Every year for two and half months of winter, the ponds and lakes in Ladakh, India freeze over, and the people of this northern mountain region take to the ice to play a game that has captured the hearts of the Ladakhi people – hockey. While the sport has become immensely popular in the region of Ladakh over the last two decades, there is a stark difference between the respect and resources available to male and female players.
Female hockey players in Ladakh have faced discrimination for many years. Hundreds of spectators show up to men’s hockey games, while only a few spectators – usually with demoralizing intentions – show up to women’s hockey games. But despite the many obstacles they have faced, female hockey players in Ladakh continue to do what they can to play the game they love, with their experiences inspiring several women to start the Ladakh Women’s Ice Hockey Foundation (LWIHF) in 2015.
“After feeling the gender bias for so many years, we all decided to open a foundation solely dedicated to the women players of Ladakh,” said LWIHF general secretary and Team India goaltender Noor Jahan. “Every time we have a match, we run around asking the men for equipment. We would wear and play in their equipment even if they were oversized for us. From my personal experience, [this is] not a good feeling. We don’t want our future women players to experience what we faced.”
Led by president Kunzes Angmo and vice-president Kunzes Dolma, the mission of the LWIHF is to promote hockey among women in India and to encourage, mentor, and support female athletes in Ladakh, creating a space for women to participate “equally in any field of sports.”
Approximately 100 Ladahki female players participate in local tournaments, and Jahan notes that there are many others who have few opportunities to play because of financial and social barriers. There is no artificial ice rink in Ladakh, skates and equipment are expensive and scarce, and ponds and lakes are only frozen for two and a half months out of the year. Therefore, the foundation organizes camps and tournaments and aims to provide training, facilities, and equipment to female players. Most recently, they ran a 15-day skating camp for 30 young girls on a rink made by the women of the LWIHF themselves.
“There is abundant talent in the field of ice hockey in Ladakh,” said Angmo, who started playing in 2006 after watching her brother play. “However, due to lack of proper training and facilities most of the talented girls fail to nurture their potential. Since most of the girls belong to remote villages and poor families, they face financial constraints in getting proper equipment and training. Our aim is to spot such talents and develop their abilities by providing them [with] proper training.”
Much of the work of the LWIHF also involves encouraging female players to continue to play hockey. Because of various social pressures, many older players quit the game, something that the LWIHF wants to prevent.
“There is no age limit and there is no shame in being an older player,” said Dolma. Dolma was introduced to hockey in 2003 by an NGO called the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), which formed Ladakh’s first female hockey teams 15 years ago. “We want to send this message out to the rest of the people from my region.”
The women of the LWIHF recognize how playing hockey has impacted and changed their lives off the ice, something which they want to share with other women in India. For these women, hockey is not just a game, but a vessel they can use to challenge discrimination and encourage and elevate female athletes in their country.
“We want to grow, and ice hockey is a sport that has helped us personally in so many ways,” said Jahan.
This past year has been groundbreaking for women’s ice hockey in India. Besides the creation of the LWIHF, the Indian women’s team (which is mainly made up of players from Ladakh), participated in their first international ice hockey event in March, the 2016 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia. Led by head coach Abdul Hakim, the team did not have an easy tournament, losing to Singapore, Thailand, Chinese Tapei and Malaysia by scores of 8-1, 12-1, 13-0, and 6-3. However, the event was still a positive achievement; Jahan was awarded the tournament’s Best Goaltender Award and the experience was a dream come true and a major milestone for the team.
“We had dreamt about playing in an international event for ages and it finally came true,” Angmo said of the experience. “The circumstances under which our team played was very much in contrast to that of the other participating teams who have better facilities and training than us. We constantly wished we had a rink where we would get to practice continuously throughout the year. But I feel very honoured that I was a part of the first edition who got to play and represent our country.”
The LWIHF has received support from a number of organizations and individuals from around the world, including Swiss photographer Manuel Bauer, The Hockey Foundation, SECMOL, the Taipei Gentlemen’s Hockey Club, Ladakh Frontier Travels, and goalie coach Dana Boutin. Their stunning logo and website were designed by Martha Deborah Abraham, who discovered the LWIHF while volunteering for SECMOL. SECMOL also recently partnered with the LWIHF to create this eye-opening video about female hockey in Ladakh:
“The problem is mainly because no one really takes [women’s hockey] seriously, and there was even a time when women’s ice hockey almost got completely shut [down],” said Angmo. “So we all fought against it and stopped that from happening. Now the status of the players is slightly better than what it was in the past, but we really have to work hard towards getting respect for the players … [this] is one of LWIHF’s primary goals, to uplift the stature of women players in India.”
Want to get involved in supporting female hockey in Ladakh? The LWHIF is looking for equipment donations, financial assistance, and volunteer coaches. For more information, visit lwihf.org