A larger-than-life goal: Girls take to football in orthodox Mumbai suburb Mumbra
Mumbra is the unlikely location of a heart-warming tale of sporting courage. Encouraged by the non-governmental organisation Parcham, a group of young girls broke the communal norm in the small Mumbai suburb by forming a football team and playing regularly in the hope of claiming public spaces and the right to their own bodies.
Mumbra is perceived as a deeply conservative community. Over the years it has picked up the informal tag of being a “Muslim ghetto”. The 2011 Census lists Mumbra’s population as 900,000, of lower and middle income status with an 80% Muslim majority.
Little bold step
For a girl to find new identity and play a sport in an open space is considered quite a bold statement but that is exactly what Saba Parveen and her friends did.
Under Parcham’s guidance, Saba began playing football in 2012 and tried finding other friends to form a girls’ team. It took Parcham six months to assemble a team.
As Saba was quoted as saying on the Al Jazeera website, being a girl in Mumbra isn’t easy and getting permission just to spend time in public spaces can be difficult, let alone play a sport.
Now 25-years-old, Saba had begun her sporting tryst by playing cricket with neighbourhood boys on the street outside her home when she was a child. But her mother forbade her from doing that as she got older.
When the opportunity to play football arose, Saba stepped onto the field without informing her family. She played for one-and-a-half years by sneaking her brother’s shirt into a bag every time she went for practice sessions on Sundays. It was only after the team won their first tournament that she worked up the courage to let her parents know.
For Saba’s teammate Sayyed Umay, permission was granted as long as she helped her mother with household chores like cooking and cleaning the house first. Jodha Anu Kunwar’s father refused to let her play, relenting only after her friends persuaded him.
But convincing their parents was not the only hurdle the girls faced. When they started playing, they would initially be harassed by the neighbourhood boys ranging from simple teasing to physical altercations. At first the boys would tease them saying, “Does she even have the strength to kick?”, but in one incident, a boy kicked a football straight at Saba’s face, hurting her eye.
Unfortunately, although the girls attempted to ignore the trouble, the boys would continue to harass them.
Fight for space
“When they didn’t get our attention, a group of boys decided to come and play in the same spot we occupied and left us no space on the field,” recalled Muskaan Sayed.
It took time for the girls to become comfortable but regular training increased their love for the sport and their confidence in themselves.
“The girls started to assert their right to occupy some space on the field. They spoke with and even argued with the boys and reclaimed their spot,” said Sabah Khan of NGO Parcham, also reiterating that arguing with the boys was something the girls would never have thought of doing earlier.
The team has grown from their early stages to now have 15 members who train for two hours every Sunday and partake in local tournaments. They have also organized and played friendly matches against boys’ teams.
Furthermore, the girls have started encouraging others in the neighbourhood by coaching them in the sport. They conduct regular training sessions for 45 students and held a camp for 100 girls of a local school on International Women’s Day earlier this year.
Football has given the girls a new outlook and coaching has become a viable option for the girls with Saba hoping to make a career of it.
“I want to dedicate my life to coaching as many girls as possible,” she said.
The journey of the team and the NGO was captured in a short documentary titled Under the Open Sky, which highlights the challenges they faced and their current dedication to helping other girls in the neighbourhood.