Gulikiz Igarbeydi, a physical education teacher at Bahqi Town High School, teaches students football during a class in Hotan County of Hotan Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Sept. 4, 2023. (Xinhua/Zhang Yu)
URUMQI, Sept. 5 (Xinhua) -- Gulikiz Igarbeydi had longed for a football, volleyball, or basketball since she was a kid, but finally got her wish at the age of 14 due to her family's financial situation.
But she didn't let the delay hold her back from pursuing her career goals, becoming a physical education teacher and sharing her love for sports with her students in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
"When I was a student, my parents always told me that football was for boys, and teachers said that football is a highly competitive sport that isn't suitable for girls," the 46-year-old said, highlighting the attitude to playing football in Xinjiang 20 or 30 years ago.
That attitude has changed over the years, as evidenced by the growing number of girls participating in football activities in Xinjiang.
Today, Gulikiz Igarbeydi works as a physical education teacher at Bahqi Town High School in Hotan County, southern Xinjiang's Hotan Prefecture. She also coaches a 27-member girls' football team at the school, with ages ranging from 14 to 16 and a waiting list of students eager to join.
Gulikiz Igarbeydi was born and raised in Hotan Prefecture. She was interested in various kinds of sports during her youth, but purchasing a ball was an unthinkable luxury at the time due to her family's strained finances. But that didn't stop her from frequenting the school fields and learning from others.
When she was in junior high school, she began her training in sports. In 1991, she was admitted to the Hetian (Hotan) Normal College to major in sports and received a basketball and a volleyball for the first time in her life from her father, as the college required its students to have their own. She graduated in 1994.
Highly motivated, she has worked as a physical education teacher at different schools over the course of her 29-year career, sharing the techniques she has mastered with her students and sparking their interest.
"Girls involved in football account for about one-fifth of all the girls in the school," said Bai Huilin, who works with the Bahqi Town High School, adding that almost every school in the county now has a girls' football team.
Bai said that as most of its students come from local farming or herding households, the Bahqi school covers the costs of the team's kit and transport to matches.
China has been implementing "pairing assistance" programs in Xinjiang since 1997, channeling financial, technical and human resource support in various fields into Xinjiang from 19 other provincial-level regions of the country.
With governments at various levels in China attaching increasing importance to education, and with the efforts of teachers like Gulikiz Igarbeydi, more and more children in Xinjiang are receiving diverse forms of education and living more colorful lives.
Football is a charming sport, said 16-year-old Bumairam Ail, a ninth grader at Bahqi Town High School and a midfielder on her team. "Before kicking the ball, you should think about your position and not kick it blindly," she said.
Thanks to her football matches, she has traveled to quite a few other parts of Xinjiang. "I've made many friends and we often talk online and keep in touch," she said. "I have many choices for my future, but football is what I will hold on to."
The education bureau of Hotan Prefecture said that in the first half of 2023, some 800 schools participated in the Hemei Cup, a schools' football competition organized by the prefecture.
"When my mother saw my match certificate, she was so proud of me and even showed it off to the neighbors," said 11-year-old Munira Adil, a fifth grader at the Gujanbah Township Central Primary School in Hotan Prefecture.
She became fascinated with the sport just six months ago. With her mother's support, she plucked up the courage to apply for a team trial and passed several tests before eventually becoming a member.
Although she gained some bruises during her training, she said she became braver with the encouragement of her coach and teammates.
"I will train harder," she said. "I hope to represent my school in football matches in the future and see the wider world outside of Hotan." ■