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When a motley group of girls in the Muslim-dominated suburb of Mumbra started playing football in secret, they had no idea that three years later, they would be able to kick the ball without inhibitions, in a place where they won't have to watch their back.
In a landmark decision for gender-specific urban planning and one which will encourage more women to reclaim open spaces, the Thane municipal corporation (TMC) has decided to allot a 4,000 sq m plot for the exclusive use of the suburb's girls. In doing this, the civic body has done what women's organisations have demanded for years and what bigger municipal corporations have failed to do.
Beyond its general advantages, the idea of a girls-only plot is great news for Sabah Shaikh, the captain of the football team. "For us, even getting out of the house without a naqab (veil) was impossible. To take off the naqab and play in full public view requires guts," says Shaikh.For the first year, Shaikh's discreet adventures in football were a secret. Eventually, she was able to tell her mother. But even that, says her friend and goalkeeper Salma Ansari, was after she injured her toe and couldn't conjure up any more stories to explain on-field injuries.
In the Mumbra that Shaikh describes, open spaces were practically forbidden to women. "That was something we wanted to change," says Ansari.
What started out as a few girls wanting to play football eventually turned into a campaign. When they approached other girls, any talk of playing was quickly shot down. "At some homes, the brothers said no to the very thought of their sisters playing in the open," says Syed Muskaan, the team's defender.
That's when Magic Bus, an NGO, stepped in and helped create Parcham, an NGO which the girls registered.
For them it was a constant struggle, but to their detractors it was a rare education in tenacity. It wasn't just men taunting them while they played; "At one point, some men, who were playing cricket, tried to get us injured deliberately. But, we didn't keep quiet. We treated their pitch as the goal post and shot penalties into it. After a few hits, they scampered off," says Muskaan, another teammate, as the girls break into a laugh.
Eventually, the girls started a signature drive for a girls-only exclusive ground and around 900 girls from Mumbra backed their demand. The Thane civic body agreed and the plot was allotted.
For the girls, having accomplished their goal, they can finally do what they enjoy the most--shoot a goal.