In a 5 October reel, posted on the Parcham Collective’s Instagram page, illustrator Uttam Ghosh is painting on a mottled white wall, bringing to life two women, Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule, who helped reshape the narrative of women’s rights and educational access in the country. Next to this painting are others: of girls kicking a football, the phrase “Sports for all” flanked by flowers and butterflies, a group of young women waving at a rainbow.
Created as part of a wall-painting event organised by the Thane, Maharashtra-based collective on 2 October, they tell stories of courage, persistence and joy, all the things football embodies for the young women of suburban Mumbra—a largely Muslim area, home to families that fled Mumbai after the 1992 riots.
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The paintings mark yet another step towards realising the dream of a sports ground for the area’s girls—something the Parcham Collective has been fighting for since 2013. “We held this event to highlight the need for a space that is safe and usable,” says Sabah Khan, the collective’s co-founder and managing trustee.
For the collective, football is a means to an end, an attempt to build confidence in the girls and in their use of public spaces. She recalls the day they first started coaching at a public ground in 2012. “Men surrounded us and started passing lewd comments.” When they would play on Sundays, they were often harassed by boys who wanted to play cricket there. “They would hit us with balls...”
The collective knew things couldn’t continue like this. “In a ghetto, identity is important, and women are the upholders of that identity,” says Khan. In a place where it is unusual to find an unveiled woman, getting a girl to come out and play is hard enough. “We were having a lot of drop-outs because not all girls were able to come to terms with harassment in a public space,” she says
They began working towards a ground exclusively for girls, organising a signature campaign to push the local administration to give them one. The area MLA, Jitendra Awhad, helped them get an allotment in 2014. But it was only in 2019 that they could inaugurate the Fatima Bi Savitri Bai ground for girls. “The name was well-received by everyone in the area,” she says.
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Though they have conducted a tournament there, the ground needs to be developed. It’s still largely unwalled, filled with construction debris and filth, unsafe. “We shouldn’t have to risk injury to play,” says Khan. She wants the municipal corporation to lead the charge, creating a boundary wall and building facilities.“This is the year we are going to get this ground for us,” says Khan, determined to raise the funds if the corporation doesn’t step in. For, she believes the focus on women’s well-being has become even more important in the pandemic. “The healthier the girls are, the better their immunity."
Kulsum Shaik, who first started playing football in 2013, says football has changed her life. Initially, Shaik, who comes from a deeply conservative family, had to lie to her mother about her football practice. “I told my mother I was going for English classes,” says the 22-year-old. The family gradually came round to the idea and today, she coaches other young women, embracing the independence she has fought so hard for.
“Before football, I didn’t have any dreams,” says Shaik, a second-year college student. “Dreams are so important; if you don’t have them, why should you live?