Girls have an equal right to public space.
They weep, they scream, they explode with anger, they dance with joy — millions of football fans around the world are right now focused on only one thing — World Cup Football in Brazil. The controversies that preceded it have been all but forgotten as lovers of the game, men and women follow every move.
But the players are all men. Football remains, in popular imagination, a man’s game.
Yet, women also play football. Including Indian women. You would not know that as precious little is written about them. But this year, for a change, there has been some welcome reporting on the women who also kick the ball around.
One of them is a remarkable 36-year-old from Manipur — Oinam Bembem Devi. Her claim to fame is that she plays excellent football, so good that she captained the Indian Women’s Football team thrice. Yet, at the age of 12 when she began kicking a ball around with the boys in her neighbourhood, she could not have imagined this. In fact, according to reports about her, Bembem was so keen to play football that she cut her hair short and changed her name to Bobo so that she could continue to play with the boys.
Inevitably, she was found out. But that did not deter her. She continued with the game, played so well that she got a job with the Manipur police and went on to captain not just one of the teams in Manipur but the Indian team. Since Bembem’s early efforts to play football, things have changed considerably and today more girls and than boys play football in Manipur.
The Indian women’s football team has a higher FIFA ranking than the men’s — 50 as opposed to 154 for the men. It is also ranked 11 in Asia, while the men’s team is 28. But 50 is still not good enough for it to qualify for the Women’s World Cup Football that will be played in Canada next year.
Should it matter whether Indian women play football or qualify for world tournaments? The only reason to even discuss this is because the very fact that women are playing — and playing well — a game that is traditionally seen as a male sport has a significance that is greater than just the game.
This newspaper carried a wonderful story about a girls’ football team in Mumbra, an urban settlement outside Mumbai that is 95 per cent Muslim (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/mumbras-women-footballers-have-grounds-for-rejoicing/article6130903.ece). They began playing despite objections from their parents. But within a year, not only have they made their parents proud by winning in a couple of football tournaments but they have also succeeded in getting the Thane Municipal Corporation to reserve a 1.5 acre plot exclusively for women’s sports.
Earlier, Mumbra’s claim to fame, or rather infamy, was that it was home to Ishrat Jahan, the young woman tragically shot in a fake encounter in Ahmedabad in 2004. Today, these girls who play football are demonstrating how conservative norms can be broken even in an area where women’s literacy is low and girls are expected to marry young. If this can happen in Mumbra, surely it would not be so difficult to achieve elsewhere in India.
Whether the girls in Mumbra go on to become professional players is not so important as the fact that they have a chance to play, to enjoy the exhilaration of sport and the taste of freedom that it gives them.
Yet, ensuring that this trend continues and grows is an uphill battle. With the rise in the incidents of sexual assault on young women, parents are tempted to prevent girls from going out. Yet the safety of confinement will not make the world safer for girls.
What we need is for society to accept that girls have an equal right to the public space, that they too need the joy of being able to run free, to kick a ball, to hold a bat, to sprint, to jump over hurdles or to swim in the river, the sea, the pool. This is not a special favour being conferred on them.
So even as the football season peaks and then winds down, let us look around and see how many of our girls can go out there with confidence and kick a ball.