into the, in the ground, especially they're free education. They give them the free scholarships because they need my girl for the quality scores, so they can win tournaments. So that's, that's really tough and that's really tough, but we can do it. And I think. We can continue it.
Akhona (11:00): Yes, definitely no doubt about that, my sister, and there's a beautiful song I like, it says that we are family and you have your sisters with you. There are times where you feel like the world is closing. You cannot do this anymore, but you need to remember that you have sisters that are sharing the same vision with you that believe in the change that you want. And remember when you are about to do something new and something changing and something positive, it's not going to be easy. So as mentioned, I visited the Galaxy Sports to contribute to a seminar you organized in Lahore, the city of garden, Pakistan to encourage young girls to be involved with sports on and off the pitch. Can you tell us what has happened since then? How do you keep working to inspire girls to move forward in life and get opportunities in sports?
Rabia (11:56): Yes, I am so grateful. Actually, you visited Pakistan was a landmark visit, Akhona, for the promotion of women's sports. Wherever you go, you inspire young girls to become a sports star and you make them realize that sports are important for the betterment of society. And they want to meet you again. And tell me all the time, “When Ms. Akhona will visit again in Pakistan?” Whenever I visit at their Institute, “Hey, you are coming? Is Akhona coming?” I said, “Wait, it's COVID.”
Carole (12:32): Ref speaking here, sisters, the official ref of the ring and unofficial one here. So just to clarify, I must raise a kind of a yellow card. Simply the very powerful message that you two were providing in this first round about the importance of the support system and how altogether, and only altogether we can impact and make change. So with this words of wisdom from the two of you, let's move now to round two with Rabia interviewing Akhona.
Rabia (13:04): So, Akhona, now it's your turn. I have also question for you. Are you ready?
Akhona (13:09): Yes, sister.
Rabia (13:12): But first let me turn to the favor and let's warm up our audience with two questions to uncover your personality. The first question is, if you could travel, where would you go?
Akhona (13:24): Where would I go? Where would I go? I would go to the Eastern Cape. Yea, I would go to the Eastern Cape in South Africa, that is a place where I recharge.
Rabia (13:37): Okay. And the second question is what is one song that always makes you want to dance? Whenever you hear it?
Akhona (13:47): ”I rise like a day, I rise up.”
Rabia (13:51): Alright. Tell me, I know 2019 was an important year for you. And not only because of you visited me, that summer FIFA the Women’s World Cup in France demonstrated a new level of interest across the globe for the sports that you love. In what ways has the growth of investment of women football more globally impacted your sports at home?
Akhona (14:22): You know what sister, when I was in France, there was massive experience that I got from the ref, from the referees that were there and also the programs that were put in place for women, for referees that were also taking part in the, um, in, in, in, in the, in the summit that was held in France. I also learned that was the fact that they invited female referees from other countries that were on the FIFA panels and mixed them with the reference that were not in the FIFA panel so that they can get to see the experience they get to share together. And also remember it was during World cCup. So when you were having the summit, when you were having the conference, you also feel them, the atmosphere of the world cup while you are being taught in class, while you are running around exchanging experience with other women, you also have your mind and your, your eyes set on the World cCup that one day, I don't want to be sitting with the other part of the stadium, but I want to be part of the ladies that are participating in the World Cup. So when I got back home, I told, I told myself that you need to work extra hard, so that one day you can also participate in the World Cup.
Rabia (15:39): And you did it, my love, you did it. So getting back to the ring and back in time, do you remember your first ever officiating game at the professional level, how it went, how did those first 90 minutes feel for you?
Akhona (15:58): You know what, to my very first professional game, it was on my mother's birthday. I'll never forget this day because it was on the 28th of February, 2016. Black Aces up against Tuks. Obviously before the game, I was so scared that it was now going to be my first time on TV with so many cameras judging my, um, judging my fouls, looking at everything that I blow. During the replay, is this a foul? And remember sometimes when you blow a whistle, that will show the replay and then they will show the referee. And today the referee is a female. I was so scared. I was so nervous, but in the same breath, I was like, this is the day I was looking for. I need to show the world who I am. I need to show South Africa what I'm made of. I need to show South Africa the possibilities that women have and the strength that we have as women. So when I went there, as nervous as I was, I called my mother to calm my nerves. I am so scared. I talked to her, she gave me my strengths, she gave me courage. And then I went. After the game, after 90 minutes, now Southern Africa was buzzing. Social media is buzzing. Who is this girl? Is she quantified? By the way, she was very good, but we don't need women in football. No. Why is she a referee in the men's games? She can continue to go and officiate women's games. So there was, so there were people that was super excited about what I do, people that were really enjoying what I did, people who are applauding, but also those people that felt, like, even though she's good, but she can just stick to women football, even though she is good, but we don't want them here. So there were two sides of it. But I didn't take it personal and I didn’t attach the negative parts on myself and on my development. I focused on the good things. Had I focused on the bad and the negative that they said, probably I would not be here right now.
Rabia (17:55): Wow. Wow. That's great. That's really inspiring. I'm going to send you a big hug. I have goose bumps thinking about you. I know firsthand that you have that tremendous skill and fire to share your passion to pass on the baton. I actually saw it first hand, when you came into the Pakistan and delivered an awareness program for career building for females in sports, particularly in football. As a super high achiever, Akhona, do you have a secret recipe to share to refresh women and girls' minds to desire more for their lives?
Akhona (18:36): Absolutely, my sister. What basically I can say to my sisters, a little bit of my recipes that fix your eyes on the prize. And preparation is very important for everything that you want to do. You need to prepare, and also you must have a vision board. Write down each and every thing that you want to do and write the steps towards your goal. So I need to prepare, but most importantly, you need to be disciplined. Your integrity must never be questioned and consistency will take you verify far. Discipline, preparation, consistency, and most importantly, you need to enjoy what you do. If you are not going to enjoy it, do not show up.
Carole (19:29): One final thinking here. Just, if people are still adopting, why they need a female ref. Akhona, tell them to listen back to this podcast, because once it's very rare to have someone with so much self-reflection and the ref agreeing to be ref by someone else who actually in that case does not have the accreditation, I don't pretend I am, shows how clever and, and warm you are. Then just to mention one final word before we move to the closing round. So important what you mentioned about being focused on writing and self-affirmation. We heard it, but I just feel like it's a very key message from you, Akhona and Rabia, about setting yourself goals, focusing on whatever the positive is and keep learning. That shined from the ring from the two of you. So I just felt it was important to raise it again. Let's now move to this final round when you will be speaking about empowerment.
Rabia (20:33): Okay. Let's have a lightning round before our final buzzer round. Akhona, what's your definition of empowerment?
Akhona (20:43): Sis, my definition of empowerment is that one, I believe in transferring the skills or learning new skills. So when we talk empowerment for me, it means that look back and look where you come from and also look at what needs to be done. So with the skills that I have, what can I do to help the next person to be at the level where I am or what can I do to help, to assist people with the skills that I already have and say, okay guys, we see the world is changing, we see that the world is evolving, what can we look and do to help ourselves? So that is my, basically my definition of empowerment.
Rabia (21:26): For me, I think it's so simple words. I use always for empowerment, especially for women empowerment is, freedom with responsibility. So it was wonderful to share this episode with you, Akhona.
Akhona (21:41): Thank you for stepping into the ring and helping us learn more about your work to advance gender equity in sports on and off the field.
Carole (21:53): Ref speaking here. I could not help, but end this friendly fight, with a sincere thank you to our audience. And guess what? The winner of today's episode is communities around the globe who are benefiting from greater equality and inclusivity. Thank you, ladies, for your priceless time and energy. You're the stars here and today, so I leave you with the final words.
Rabia (22:18): Thank you, Carole. And thanks to our audience for tuning into this week's episode. We hope you learn something new about South Africa, Pakistan, and the importance of holding onto your dream. Most importantly, we wish you leave feeling inspired to make a difference in your own community. Social change is a team sport, and we are counting on you to join us as we celebrate the global impact of Title IX. Here are some easy ways to get in touch.
Akhona (22:50): Click the “like” button, subscribe to our channel and share this podcast with your family, friends and colleagues. Leave your question and comments on social media. And remember you can listen to more episodes of the Strong Women, Better World podcast series on your favorite podcasting platform.