Beyond MobilityAn interview with para table tennis champion Zainab Barkat
CLASP had the opportunity to interview para table tennis champion Zainab Barkat on how sport has changed her life, her advice for young girls with disabilities, and what she’s aiming for next.
Zainab works as a sports consultant for CLASP Service Partner Paraplegic Center Peshawar in Pakistan. She has competed in multiple local, national and regional events and has 9 gold medals under her belt.
You have been playing table tennis for a long time and have won numerous championships. How did you first get involved with table tennis?
I have been playing sports since I was 12 years old, and I started playing table tennis at 16 years old. I found that table tennis is a game that I can play as a woman and with controlled body movement, allowing me to use my upper limbs effectively.
I realized that sports opened an opportunity to build my future. I also knew that there are few women with disabilities in sports. I have encouraged and introduced many sports to other women with disabilities, including wheelchair racing, cricket, archery, boccia, badminton and live Ludo (a life-size version of a game based on the Indian game Pachisi).
Zainab Barkat, para table tennis champion.
Was there one moment when you realized that you were really good at table tennis?
I earned a gold medal in table tennis in the 2014 National Paralympic Games in Peshawar and was asked by a reporter for an interview. I realized then that my achievement counts and I can be a role model for women with disabilities.
How has playing a sport changed your life?
My family prioritized integrating my health and mobility so that I could continue my education. I entered into sports to try something new and I developed a liking for it on the very first day. I started playing table tennis as a pastime. With the passage of time, sports had me thinking beyond just mobility. After completing my secondary school education, I decided to earn some money so I could continue playing table tennis. I did data entry and other jobs to earn a living and so I could afford sports-related expenses. I needed money for my sports kit, equipment and transportation. Once I began participating in national games, I started earning awards and small cash prizes.
Sports gave me the opportunity to do something for myself, to live my own life, and earn recognition. It gave me more recognition than earning money. I represented Paraplegic Center Peshawar and Friends of Paraplegics at many games. Toyota gave me a chance to represent their project “Start Your Impossible” and my country. I am hopeful to have a chance to play in the 2022 Asian Games. Let’s see…
What wheelchair do you use when you compete?
I use the Motivation Multisport when I am competing. Sometimes, I use the Expression for my practice. My favorite wheelchair for everyday activities is the Motivation Active Folding and the Expression. The Expression is light in weight, more compact and stylish as compared to other options.
What are some of the challenges for women with disabilities in Pakistan?
The challenges faced by women with disabilities in Pakistan are accessibility, appropriate wheelchairs, transportation and gender sensitive social barriers. Families are reluctant to allow women with disabilities to live an independent life.
Learn about strategies to address gender barriers faced by women and girls with disabilities around the world here.
Do you have any advice for young girls with disabilities in Pakistan?
Young girls with disabilities should set goals for themselves and focus on taking the first step toward building trust among their families that they can take care of their physical and social life. Girls with disabilities should start by learning the activities of daily living, like addressing their own personal needs, taking care of their education or learning trade skills. The very first thing is to take care of their physical, psychological and social needs so that they can think of other activities outside of their home.
Women with disabilities who are already role models should be promoting other women with disabilities and work for the welfare of women with disabilities.
Zainab practicing at a table tennis camp in China, 2018.
The challenges faced by women with disabilities in Pakistan are accessibility, appropriate wheelchairs, transportation and gender sensitive social barriers.
From left: Zainab wins gold at the All Pakistan Sports Festival in 2018, table tennis camp in China, at work at Paraplegic Center Peshawar
Top: Zainab wins gold at the All Pakistan Sports Festival in 2018, middle: Zainab at table tennis camp, bottom: Zainab at work at Paraplegic Center Peshawar
We are certain that you are a role model for so many people around the world. What is next for you?
I am satisfied that I managed to become what I wanted years ago, but I would like to be a successful entrepreneur so that girls with disabilities can aim to achieve or establish something for themselves. I established an e-garment business called “WoMaX” and am trying to create an economic model for girls with disabilities to follow.
Due to COVID-19, Zainab was unable to participate in the international events required to make ranking for the Paralympics Tokyo 2021. Right now, she’s looking forward to participating in the Asian Games 2022 in China. We are rooting for you, Zainab!