Indian Women’s Football : Stones of Struggle
Is the Indian women’s football team just a myth? Do Indian women really lack the spirit of the game or is football for Indian women more than just a game? Aparajita Dutta takes a look at the struggle women footballers endure and talks about the possibility of bailing Indian women’s football out of its current dismal state.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
― Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex(Opening lines of Book II)
The Indian Women’s football team was formed way back in 1948 when India became affiliated with FIFA. However, in a newly independent India with a strong patriarchal discourse, developing a strong women’s football team was not that easy. Ignored for decades, the history of the team’s formation has taken on an almost mythical aura. However, the blooming of leagues in football-loving regions like Goa, Bengal, and Manipur around the 1970s, with matches drawing thousands of fans, reveal the existence of Indian women football players at that time. Ending as runner’s up in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 1979, coming a respectable third in 1981, and finishing second in 1983 bear testimony to the team’s achievements. Yolanda D’ Souza was one of the notable women players at that time. However, it was only in the late twentieth and early twenty first century that the team seemed to get some attention, , with the AIFF declaring that they wanted a “fresh start” for the side.
‘A fresh start’ 50 years after it was formed? Sounds both hopeful and bizarre, doesn’t it? But it was a knee-jerk reaction after FIFA dropped the Indian women’s football team from their world rankings in 2009, since the team had been inactive for about 18 months. This threatened the existence of the side and spurred AIFF to focus on the team. The very phrase, “fresh start”signifies that even after half a century of its formation, the team had not been given any attention. Six years have passed after AIFF’s statement: “We have decided to concentrate on the youth level and start participating gradually for the senior level tournament.” Have they been really successful in improving the condition of the women’s national team? In this day and age, when social media plays a vital role in spreading awareness, there is only one significant (albeit unofficial) Facebook page on the Indian women’s football team. The page has a sorry count of around five thousand likes. Compare this with the page on Indian men’s football team, which has more than 172 thousand likes.
The numbers show that very few people in this country are concerned with women playing football. Sports persons like Saina Nehwal (Badminton), Sania Mirza (tennis), Anju Bobby George ( track and field) , Dola Banerjee (archery), and Mary Kom (boxing ) have made the headlines with their achievements. But how many people really know of Indian women footballers like Oinam Bembem Devi or Shanti Mullick — the only woman footballer to receive the Arjuna award, India’s premier sporting honour, Yolanda D’ Souza , and Chaoba Devi? .
In recent times, some groups are trying their best to promote football among Indian women. Among such groups, Yuwa deserves a special mention. A look at its website will reveal its primary memorandum:Yuwa Uses football to Empower Girls in India. The use of football to help Indian girls is perhaps one of the boldest moves made by this Jharkhand-based NGO. Founded in 2009, Yuwa has been fighting child marriage, illiteracy, and human trafficking through football and education. The group has had to fight social and political obstacles, much of it coming from the state officials. In 2013, it was reported that Spain-bound Yuwa girls allegedly faced severe abuse from Panchayat officials of Jharkhand when they applied for their birth certificates to get their visa. According to Hindustan Times,the girls were slapped, asked to give bribes, and forced to sweep the office before they were given their birth certificates. In spite of such treatment from the government, Yuwa now boasts of 600 members and a team of 250 players, out of whom 150 practice daily.
While Yuwa has been initiating girls into the game in Eastern India, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) in Maharashtra’s Jalna district boasts of coach Rafik Shaikh, under whose guidance four girls have been selected for the state team of Maharashtra to play in the national under-16 tournament. In an interview taken in 2014, coach Rafik Shaikh talks about his struggle to kindle the love for the beautiful game amongst young girls and help them to come forward and play football. The bold confession made by Sheetal Mansare (16), the goalkeeper of Maharashtra’s state team, is perhaps an incredibly cherished trophy for the proud coach and the school: “When we wear shorts, some girls ridicule us but we cannot pay attention to such things or they will affect us negatively.”
“When we wear shorts, some girls ridicule us but we cannot pay attention to such things or they will affect us negatively”
Besides, incidents like the recent fatwa by maulvis that led to cancelling an exhibition match for women in Chandipur village in West Bengal, don’t augur well for women’s football. The match which was cancelled because women footballers were accused of wearing tight dresses, leaves us in no doubt about the antagonism of the ruling officials towards women playing football.
Apart from being forbidden to play the game itself, women footballers in India face discrimination in every sphere of life.In 2010, the Indian women’s football team went to play a match against Sri Lanka in Goa. They had to travel by train for five days to reach the venue, as opposed to the men who arrived by plane. While the men’s national team stayed in five-star accommodations for its camp, the women had to stay in a dormitory. They did not have their own training uniforms and had to take care of their own domestic chores.
From a lack of proper uniforms to a lack of organization, women’s football in India is strewn with challenges.Officials won’t even allow matches under floodlights, citing the lame excuse of women’s security. In a country where 30 percent of cricket spectators are women, this excuse falls flat and reveals the organizer’s reluctance in bearing the financial burden for women playing football.
The rural poor and the urban middle class nurture a social structure that forbid Indian women from playing football. Most of the urban population consider the game too manly for their convent-educated girls. Being a body contact sport, football creates a sensation of fear among parents. Injuries are common in the game, and are not restricted to legs or hands or heads. Chances are, a girl might get hit in the abdomen, thereby suffering injuries in her reproductive organs. This, in turn, may bring with it a series of social humiliations in a country like India where early marriage, child marriage, and the dowry system are rampant.Lack of proper education among the rural people, the lack of a sense of hygiene, and the practice of domestic violence against women prevent most parents from allowing their daughters to play football.
Add to this the lack of infrastructure and proper healthcare—one of the main hindrances in the development of women’s football in India. There is need for a complete overhaul of the infrastructure, including hygiene and education on the game.
Even though football is a gender-indifferent game and countries like Germany have as strong and talented a women’s team as the men’s, the story is quite different in India. A woman’s physical appearance has become a significant obstacle in the path of the development of women’s football in India. Countries like,Japan, and England boast of powerful women’s football teams. The German women’s football team currently graces the top position in FIFA’s list of women’s football teams, followed by USA and France.
Football for women in India still remains confined to middle class and lower middle class families. This demographic, with all its insecurities, prevents aspiring women footballers from considering the game as a profession. Sample this: In Manipur, which boasts of a strong women’s football league (winning 17 titles in the Indian Women’s Football Championship), the local body gives little importance to its women footballers. Chaoba Devi, who had represented India on numerous occasions, was offered the job of a constable—an offer that she rejected. Kumari Devi, another noted footballer from the state, (who hails from a lower middle class family) had to accept the post which was given to her. In general, women footballers strive for financial support after retirement. Those who manage to get jobs are not given a position higher than that of a clerk.
At present, there are very few leagues and championships in India for women footballers. Among them, the Indian Women’s Football Championship, conducted by the AIFF since 1991, deserves mention. If the dream of Indian women’s ISL comes true, perhaps it will prove to be a landmark in the history of Indian women’s football.
However, the gradual rise in momentum has led the AIFF to even think about holding an Indian Super League (ISL) tournament for women in mid-2015. This is likely to be on the same lines as the hugely popular men’s league first held in 2014. However, so far just two I-league clubs – Bangalore FC and Pune FC have responded. This has led to doubts regarding the feasibility of the tournament altogether.
Six years have passed after the declaration of having a “fresh start” by the AIFF. Even now, matches are getting cancelled, women footballers are being abused by state officials, and are facing discrimination from every sphere of life. The status update given by the team on its Facebook page(on 1st April 2015)represents the current sorry state of affairs.“Since the U-14 India Girls Football Camp has started in Gujarat, AIFF has not given a single update except for their AFC Women’s Day Celebration on 8th March, 2015 and the players’ names who are attending the camp.When will AIFF ever learn to give importance to Women’s Football?”
This posits a serious threat to the development of football among Indian women. A convoluted religious–social–political circuit has been conspiring against this development. The time has perhaps come for each and every one of us to raise our voices. Let us not restrict the Indian women’s ISL to the pages of a “future impossible tense”.Now is perhaps the time for more Yuwas and Rafiks to come forward and initiate more Indian women into the spirit of the game of football. Appreciation, not hindrance is required from the state—both at the local and the national level. This country has nurtured scholars like Gargi and Maitreyee, and leaders like Indira Gandhi. Why shouldn’t it nurture world-class women footballers too?
- BoriaMajumdar, “Forwards and Backwards; Women’s Soccer in Twentieth Century India”,Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era,Routledge, 2003
- Jennifer Doyle, “A World Cup Dream Revives India’s Women’s Team”