Stereotypes get a hard kick

Training session: Mumbai girl Seema Rawat (front left) and others participate in the five-day workshop organised by the Oscar Foundation in Mumbai.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

When she’s tending the tomato and wheat fields in her village in Ranchi district, Hemanti Kumari goes through the motions, though her mind might be elsewhere. On some days she is up by 4 a.m. so she can finish the chores in the house and cycle 20 minutes to the nearby football ground to play. Kumari, 20, a short girl with a sharp haircut, has been playing for the past six years and has represented Jharkhand. But even now, there are the unseemly barbs from family members and neighbours about playing a sport that ostensibly belongs to men. “In my community they do not approve, but I play anyway,” she says. “I try to explain to my family that I am not doing anything wrong.”

At the ground though, it feels right; the crunch of the grass underfoot, the dull thudding of the football. “All the tension from home goes away,” says Kumari. “It feels good.”

Kumari is in the city for a five-day workshop for young women being organised by the sports-for-development organisation Oscar Foundation and the British Deputy High Commission in Mumbai. Young women between the ages of 16 and 20 drawn from the city and Jharkhand have been participating in the programme — an opportunity for them to hone their football skills as well as take part in other modules such as nutrition, sexual health and education.

The Oscar Foundation is based in Mumbai and uses football as the pivot for addressing larger issues. It works in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Delhi, and has helped train more than 100 young women so far. “I want to help make them leaders,” says Ashok Rathod, its founder and director. “There are very few female leaders. I hope these girls can then go back and train younger girls.”

At one session on Thursday evening, the girls were being goaded to reflect on the four pillars of the organisation: fun, safety, learning, participation. Later, during a break, when asked if they watched football, many nodded and said yes. Some giggled. Any favourite players? Someone said Manchester United, someone else said Lionel Messi. Another said she watched football on television when no one else is at home to monopolise the set.

The girls, mostly drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been playing despite the anxieties and concerns of parents. Some began years ago, others more recently. For Sona Chavan, football has flung open other doors — literally providing excuses to leave the house. Chavan, 16, who lives in Cuffe Parade, would for the most part be engaged in her homework and house work. Her parents initially resisted her desire to join football, pointing out, for starters, that shorts were hardly appropriate attire. “We get to go outside and go to places we normally wouldn’t,” she said. “Parents of boys never prevent them from playing or going out.”

The football of course, is its own pleasure, but also the vehicle for broader values and lessons on leadership, teamwork and confidence building. “Through football we can teach them different things,” says Rathod. “It’s a simple and beautiful game and anyone can play it.”

Tellingly, the initiative has been named Kick Like A Girl. “Kicking is hardly associated with girls,” he continued. “If you say kick like a girl, not just like a boy, it’s a way of spreading awareness and removing stereotypes.”

The British Deputy High Commission has been supporting the initiative since 2016.

“The intention of the programme is to empower young women by providing them with the skills and the confidence to improve their own lives, to create opportunities for themselves and their communities to prosper, and to be able to address gender bias in their daily lives,” says Paul Carter, deputy head of mission, British Deputy High Commission, Mumbai, by email.

Some parents have come around, say the girls, or are less resistant than before. But there is often the inevitable question: what will you play football and do? “It is not necessary to get a job through it,” says Binny Kumar, another player from Jharkhand. “You play to feel good.” People in the village might pass remarks about the girls’ sports attire. “But I don’t pay attention to them,” she continues. “Their thinking is very backward.”

Saba Khan, who started last October, still leaves the house without her father knowing exactly where she is going. Draped from top to toe in a burqa, she travels alone to the Oval ground trainings, discards it for the duration of the session, and wears it again when they finish for the day. The journey from her home in Dongri to the public ground in South Mumbai is tiring, but worth it. “I want to make something of myself,” she says. “So I don’t mind struggling.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 6:09:54 PM |

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