Play for Freedom

In the fringes of Mumbai, a revolution is running free..

Not too young to play

Everyone says Hasina is too young to play football. A notion this 4-year-old is determined to kick aside. Come Sunday morning, she runs down to the maidan (ground) outside her home, ball in hand, to watch neighbourhood didis (girls), many of them in their teens, play football. Girls of suburban Mumbra, who like her, grew up being told what all they could not do. Like play football.

A mindset a group of 20 girls are challenging, thanks to the initiative of an NGO Magic Bus  which uses sports to engage with children from deprived backgrounds. Through games, children are taught about key issues that impact their lives, like health, education and gender. Magic Bus runs several programs across slum communities in Mumbai, areas where access to basic amenities are poor. Mumbra, where the program was launched last year, is an especially challenging setting.

Located on the outskirts of Mumbai, Mumbra is home to a large Muslim population; many of them families which fled here in the 90s after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed. Many of them chose to stay on, insecurity being a major factor. The growing ghettoisation, activists say, has impacted the status of women. Levels of illiteracy are high (24%), as are early marriage rates. 28% of girls from Mumbra get married before the age of 17.

“It is difficult to reach out to adolescent girls anywhere, but in a conservative area like Mumbra, it is particularly difficult”, says Saba Khan, co-founder of a local NGO, Parcham, which works with Magic Bus in this initiative. The name Parcham is inspired by the works of Indian Urdu poet Asrar-ul Haq Majaz, also known as Majaz Lakhnawi, who saw women as crusaders, who should revolt against exploitation and injustice. Through his romantic, revolutionary verses, Majaz urged women to look at the hijaab, not as a barrier, but a flag or banner – “Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin, Tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achcha tha” (The cloth covering your head is no doubt a good thing. But if you make a flag out of it, it would be good).“In Mumbra, where all women wear a hijaab, it seemed like an appropriate name. We are using what many see as a sign of repression, and turning it into a symbol of revolution”, says Khan. Mumbra footballers

The revolution comes to life when you hear these girls talk about the battles they wage to steal a few hours kicking a ball with friends.

“I tell them I have sewing classes and slip out every Sunday in my hijaab”, says Saba Parveen, 23, one of the older members of the gang. “I can never tell my brothers. They will stop me from stepping out of the house if they get to know. I do feel scared but I am determined to play”. Saba’s brothers and father do not know she plays football. But her mother and sister are a big support.

“In Mumbra, no one lets girls out of the house without a naqaab (veil)”, says Saba Parveen, 23, one of the oldest members of the group. “Initially we were very scared, but as we kept playing, our confidence grew”.

Magic Bus’ usual approach is to work with mixed groups, something they had to change in Mumbra.  “Families here would never have let their girls play with boys”, says coach Shaikh Masood Akhtar, a senior manager at Magic Bus.“ Religious and political groups dominate the area. There is a lot of discrimination here against girls, but we have to work towards finding the solution gradually”, he adds. “A lot of the girls who come here wear the hijaab. They take it off while playing. But we don’t insist either way. It is a personal choice”.

Putting the group together was just one part of the problem. Getting them to stay remains a tough challenge. “Initially we started out with forty girls. Now there are twenty”, says Khan. “We went around to different colleges and residential colonies and distributed pamphlets urging girls to enrol. Many dropped out later”. Family pressure is a big factor. Getting a ground to play was difficult too. Finally a local temple came to their rescue by granting them their ground. The girls now plan to form a club and compete against the local boys’ teams.

“Just seeing these girls playing here is a huge thrill”, says Khan, “especially to be able to claim public spaces for girls. It is not always safe. Sometimes boys try and intimidate us but we confront them. The most important change is that parents have come to realize that it’s not enough to send the girls to school. They must get the opportunity to venture into the world outside and learn to cope”.

14-year-old Simran’s mother initially refused to let her play, but relented after watching the other girls. “I would watch these girls from my window, and I realized they were having so much fun”, says Noor Mohammed Patel. “They were making friends. They looked so confident. I wanted my daughter to look the same”.

For Neelam Deol, it’s an opportunity to let her daughter Simran mingle in a mixed group. A Sikh, she has lived in Mumbra for the past two decades. ‘I moved here after marriage and I have seen people becoming more divided over the years. While playing, these differences dissolve”.

Larger changes in mindset are now becoming apparent. “Initially the boys resisted our attempts to play in the maidan”, says Kausar Ansari, 32, the oldest in the group. Kausar started playing last year to cope with the depression after her marriage ended. She faced fierce resistance from her brother but refused to back down. “The boys in the maidan would block our way when we would play. But they saw our determination and opened up to us. Now they are very encouraging, and if someone passes comments they fight for us. I have come to realize just how much power we have within us to make a change. I feel that power within me now”.

015“I remember when we had our first meeting with the girls, they told us how stifled they felt”, recalls Akhtar. “How hurt that their parents did not trust them enough to leave the house unaccompanied by a male. They want to be seen as equals and that change is becoming apparent in the community. Sports has the power to do that”.

This article was published in the newspaper Dawn.