Meet Irtiqa, Kashmir’s youngest rugby coach

Irtiqa Ayoub

SRINAGAR: She perhaps is the first Kashmiri woman youngest coach of a English sport. No, it’s not cricket, but rugby. Meet Irtiqa Ayoub, a young woman who discovered rugby when she was 16-years-old, and since then there has been no looking back.

Defying norms since she has been changing perceptions and building women’s sports in Kashmir, all through the game of rugby. Ayoub, a 23-year-old from Safa Kadal, a small town on the banks of the Jhelum River in Srinagar, said the rough contact sport “changed her life”.

She said, “I started playing this sport seven years ago, when I was in high school. My rugby coach, Mr Irfan, picked me to play, and that’s when I started my journey with rugby.”

Ayoub performed extremely well in national and state level tournaments. She won a silver medal for Rugby 7’s in 2016 and 2017, and a gold medal for snow Rugby in 2017, and quickly became a known face among the locals for her unusual talent.

Today, she claims she is the youngest Rugby Development Officer (RDO) in Jammu and Kashmir, has coached hundreds of school and college kids, and has dreams of playing for India one day.

For someone so young, she is fearless, passionate and determined. She is a shining example of how when young girls are empowered and given freedom of choice, they can surmount any challenge. Irtiqa has also leveraged the power of social media to ensure that her efforts and talent don’t go unnoticed.
Girls in action
Many people have been talking about her over the past few weeks, and sharing her efforts on Twitter.

@khatana_ashraf wrote: “Until a few years ago, #Kashmiri girls didn’t know a thing about rugby, had never even seen a rugby ball. Credit goes to Irtiqa Ayoub, a fearless, determined girl who is not only passionate to play but to build teams that can play for #India. She is empowering girls to chase their love for sports.”

She said that about a year-and-a-half ago, she decided to take her love and passion for the sport to the next level and began coaching assignments in schools and colleges across the Valley.

Irtiqa added that when she had started playing, there were very few girls in sports. But over the years, rugby’s popularity has grown not just among girls, but across the Valley.

“Sports has become a way to not just channel the spirit of the youth, but to build teams that can play for India. Given the Valley has so much snow, it provides an excellent opportunity for players to play snow rugby too”, she said.

Irtiqa with her club of rugby players, whom she is helping to train.

Irtiqa is with the dream of training with New Zealand’s All Blacks national rugby team. She says, “This game is my passion and nothing can keep me away from it.” She believes she is no less than the boys, and when it comes to competition she says, “I don’t look at anyone. I look at myself for I am my own competition.”

Her ultimate goal is to make it big on an international level. Irtiqa said: “I wish to go abroad and train with the best teams, like the New Zealand’s All Blacks.”

“I believe we Kashmiris have good talent in all sports and activities, and we just need to believe in ourselves and work hard for better outcomes. I want all girls to feel free and join any sport they want to learn and earn,” she says.

Irtiqa Ayoub introduces the rugby ball to school children in Srinagar, Kashmir.

She wants to not just play for herself but also empower others who can go on to make a name for themselves in this sport. She also has a club, a team of girls she is training and prepping alongside her, to make it to the nationals, and eventually play for India.

The idea of playing a sport did not go down well with her family, initially. It’s a perception a lot of Kashmiri girls have to face, and fight against, to achieve their goals, Ayoub said.

She said initially, her father was hesitant and didn’t let her go for the Nationals. “At first I had some problems, as it’s not easy here for a girl to stay away from her home. My parents didn’t support me at first, but as I began winning some matches, and a few medals, they began supporting me. Now, they are with me fully”,she said. Adding that his support has been my strength.

Irtiqa teaches girls to tackle on the field.

She hopes other young women will take up the sport, in her state. However, experience has shown her that it’s difficult to go all the way alone. “The mindsets need to change”, she said.

Irtiqa has this message to share : “I would tell all girls who have talent and commitment, to please pursue the game. But it is important for parents to support your daughters – only with your support can they go far, fearlessly.” (With input from & )