As the golden beams of sunlight appear to radiate in a windy, chilly afternoon, one can descry the blazing fire that burns in the hearts of the young football enthusiasts. They dribble the football, emerging in the wintry sun and striking an inevitable phalanx in their bright-coloured green jerseys and knee-length socks. It is very likely that they will never step on to a podium, grab money-spinning sponsorship deals or even monopolise breathless headlines. Yet, there are tiny stepping stones that lurk in their long journey of ambition and desire. Their kick of the ball hits at the navel of patriarchy amid scoffs and blasphemies: ‘but girls can’t play sports’.
A Ray Of Hope
Children dream big, all of them. But for 17-year-old Neelam, restraint comes easy. One of three children of a labourer father, Neelam had little inspiration. All she wanted was a medium that will help her learn ‘angreji’ and battle stereotypes that come in the way. Girls of Neelam’s age don’t speak the language of gender and stereotype, only to live and experience them. Most face resistance from their families, including poor infrastructure and sexual harassment. Football, Neelam says, was a forbidden dream in her conservative family in a rural setting.
“Padhne tak toh thik tha, lekin jab football khelna suru kiye toh gharwaalo ko achcha nahi laga. Hum shorts pehen ke jaate the, toh parosi bolne lage, ‘ladkiyan half-pant pehen ke yahan wahan ghumti hain, inse koi shaadi nahi karega’. Ghar pe bhi humare yahi bolne lage, kyunki mere maa-baap utne padhe likhe nahi hain. Humko bahut daant pari hain, lekin hum kisiki nahi sune.” (It was all good till I was involved only in studies. My family was against me playing football. I used to wear shorts while playing, my neighbours would taunt me saying, ‘girls are running around wearing half-pants, nobody will marry us’. My parents said the same because they are not literate. I was warned and threatened, but I did not bother to listen to them.)
One Kick At A Time
Neelam has kept the flag flying high for girls in her native Hutub village in Ranchi, Jharkhand, perhaps showcasing how football could be the means to transform the lives of those living in crude shanties. But the social realities often clip their fledgling wings, could football help change that?
“Hum ladkiyan bahar toh jaate rahe, lekin phir ‘rape’ hone laga. Woh sunne se gaaon ke log humein darane lage, gharwale mana karne lage. Papa ne zyadatar saath nahi diya. Haal hi mein Ranchi mein ek ladki ke saath rape huya. Gharwale dar rahe the, kehne lage humare saath bhi aisa huya toh kya hoga. Humne bola, teen ladkiya ek saath jaa rahi hain, toh hum kyun dare. Woh gande ladke ke liye hum sapna dekhna kyun chor de. Maine phir soch liya, hum toh jaake hi rehenge.” (We started going out to play, but soon incidents of rape began drawing attention. We were not allowed to go out and play. My father mostly never supported me. Recently, a girl in Ranchi was brutally raped. My parents were scared, they thought what if we meet the same fate. I said, there was nothing to be scared, we were three girls. Why should we stop dreaming because of evil men?) Social conventions and tradition, ‘football is not for girls, you have to do your housework’ are limiting, as is the support from their families.
Football? Women Can Play Too!
Her teammate Prarthana voices the same concern, as she avers: “Parents are scared to let their children out of their sight for too long. They believe, we are going to get married anyway, so what is the point of all this khelna-koodna?” The likes of Neelam and Prarthana are a true testament to the talent hidden in the most unlikely corners of India beyond one’s comprehension. Then comes a daunting remark. “Hum ek democratic desh hain. Humare paas sab rights hain jo ladko ko hain. Agar woh khel-kood rahe hain, toh hum kyun nahi. Aurat ki willpower ko kabhi underestimate nahi karna chahiye, hum bhi khel ke dikha denge unko.” (We live in a democratic country. We have the same rights as men. If they can play, why not us? One should never underestimate the willpower of women. We will prove them wrong.)
Helping The Disadvantaged
A non-profit organisation, Goals For Girls recently took an initiative to introduce life skills to underprivileged kids through football. The American team’s visit was part of the initiative, with the aim of connecting girls from different countries with their peers around the world in a forum that addresses social and physical challenges through cultural exchange and by means of kicking a ball.
From humble beginnings, the number of young women coming to play football has increased over recent years. Truly, the community has so far been successful to leverage the power of sports to captivate these young minds through their love for football. “I feel alive on the field," admits 15-year-old Pranjali. “Whenever I am sad, I play football,” she adds with a gleam in her eye. While each kid of Pranjali’s age nurtures a different relationship with the sport, what one hopes to achieve is quite the same. Like most other sports, football has to vie for attention in the cricket-plagued India, as each has her own share of stories to cherish about the difference the sport has made in their lives.