‘You don’t have to stop being a girl to play a sport’

Mumbai: British Army officer Robert Baden-Powell described football as a “grand game for developing a lad physically and also morally, for he learns to play with good temper and unselfishness, to play in his place, and to play the game, and these are the best of training for any game of life.”

Back then, of course, ‘the beautiful game’ — and most other sports — were played by boys and men. Today, the learnings of that era remain, but now we have more playing fields that include girls.

On Friday, two documentary films screened by the Godrej India Culture Lab at Vikhroli showed that it is now a space that women from rural India and a traditional community in Mumbai have claimed as their own. The event opened with the world premiere of Fields of Dreams, directed by Minnie Vaid, about a school principal and a soccer coach who are using football to change the lives of young girls in Jalna district, Maharashtra, and a screening of Under the Open Sky, by Shilpa Phadke, Nikhil Titus and FaizUllah, a documentary about a girls’ football initiative that claims open public spaces to play in Mumbra, in Thane district. Parmesh Shahani, head of the Culture Lab, who moderated a panel discussion following the screening, summed up the films as “micro narratives of resistance, celebration and joy.”

Playing, but not to win

Among those quietly observing the evening’s proceedings in the audience was the protagonist of the first film, Rafique ‘Coach Sir’ Shaikh. His story of what motivated him to coach young school dropouts and girls who had never been to school in Jalna carried the most powerful message of the evening: one of leadership, empowerment and persistence. “I was a very good player in my student days, and always played to win. When I got this job [at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya], I was eager to win the school some medals, and make a name for myself. But here were girls who were shy and scared. Many of them didn’t even complete school.” From then on, he changed his strategy: he would constantly tell the girls that they needed to play not to win, but just to go out and play a good game. “In two to three years, most of the girls in school would want to go back to the fields, or get married, except those who played a sport. They were travelling to other sporting destinations, they had begun to look forward to playing, they didn’t want to leave school. Most of all, they were able to put off marriage. For me, it was just about making them happy and letting the other things follow.” There came a time when he couldn’t tell “when the girls went on to win tournament after tournament.” All that mattered to him was that they were out there, playing.

Overcoming inhibition

For Saba Parween, who helps girls like her in Muslim-dominated Mumbra to overcome their inhibitions, it started with her own casting aside of her naqab (veil) on the field, literally and figuratively. “It took me four to five months to take off my naqab on the field. The men used to taunt us. I have been hit by stones on my feet and even my eyes. But we never gave up. We claimed a part of the same ground that the men would play cricket on.”

Ms. Parween says she lays no claims to being a coach, and even though she was named captain of the team, she humbly says she isn’t very adept at the game either. “But I listen to the girls,” she says, “I share their joys and sorrows. What I learnt, I want to teach girls who have never got chance to play.”

Not medals, maidans

Havovi Wadia, Director, Impact, at the NGO Magic Bus, says this is what the narrative is about. “Across the country, what we’ve seen is not about how many medals you get but about getting on to the maidan.” Winning gold medals, she says, is less important than seeing a hundred girls on a playground: “I want to see more of that.” Ultimately, as philosopher Jacques Derrida said, “Beyond the touchline, there is nothing.”

For the girls in the audience, she had a crucial message: Unlike what films like Dangal portray, “you don’t have to stop being a girl to play a sport. Your gender and sexuality are part of who you are.” There is enough research to show sports programmes exclude as much as they include, she said, and that is where the role of a coach is crucial.

To sociologist Shilpa Phadke, the participation of women in a public space is just as important. “We are also interested in how, when girls play, it transforms the city, and to think about how our cities are changing.” Women don’t just go out for a purpose, they also go out just to play, to have a good time. “It transforms the way all of us look at space around us. This is as important as individual transformation.”

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 1:34:50 PM |

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