Eighteen-year-old Zia Mansoori (name changed) looks forward to Sunday afternoons. Leaving home on the pretext of college-related work, she meets up with 20 others who have assembled in a room. They slip out of their hijabs, don t-shirts, long socks and shoes and it’s football time.
Encouraged by NGO Magic Bus, these Mumbra girls began their kicking pastime in October last. The game has since become, for them, a metaphor for freedom rather than a mere sport.
Girls playing this male-dominated sport are no longer a rare sight. But in this Muslim ghetto of Mumbra, it is no ordinary feat. Located on the outskirts of Mumbai, this township is home to a large population of communal-riots refugees. Twenty-four per cent of its women are illiterate, 92% don’t work and 28% are married before the age of 17 (Mumbra-a Status Report —TISS, 2011).
Zia’s family doesn’t know she plays football. To preclude confrontation, she finishes her share of household chores — cooking, cleaning and caring for her 2-month-old sister — before leaving for football training. Besides her parents, Zia has four brothers and two sisters. “Abba thinks girls have to stay at home so I don’t tell him I play. He doesn’t even want me to study but I fight and go to college,” she says.
Magic Bus initially intended to train 14-17-year-olds from Mumbra in football. But after the girls voiced their concern about playing alongside boys, the NGO made an exception. It decided to exclusively train girls of all age-groups here. Masood Akhtar, a member of Magic Bus, is the coach.
Aliya Shaikh (16) has got her father’s support but faces resistance from her three brothers and mother. “My father says this is my age for fun and play even though my brothers try to stop me,” she says. Most of the girls’ parents work in the unorganised sector. In many cases, they are single parents. A majority of the girls study through correspondence, as they eke out a living on the side.
If assembling enough girls to constitute a game of football was a challenge, making them stay on was far more complex. “We started distributing pamphlets in schools and colleges urging girls to come for training. Forty girls signed up but the enthusiasm petered out. We are now left with a team of 20 girls,” says Saba from the Forum Against Oppression of Women, one of the social workers. “Finding a ground was difficult too. Finally, we approached a temple trust which agreed to give us a ground that belonged to them.”
Girls’ entry into the grounds has already changed mindsets. Today, Mumbra has even seen a tournament between girls and boys. “Earlier, the boys didn’t let us play on the ground where they played cricket. Now, we play together. We recently had a mixed cricket and football tournament with them,” said Muskan Sayyad, a Class 10 student whose father encourages her to play as a recreation from studies.
For the oldest player, Kausar Ansari (33), Sunday sessions are a stress-buster, especially after her recent divorce. “I would just watch the young girls play until I couldn’t resist stepping onto the field. Now there is no stepping back,” she says. Her 14-year-old son often comes to watch.
Now, equipped with a certain level of skill, fortitude and heightened self-esteem, the girls want to enter professional football. “We want to have our own club and maybe call it the Mumbra Girls Football Club,” says Fatima Mirza (20), who plays the game despite severe opposition from home.