LAHORE, March 8 (Reuters) - For Sana Mir, the captain of the Pakistan women's cricket team, the successful and peaceful completion of a national Twenty20 event this week was a giant step forward for women's rights in the conservative and troubled country.
The six-team tournament, named after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was held at the Pakistan Cricket Board headquarters at the Gaddafi stadium under a heavy security blanket and concluded on Thursday night in a colourful finale.
In a first for conservative Pakistan, men were allowed inside the stadium to watch the matches which have been out of bounds for them in the past - except for those who came with families.
Pakistan's conservative society, which has been divided by a continuing war against militants, has left women's sports battling to be taken seriously or even properly funded.
In 2005 a marathon race in Lahore that included women was attacked by extremists and had to be called off.
But there were no such problems this week.
"The girls who came from all over the country really enjoyed themselves," Mir told reporters.
"Besides the cricket, it was a chance to mingle and interact with each other and this has really raised their confidence."
Mir, who has been playing for Pakistan for the last seven years and has led the side in many international events, said girls still face difficulties playing the sport they love because of the conservative outlook towards women in sports in the country.
The final, won by Sana's domestic team ZTBL, turned out to be an occasion for the players and their friends and families to celebrate and enjoy themselves as some of them even danced to the beats of popular local hits by singers at a concert after the match.
"I am really happy to see these girls enjoying and expressing themselves. It has been a long journey for women's cricket in Pakistan," said Shamsha Hashmi, a former Pakistan captain who has headed the Pakistan Cricket Board's women's wing.
It was also the first time a women's cricket tournament was covered live on television in Pakistan.
Shamsha said this showed that women's cricket had progressed a lot since her days of playing.
"This tournament has shown women's cricket is not just a pastime for the girls and we have a good standard.
"Some exciting new players have come up and there are more and more girls now playing cricket even from remote areas," she said.
The final word came from pacer Diana Baig, who hails from the remote Gilgit area in northern Pakistan which has been hit by sectarian strife in recent times.
"I have always wanted to play a productive role in society and for me cricket has been the best way to express myself," Baig said. (Editing by Patrick Johnston)