by- Shraddha g.

It’s one thing to play a sport for recreational purposes, and another to turn it into an effective tool of resistance against patriarchy.

Be it any sport, football, cricket, kabaddi or rugby, there is no escape from the rigid patriarchal norms or gender stereotyping which restricts the freedom of girls and women to claim public spaces. For long football has been seen as a ‘male sport’; so, when a bunch of driven girls, especially from remote corners of the country, decide to take it up, they were undoubtedly met with hurdles at every step of their journey. Not that these challenges and limitations dashed their hopes or made them quit, rather it had quite the opposite effect.

Sapna Gurjar and Mamta Jangir, the fiery teenage footballers associated with Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti from Ajmer, Rajasthan along with their team had planned to traverse the lanes of their city in the night. They had informed (and not asked) their parents that they would be touring the city by themselves. However, they also graciously accepted to take some time out to share their journey at the NAPM YUVA SAMVAD on the evening of 11th June, Saturday, where they were invited to talk on ‘Football Feminists: Playing Against Patriarchy’. Another fiery trio of footballers associated with Parcham, Mumbai – Fatima Shaikh, Monu Nishad and Madina – joined in the conversation to share their experiences on how they, too, are effectively driving the change by tackling, questioning and challenging the rigid patriarchal structure, one kick at a time.  

Defying the rigid patriarchal norms

When they first decided to take up football as their choice of sport, Mamta and her team faced strong disapproval from everyone. “We were discouraged to take up football as we were told, that it requires a lot of energy and stamina, which girls do not have. We were even suggested to take up volley ball or badminton, the usual games which girls play in the villages. However, we took up football as we wanted to change their mindset,” Mamta shared.

Families were not comfortable with the thought of girls playing a sport wearing shorts, she explained. “We began stepping on the ground and kicking the ball wearing a full-length lehenga or a legging, and gradually proceeded to wearing shorts. When our family members, especially fathers and brothers, saw how persistent we were, they had to give in to our determination, albeit unwillingly,” Mamta added.

Sapna further shared how usually it is their father or brother who takes decisions for them. “They are always determined to have the last word when it comes to taking decisions for us. Initially, our brothers never supported us and believed that girls should always stay at home. After seeing us entering the field and playing football, they began feeling insecure that they might lose out on their superiority. However, we relentlessly put up a fight and tried to negotiate through dialogue. So, now, over the years, we have learnt to be assertive about our wants and needs; we have learnt to fight for our basic rights of education and freedom. We don’t ask now, we tell them. It has been a difficult ride, but we gradually managed to alter their opinions and gain their support,” Sapna added.

Fatima, Madina and Monu shared similar stories where they had to even lie to their parents as they snuck out of their homes to play football. Reminiscing about the earlier days, Madina said, “Initially in 2013, girls who had joined us used to lie to their parents. They used to make up any permissible reason to sneak out of the homes. Over the years, the number of girls reduced as some parents caught their child playing in the field, and grounded her from playing. However, with the help of Parcham, we mobilized a lot of girls. With a lot of effort, we began creating a space for dialogue wherein we discussed with our families on why girls playing football should be encouraged.”

Monu, too, faced similar resistance. “My dad had initially denied me permission to play football. We belong to a small village in UP where people are quite conservative. Girls in our community are married off before they turn 18. Had Parcham not supported me, even I would have been married before the age of 18 by now. Although my parents weren’t supportive initially as they thought the outside world as untrustworthy, they saw through my relentless efforts in pursuing sports and began showing support and became more lenient. My father today is very supportive and makes sure I wear all my football gears before entering the field.”

Tackling Caste and Prejudice

It was not easy for Dhonia, a harijan member of Sapna and Mamta’s team, to deal with the caste discrimination during her initial days of joining the team. “Our entire team had this strong prejudice against Dhonia who belonged to a lower caste. We were conflicted as we were taught never to allow them (harijans) entry in our homes, share things with them or even touch them. Initially we kept our distance from her. Whenever the team won, our team mates used to hug each other. But once when I saw that Dhonia was feeling left out, it made me think empathetically. If I had been born into that caste, how bad would I have felt or would I have retaliated or rebelled against these caste practices? I hugged her myself and rest of the team followed suit. Now we have such a strong bond with her, that we invite her to our homes,” shared Sapna.

She added how this has sparked conversations within the team and helped us change our perspectives on caste and prejudice. They are spreading the same awareness with their families who have been opposing Dhonia’s presence in the team. “Dhonia had once asked me what is the difference between her and the rest of the team? I asked the same to my parents. I had a fierce argument with my father over this for an hour who was not encouraging us to play with her. However, I tried to explain the same things our coach had taught us about not following this discriminatory behaviour. I was able to make sense with them,” said Sapna.

“In my younger days,” shared Mamta, “I used to strictly practise untouchability in the village. If a harijan used to help me in carrying my water ghada, I used to go home, wash it with soap and then go back to fill the ghada. But when I began attending the meetings with our football coach, I realized why should we not discriminate and not practice untouchability with the lower caste people. We began questioning what was taught to us. I realized how the upper castes are trying to oppress the lower castes and poor people, so that they can always have a hold over them, and that they should not speak or fight for their rights.”

It took us a while, but now we do not follow any such practices, Dhonia gets invited at homes, we share water and food with her, shared Sapna and Mamta.  

Need for Negotiations and Dialogues

Fatima, even to this day, hasn’t shared with her family that she plays football in the field. All that her family knows is that she coaches football, as her brother has been quite unsupportive and reluctant since the beginning. She has been quietly playing the game for the last many years and has tactfully managed to sweeten her relationship with her strict brother, who now simply nods on the photos of her match wins she shares with him, if not encourages her enthusiasm for the sport.

Monu, on the other hand, was fat-shamed since her childhood. “The society often shames girls and women when it comes to weight, colour, or something as minor as shape of your nose. Playing a game as tough as football gave us confidence, even to own our body. I had body image issues and I had no friends. I hardly had any confidence and always toed the line, before I began my journey with Parcham. I remember when I won silver medal, and as I was doing well in football, it helped me immensely to overcome my inhibitions and gave a nice boost to my confidence. The same people, who ridiculed me for my weight, are now shocked to see how I play football, despite my huge body. They appreciate me for becoming a good football player. I get invited to camps and am treated like a young leader,” Monu shared with a smile.

To uproot the strong patriarchal structures and notions deeply-ingrained in the society takes time, patience, persistence and relentless efforts. Armed with feminist ideology, these young footballers are showing us that initiating dialogue and the art of negotiation within the families, communities and social circles can set this change in motion. Although it may seem like a daunting task, Sapna, Mamta, Fatima, Madina and Monu are spreading the much-needed hope by expanding and breaking the patriarchal boundaries through their solidarity and unique ways of resisting.

Shraddha g. works with Childline India Foundation and is also an independent journalist.