Imagine an Indian city with open spaces full of girls playing, running, laughing... Imagine playgrounds spilling over with girls playing football, cricket and hockey. Imagine girls and their mothers in salwars , saris, tights, shorts and hijabs running across open fields chasing a ball, scoring goals, and loudly cheering. If you can imagine all this, you’re imagining a radically different Indian city! It’s different because girls don’t play. They certainly don’t play as much as boys. They definitely don’t dominate the playgrounds and maidans of our cities. Mostly they wait on the sidelines if they make it to the playground at all.
It’s a reality non-profit collectives such as Parcham, which uses football to engage with girls from marginalised communities in the Mumbai Metropolitan region, are working hard to create.
Their most recent initiative is the takeover of an empty plot of land adjacent to Mumbra’s Maulana Azad Stadium to create an exclusive sports ground for girls, the first of its kind in Maharashtra. “Parcham has been in dialogue with the Thane Municipal Corporation for a few years to create a safe space for women and girls to exercise their right to play,” says Sabah Khan, co-founder of Parcham. “Now that dream has been realised.”
Though the plot is yet to be levelled and cleared of construction debris, more than 100 girls and women recently staked claim to it by participating in the Third Fatima Bi Savitri Bai Football Tournament held at the new ground.
“Reserving a plot for girls to play is a big achievement for women who are minimally able to access public spaces,” says Salma Ansari, who trained in football with Parcham and now helps manage its football programme. “It’s also a major change in the image of Mumbra.” Like many Mumbra residents, Salma moved here with her family from Byculla after the 1992-93 Bombay riots. Since then, Mumbra has largely been perceived as a haphazardly-planned Muslim ghetto. “That Mumbra will now set the benchmark in working towards gender equality in public is revolutionary,” says Sabah. This was part of Parcham’s goal when it initiated a football programme for 20 girls in Mumbra in 2012. “We wanted to make women visible in ways that were rarely seen, moving beyond narratives of victimhood reserved for Muslim girls,” explains Sabah. “We wanted women to visibly stake claim to public spaces; for girls to access playgrounds and have fun.”
The football programme now extends to 99 girls and includes the areas of Mankhurd, Bandra and Nerul. The question that arises now is whether segregation of women from men is the only way to further women’s access to the public. In the current scenario, where any space in a building compound or open ground gets quickly overtaken by boys, it might be a viable short-term strategy.
“In our experience, when girls take the field, it’s like a mela — men hang around leering, staring, commenting, taking videos (that we ask them to delete),” says Salma. How do girls then develop the confidence to run freely, hold their bodies less rigidly and focus on developing game skills?
“While we maintain our claim to mainstream public spaces, till they accept a girl’s presence in the open field, till girls feel more confident, and their families more assured of their safety, a girls-only field may be a solution,” says Sabah. “Once the girls are hooked, it does not matter where they play; it’s only about making or saving a goal.” And in the end, that’s all that should matter.
As I wind up this Streetwise column, what better thought can I leave you with than that?
(Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets )