Swimming Through the Challenges

An interview with Kiran Khan, UNICEF Champion for Menstrual Hygiene Management

Fatima Shahryar and Catherine Weibel
Kiran Khan swims in her swimming pool
UNICEF/Pakistan/Fatima Shahryar

28 May 2019

Lahore, Pakistan - 28 May 2019 : Olympian Swimmer Kiran Khan is also a UNICEF champion for Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in Pakistan. Swimming is not a common sport in the South-Asian nations, even less so for girls, who must challenge social norms to practice it. This did not prevent Kiran from becoming one of the first female swimmers to represent the country in international competitions. UNICEF Pakistan met with Kiran at her family home in Lahore last week.

Q: How did your journey to swimming begin?

Kiran: My father, Khalid Zaman, is a national swimming champion. When I was one year old, he introduced me to the water and started training my elder brother. When I was seven, I had an argument with my ten-year-old brother and told him I could swim faster than he did. We both jumped into the pool and I won! My father saw it and started training me too. I won the national games when I was only 11 and never looked back.

Q: How did your family react when you decided to participate in swimming competitions?

Kiran: I have always been a rebellious child. I like it when I create ripples challenging the normal state of affairs – just like in water. Water is where I breathe, where I feel alive. I love swimming, I love the ocean and the sea, this is where I relax. Some relatives and friends of relatives objected when they saw I kept swimming even after I became a teenager, and after I got married. More recently, the mothers of other swimmers told me I should quit and let their daughters win. All my life I have been incited to quit! I had my ups and downs, but I have always kept on. I never quit, even when I lost, and I never will. The first time I was eligible to participate in the Olympic Games I was not selected, so I trained even harder than the girl who had been selected and I finally made the cut for the 2008 Games.

"I like it when I create ripples challenging the normal state of affairs – just like in water. Water is where I breathe, where I feel alive. I love swimming, I love the ocean and the sea, this is where I relax."

Kiran Khan

Q: Did you also receive support?

Kiran: One person had my back at all times -- my father. He is my coach, my mentor, my strength and my biggest critic when he needs to. He has empowered me through sport, just like he empowered my mother by encouraging her to set up her own medical clinic. He is the greatest figure in my life. My husband is also very supportive.

Q: How did you react to criticism?

Kiran: I cannot prevent some people from commenting on my life, even when I never comment on theirs. I let them criticize but I never let it affect me.  I care about people who encourage me and are a part of my life; I do not care about those who criticize me. What matters is what you are doing for yourself. You cannot be someone else, you need to be yourself.

Q: What is the secret to success?

Kiran: I want to tell girls and women – do not think negatively about your life. If something must happen, it will. Success does not happen overnight, you need to work very hard for it and you cannot be like everybody else. I cannot eat what I want because I need to keep fit, and I must go into the water and swim at 4am even in winter, when the water is so cold that I don’t want to go. You also need to remember that success comes around and goes. What matters is that you keep yourself fit and do what you love.

"I care about people who encourage me and are a part of my life; I do not care about those who criticize me."

Kiran Khan

Q: Did you experience challenges when training?

Kiran: As a swimmer, I need a proper pool to train. This proved a challenge as there are few Olympic pools in Pakistan, and they are usually reserved for boys and men. There is one accessible to all in Islamabad, but I live in Lahore. My father sought special permission to train me in a pool in Lahore, but one of the men going there made a scandal. In the end, my father had to build a pool at our home, so I could practice my sport. Now it’s my turn -- I train girls, boys and women at our pool every day so they can practice a sport that remains largely unexplored in our country. I also train my younger sister, she is a champion too!

Q: Why did you become a UNICEF champion on Menstrual Hygiene Mangement (MHM)?

Kiran: Many girls and women wrongly believe that they cannot bathe or take a shower when they have their periods, but this is completely false. I swim 365 days a year, including on days when I have my periods. My mother is a gynecologist, she tells her patients that they must continue to wash themselves when they menstruate. Just like hygiene, menstruation is a normal part of life. It enables women to give birth, so why not talk about it? Even Quran mentions menstruation in a verse.

Kiran Khan sits with her mother
UNICEF/Pakistan/Fatima Shahryar
Kiran smiles sitting alongside her mother, Dr. Shagufta Khalid, who holds a trophy that was presented to her for being a super mom to a super star, Kiran Khan.

Q: As a UNICEF champion, how do you share your knowledge of MHM?

Kiran: At public events, I sometimes organize ‘all girls’ sessions so young women and girls can openly discuss their concerns with me. I try my best to educate them and guide them on menstrual hygiene management. We need to speak out about the things we want to change, because they won’t change on their own.

Q: What message do you have for girls on Menstrual Hygiene Day, which falls on May 28th?

Kiran: Menstrual Hygiene Management is a platform which has allowed many girls and women to raise questions and talk about their periods, something they never had the courage to do before. I advise all girls to visit gynecologists for regular examinations. Everyone has a different body and it is extremely important to know your body – to know how it functions. Having her period should not stop any girl from achieving her goals in life!