Afshan Ashiq: Life beyond boundaries

At a time when men’s football in Kashmir has achieved great heights by producing many international and national footballers in addition to coaches, we see, on the other end, the women folk in football crouching behind to leave their footprints due to the obstacles drawn by society for them.

However, female folk in Kashmir want to be passionate about football and they too want to swab, strike, juggle, and dribble with the ball as the boys do. But being living examples of stereotypes among this society and a convenient lack of opportunities for them, their desires have been swept under the rug. Many parents hesitate to send their daughters to the football field due to social stigmas. But someone has to come forward to take bold steps to cross all those boundaries and tear down those dark walls which the society has built for a girl.

The girl who broke the wall

Afshan Ashiq, the courageous football sensation of strife-torn Kashmir who broke the gender stereotypes and stigma by indulging in football, became a pole star for many girls in Kashmir.

An under-graduate student of Moulana Azad Women’s College Srinagar, Ashiq used to play cricket but switched after sensing little scope for girls in Kashmir in the sport. She eventually fell in love with football.

Starting her footballing journey from Women’s College Srinagar in 2013, she somehow initiated a trend to dismantle the old, outdated conventions of society and, to some extent, has succeeded in her mission.

“I devoted my maximum time to playing football. But soon it invited criticism from the moral police, who showered their ‘immoral’ comments on me.”

“They started questioning my personal decision to play football in general and with the opposite gender in particular. Initially, even my family shied away from supporting me and thereby, I was left alone to battle for my cherished passion,” says Afshan as she reiterates her journey.

But football being a fascination and the ultimate goal for her, she was unmoved by the conservative mindsets and hefty challenges coming her way. Afshan consistently used to burn her energy to live with her passion as if it was an imported wine for her which she needed to have at any cost.

“I tried to convince my parents to lend their support but my ‘poor’ attempts bore no fruits. But I was as determined as a spider which scaled the wall after repeated attempts. After seeing my love for the game, the two ladies of the house – my mother and my aunt – backed me as a powerful force,” she recalls.

The family support that kept her going

But soon a bright day came in her life when her father, Ashiq Ahmad realized her passion for football in addition to witnessing her achievements and now, he lends his support also.

 “In the real sense, my journey started right from that day when my father started to support me in fulfilling my dream without concerning himself about the traditional mindset of the society,” she adds.

Keeping her passion alive, resilient Afshan kept toying with football and a day came when she tied up her shoe-laces and donned the jersey of the state team through Jammu and Kashmir Football Association (JKFA) to kick off her career as a footballer and, thereafter, she represented the J&K Women Football team in 2014.

Besides that, Afshan has also participated in Indian Women’s League (IWL) in 2017.

“In IWL, I played first round from PIFA Colaba – the Mumbai based football team – but when I witnessed the first Women I-League Football team of J&K – CM’s XI – participating, I got emotionally charged and decided to represent my own state team and thereby played second round from the CM’s XI side.”

Beyond the valley

Capturing the best memory in her life by representing her state in Women’s I-League, Afshan said, “For the first time, J&K team exhibited much better performance that too in their debut IWL as compared to the performances shown at National level tournaments.”

Adding, “Whenever I will get a chance to represent J&K I will be honoured because I am a Kashmiri first and my first priority will be my state. I’ll never let down my state.”

Getting support and motivation from her coaches, Indian women’s national team head coach, Sajid Yousuf Dar and I-League team coach, Aijaz Ahmad Dar pushed Afshan to remain inclined to chase her dream.

“My coaches were my backbone who gave me strength to stand against all odds. The dream of playing in an Indian team was envisioned by Aijaz sir while the inspiration from Hope Solo – an American soccer goalkeeper (two-time Olympic gold medallist and World Cup champion) – was infused in me by Sajid sir.”

“He used to narrate her (Hope Solo’s) story to boost my morale and confidence. Sajid sir used to call me Hope Solo thereafter,” Ashiq says.

With the motive to change the perception of society that football is not only meant for boys, she started a new journey to train girls for football in the Vale.

“Having feeble participation from girls in football, I thought to take an initiative for them so that they too can participate in football and take it as a career option. It was a herculean task for me at first to assemble girls and motivate their parents to ensure their participation,” Afshan said.

The journey as coach

In 2014, Ashiq donned a new-jersey as a coach and entered into the coaching field by opening her own football club ‘Unique Football Girls’ to provide coaching.

“In order to provide training to girls on professional lines I had to develop and improve my game further besides to inspire them through my game,” she said.

The young girl who dreamed big to inspire girls and motivate their parents in allowing their daughters to participate, underwent multi coaching programs which included ‘AIFF (All India Football Federation) Grassroots Coaching Course under-6 and under-12, AIFF D-Licence Coaching, and NIS (National Instructor of Sports) certificate course with an intention to provide professional coaching thereafter.

However, it was not an easy ride for her as she faced many hurdles which tried to demoralize her but her hunger for football and her drive to prepare the girls gave her courage to dream more and dream big. It is said that every journey has to pass through hurdles in order to taste the wine of success.

In the beginning, only three girls registered themselves in my club but after exhibiting serious efforts to convince and change the mindset of their parents, the number swelled gradually,” Afshan said.

Playing alongside with her students in IWL for CM’s XI became a proud moment for her that she cherishes.

“During the women’s league two of my students –Tanzeel and Inain – were playing along with me. It was a really proud moment for me to see my students sharing space with me in the same team. It shows how much passion and dedication the young buds have for football in Kashmir,” she expressed.

Reiterating her meeting with the Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh during IWL, Afshan said that the first question she faced from Rajnath Singh was “Why militancy in Kashmir is on an increasing slope? The question was both shocking and unexpected at a sports meet.”

 “I wanted to raise my voice for Kashmir but the motive behind meeting with Rajnath was sports-centric. I answered that we are here to discuss sports and let’s talk about sports. I asked him that the youth of other states are availed with all sorts of opportunities but the youth of Kashmir receive a step-motherly treatment.”

“There is no dearth of talent in Kashmir but all we want is equal opportunities and platforms like the other states get,” she said and adds, “However, I wanted to meet him personally to discuss the Kashmir scenario and what compelled the youth to join militant ranks.”

“I want to apprise him that the youth and rebels that are being martyred by the government forces are fighting for the Kashmir cause as the Kashmiris are going through the brutalities, tortures, frisking, crackdowns, harassment, grave human rights violations etc done by the government forces on daily basis there in Kashmir. Kashmiris have suffered and are still suffering.”

Adding, “Whenever I get a chance to visit other states and countries, I will raise the Kashmir issue, no matter what.”

“Girls need to speak about their dreams”

Afshan’s desire for football has grown so vast that she joined one of the renowned women football clubs of Mumbai, Premier India Football Academy – PIFA  Colaba in June last year, under a two-year contract besides being associated with ‘Demelition’ in February 2018.

Finding success from setting her own boundaries, Afshan said that to break the conventional boundaries drawn by society for girls, the girls have to come forward and take a stance for themselves.

“When I started to dribble with football – the so called man-dominated sport – extremists used to tease me and pass lewd comments but I didn’t pay heed to them and with undeterred courage, I propelled my journey further.”

“So girls need to listen what their inner self tells them. They need to speak about their dreams, what they want to achieve and make their decisions firm. By taking a strong stance we can set our own boundaries for achieving success and fulfilling our passion,” she stated.

Breaking down into emotions Afshan exclaimed that from past-3-years her brother has refrained from talking to her because of football.

My brother wanted me to leave football as he is against it. He tries to look at sports from the mirror of religion. But I want to ask him that are not Muslim women playing football donning headscarves in middle-east countries? I wish he realizes it someday that religion and sports are two different narratives and then thoroughly support me. I’ve worked hard to play football and how can I leave my game.

Adding, “Even my father was against my decision of playing football but with time he realized and understood and now my Dad is so proud of me and often says that people recognize him because of his daughter, which is something that I can’t express in my words.”

Calling it a myth that government is financially assisting her to play in Mumbai, Afshan refuted it and said. “Back in the valley, everyone presumes that the government is financially assisting me but that is not the case. I bear all the expenses and expenditures myself. Apart from my father’s income there is no support from other quarters. Even I’m not getting anything from the Mumbai clubs. I joined these Mumbai based clubs to gain experience and exposure which I can’t get in Kashmir.

The life of Afshan took many turns and faced wrath from different quarters. From footballer to coach and “accidental” stone-pelter to stardom, Afshan has seen many tough times in her 23 –year –old journey.

The rebel and the cause

Hailing from Bemina, Srinagar, Afshan came into limelight after she was captured by media while “hurling stones” on government forces in April, last year. However, the reason behind her action encapsulated a different tale which remained shrouded for a long time.

“I along with my students was passing through Pratap Park for a practice session which was scheduled at TRC ground, Srinagar. The roads were already swelled with the bulk of angry protesters who were protesting against the civilian killings in Kashmir.

But within no time policemen approached hurriedly towards us and started misbehaving even after repetitive appraisals that we are not protesters but sportspersons.

In the meantime, one of the cops donning khaki , slapped one of my students and that infuriated me and compelled me to do something which I was never known for,” Afshan narrates her story.

Putting her football-ing and academic career at stake, she came to theforefront to “protect and defend” girls from the “misdemeanour” of forces.

“I hurled stones in a bid to protect my students besides myself from the rage of government forces, who misbehaved with us and abused us as if we were the ones chanting pro-freedom slogans,” she adds.

Feeling proud on her timely retaliation and considering it as an imperative step for taking stand against the wrong she said, “I was left with no option, and it didn’t take me much time to hold a stone in my hand. Had forces restricted themselves by not abusing, slapping and provoking us, such incident wouldn’t have been aroused that time,” she said and was quick to add, “Youth of Kashmir hurl stones on forces only when they are being harassed and provoked by them (forces).”

Enthusing other girls to come out from interlace of barriers plaited by society, Afshan was known footballer of valley. But stone hurling incident on that fateful day of April changed her reflection abruptly. Rather than branding her as “sports youth icon”, her name was tagged with the controversial suffix “stone-pelter”.

Blaming the media, particularly the “national media” Afshan said, “I was portrayed as a stone-pelter by maximum media outlets at the national level who got away by distorting and manipulating the facts. I tried hard to remove the tag but the media never let it happen.”

The tag of a stone pelter that refused to quit

“Ironically, maximum national and a few local media outlets carried my stories having jaw-dropping headlines like “Stone-pelter turns into footballer”, “From stone-pelter to footballer: story of Afshan Ashiq”,Afshan Ashiq: poster girl of stone-pelter now captain of J&K football team”etc.”

There was hardly any news that introduced my name without using the tag “stone-pelter” in headlines, such was the lackadaisical approach adopted by media houses,” Afshan proclaims.

“I just wanted to give a clear cut message to everyone that I was already a footballer and I didn’t became a footballer abruptly after that stone hurling incident. It was quite excruciating that media houses gave priority to highlight such incident and left no stone unturned in portraying me in a negative way instead of portraying my football career,” she adds.

Afshan, who used to represent J&K in Nationals, was even barred by Jammu and Kashmir Football Association (JKFA) – the governing body for football in J&K – after the national media “maligned” her image and reeled her into controversies which turned her life upside down.

“During National Championship, which was scheduled to be held at Punjab in 2017, I was barred by JKFA from participating after my stone hurling pictures went viral after the negative image portrayed by national media. When I needed a firm support from JKFA they (JKFA) desolated me, which was quite demoralizing. However, I’m thankful to Secretary Sports, Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para who supported me at that time as except him no one was willing to induct me in the state football team,” she recalls.

Afshan, who went on record to say that her nationality is Indian, was snubbed by few quarters especially “emotionally charged” youth of Kashmir and labelled her as “Indian collaborator”, “traitor”, “anti-Kashmiri” etc.

“My nationality is Indian.”

When I post anything on social media I get so many negative and offensive comments and even my parents are not spared. While some call me stone-pelter others call me as anti-Kashmiri. But my message for those who think I’m traitor is that I am as much Kashmiri as they are and possess the same sentiments as they cultivate,” she expressed.

However, Ashiq maintained to say that her nationality is Indian till the “Kashmir dispute” is not resolved.

“Currently, I am living in India and posses Indian Election Card, Aadhaar Card, Passport and other essential documents which clearly mention “My nationality is Indian” and same documents are possessed by them (who call her anti-Kashmiri). But if anyone says it in a public domain then he/she is labelled as traitor or anti-Kashmiri and it becomes much easier for them to label a person. Why don’t those people burn their passports, Election Cards and Aadhaar Cards if they are so much pestered? she questions.

Afshan, who thinks stone pelting is not the way-out for “Kashmir Resolution”, strongly urges youth to shun stone pelting.

“Stone pelting is not an ultimate option to raise our genuine demands viz a viz Kashmir instead youth of Kashmir should opt non-violent approach to register their protests. Throwing stones on government forces results in our own loss as we are losing our youth in forces action,” she expressed.

Sensing an indulgence of girls in stone pelting a major concern, Afshan said that stone pelting has become a trend now among girls which is quite hurting to her.

“My colleagues often taunt me that I started the trend and brought girls on roads with stones in their hands and then left aside”

“So sometimes it comes to my mind that I should have sort out the matter with much understanding and maturity instead of hurling stones on that fateful day,” she expressed and adds, “Now after coming to Kashmir I’m planning to hold a youth convention and discourse for both boys and girls to know why they are on roads with stones and what is in their mind. If we lag to redress their issues then we are heading to lose our sisters as well like our brothers, who are being killed, maimed and victimized every passing day,” she says

Afshan, who became both famous and infamous due to the “accidental” stone pelting, caught eyeballs of bollywood as well and signed a biopic titled ‘Hope Solo’ with the well-known actor and iconic ‘baddie’ of bollywood, Gulshan Grover.

“I agreed for the movie just because to propagate my true story as it is the best medium to acknowledge all those people who raised fingers on my actions,” Afshan proclaims.

The movie, “Hope Solo” which depicts the journey of Afshan and her struggle to strive for her dream of playing football besides Kashmir situation is being directed by Manish Hari Shanker and is produced by iconic ‘bad-man’ of bollywood industry ’Gulshan Grover and his son Sanjay Grover.

“When I signed the biopic, I was directed not to speak anything against India until the movie is not released but I made it crystal clear to them, whenever something wrong happens in Kashmir or human rights violation or any sort of injustice happens in Kashmir I will raise my voice no matter what,” she adds, “Prior to signing the flick I draw some conditions of not to portray Kashmir in a negative way besides to reject the contract at any point whenever I sense objectionable content about Kashmir or Kashmiris being incorporated in movie,”

Saying that the youth of Kashmir are not misguided as the government of India (GOI) besides national media used to describe them but are highly educated ones and those who join militancy are scholars, engineers and doctors.

“If GOI really want peace in Kashmir then they should give youth of Kashmir a space to express, to hold peaceful protest besides initiate a dialogue with them in a positive way and meet their genuine demands and problems rather than harassing and victimizing them, thinking and fighting for freedom is our basic right,” Ashiq expressed.

“National media has an agenda to defame Kashmiris.”

Lashing out on national media for their “hypocrite and malicious” intentions besides manufacturing of facts about Kashmir issue, Ashiq expressed her anguish and said, “National media has an agenda to defame Kashmiris. Until we won’t speak about our Kashmir, the people outside Kashmir will be kept ignorant about the reality of Kashmir and whatever is disseminated through national media they take that as a gospel truth.”

“It is not always that people outside Kashmir have only hatred for Kashmiris but in real sense they are actually ignorant and are unknown to the facts and ground reality of Kashmir because their own ultra nationalistic media is misleading them.”

“How can they (national media outlets) report the Kashmir situation without even having the basic knowledge and history about Kashmir that too from their air conditioned studios?” she questions.

Terming youth powerful asset of the society for bringing change, Afshan said youth should adopt non violent means and methods to present the “true picture” of J&K.

“We can change the mentality of every Indian and acknowledge them by disseminating the facts about Kashmir through any proper medium. That is the power of the youth, only youth can change that but in Kashmir we are losing youth day by day. Our 60% population are youth who are under-25 but due to turmoil we are losing them,” Afshan said and adds, “Kashmir is internationally recognized dispute and we have to address our sufferings through peaceful and meaningful way. I have selected sports as a medium to spread my word regarding Kashmir dispute and whenever I get a chance to speak in Mumbai about the ground reality of Kashmir I never hesitate to do so.”

Believing in unity and terming Kashmiris their own enemies, Afshan expressed, “On the one hand Kashmiris want freedom from India but on the other hand few elements among us (Kashmiris) sell their conscience and act as informers of government agencies and became the reason for the killing of rebels and youth fighting for the Kashmir cause. Until people of Kashmir will not unite from all fronts and stand together for the Kashmir cause, K-dispute will remain unaddressed and unresolved.”

Expressing concern over the increasing disconnect between the youth and Joint Resistance Leadership-an amalgamation of Hurriyat factions, Afshan said, “Hurriyat has lost connect with the people of Kashmir especially with youth, who are at forefront to lead the struggle movement. They should initiate a dialogue with the youth to bridge the gap and know their problems and aspirations.”

While taking jibe on Hurriyat, Afshan quipped, “If Hurriyat leaders are so much concerned about Kashmir then why their kiths and kins are not joining the movement, instead are living a lavishious life besides getting quality education in top ranked institutions at abroad.”

Adding, “Hurriyat, who are acting as a mute spectator should ask youth to shun stone pelting and kept the movement non-violent as we are seeing our young generation getting killed with each passing second.”

With a view to commemorate those who have sacrificed their life for the “Kashmir cause”, in this turbulent Kashmir, Afshan said, “I’m immensely sentimental about Kashmir and I’ve made a scrapbook of our youth who got killed, injured and maimed in forces action so as to remember what we have lost for Kashmir cause.”

“Don’t leave your game for anyone”

While talking about her cherished dream, Afshan smiles and replies in a confident tone, “I love football and I’m desirous to represent India at International level which is my only cherished goal and I’m toiling hard to achieve this feat.”

However, she was very quick to add, “Representing India or playing for Mumbai doesn’t mean that I will stop speaking about Kashmir issue. The more I push to my game the more it will push me. I am playing for myself and the sentiments I hold for my state is altogether a different tale. We shouldn’t mingle sports with politics, both are different entities.”

The female folk according to her are not weak as society perceives them but are capable to scale all milestones if availed equal opportunities.

“In Kashmir girls do not get optimal opportunities. So it is need of an hour to relate sports as women centric as well and efforts should be taken to open window of opportunities for girls and encourage them to indulge in sports. It will definitely act as an empowering force in girls’ live which can eventually transform the way girls think about themselves and the ways their family and communities perceive them,” she believes.

According to her, the change is on horizon if parents begin to lend their support for their daughters.

“Now parents are realizing the importance of sports and it is an optimistic sign that parents are coming forefront to support their girls. It will eventually cultivate a thinking process among girls that it is socially acceptable to participate in sports thereby enrich their confidence to break down all such barriers that hinders their participation. The change is on cards,” Ashiq said.

Saying that the sports arena in Kashmir is taking a new route which is encouraging girls to indulge in sports, “We are seeing lots of changes in sports arena. Things are changing now as number of initiatives are been taken to involve girls in sports which in turn will emancipate women and girls besides will act as a vector for women empowerment.”

In order to boom the participation of girls in sports besides to encourage and train them from grassroots level, Afshan pitched her thoughts for making sports compulsory in schools.

“We should initiate from schools. In other states, students are equally involved in sports as in studies. The schools remain abuzz with sports activities and held trials on daily basis but here in valley such concept is alien and less than 20 minutes are kept for sports activities that too only if students had any vacant class. But to encourage girls participation, we need transformation from school level besides should initiate a trend to hold tournaments for girls,” she suggests.

In her message to youth  Afshan said, “Youth should remain dedicated towards their game and shouldn’t lose their hope or get demoralized by impediments. Sooner or later they will achieve their goals.  Don’t leave your game for anyone, keep railing on your journey to chase your dreams.”