She is not just their aapa but one of their coaches

## ## Little women

Bright jerseys, hijabs, radiant smiles and breathless excitement on a suburban playground provide the background for Under The Open Sky to tell the tale of Mumbra’s football playing girls

“Whichever team wins, girls are winning.” These words from a young football player in Mumbra establishes why football has become a transformative experience for 40 girls in this Mumbai suburb. Capturing the unique journey that it took to get to this line, from the days of coaching to the first Fatima Bi Savitribai Football Tournament held earlier this year in Mumbra, is Under The Open Sky, a new documentary by three professors from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

But beyond the turf scenes, guts and glory, the documentary attempts to throw light on what it means to be girls from Mumbra, desiring to play football and discussing issues hitherto unspoken among themselves while carefully avoiding essentialising the ‘Muslim’ identity.

The opening frame shows a playground and shifts to coach Saba Parveen, with younger girls in hijabs listening with rapt attention. She is not just their aapa but one of their coaches, who has encouraged them to be loud and bold. “Girls are often told to speak softly at home. Here, we push them to cheer for each other,” she says.

The camera constantly follows their bright yellow football boots, while also capturing their moods up close. “Tu gussa dikha tere kick mein (play with aggression),” one of the players advises her teammate. According to Sabah Khan from the Parcham Trust, who has been the force behind this initiative, “Girls are told to be careful all the time, so even their kick is soft; their jump is just a bounce.”

Standing out in her bright red jersey, Salma, a player, says in Under The Open Sky. “Whether her parents are encouraging or not is visible by the way a girl plays.” This was the intent when the football coaching was started: to convey to girls that they can also play beyond PT classes at school. The coaching also sought to encourage playing for the sake of it.

According to Faiz Ullah, one of the filmmakers, Sabah envisioned football as a social participative tool rather than something one ought to excel in, to represent one’s State or country. “Professional leagues are expensive, but should that mean that access to sports to girls from relatively poorer households be denied?” Sabah says in the documentary.

One could easily miss the scene of boys watching from windows as girls score goals and cheer. A fleeting scene of boys playing cricket on a basketball court emphasises the lack of space, more so for girls who have to negotiate harder for them.

But in Mumbra, a suburb with a predominant Muslim population that developed sporadically in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, the challenge was also to break the tough mould of security offered by brothers, who assume the role of their sisters’ bodyguards. This, Faiz says, indicates the fear of gender relations being shaken up rather than the dominant cultural and religious orthodoxy of parents.

In one scene, young girls some in football jerseys, some in burqa sit by the edge of a pond, merrily drinking sugarcane juice. The voice over speaks of how Mumbai perceives Mumbra as a Muslim ghetto: a conscious attempt by the filmmakers to link the struggles and triumphs of the girls to the political question of the perception and development of Mumbra.

A significant question was of representation. Faiz says a photographer with a news publication present to cover the tournament had insisted the girls wear the hijab for his lens. In Under The Open Sky, Sabah touches upon this much debated issue. “It was established among the girls that the hijab was worn by choice, and that there was no space to judge each other when they had congregated to play.”

In spite of the challenges, the impact has been manifold, and this is visible all through the documentary as the girls enjoy their time on field. “When I am jogging, my body feels so light.” says one.

While the girls would turn up for practice even when the coaches couldn’t turn up on, Faiz was touched to see coaches Saba and Muskaan take their voluntary mentor roles seriously. Also, the girls have begun to negotiate better with their parents, about issues beyond the sport, like teducation plans.

That the camera gets so close to the players is also a fallout of the mobile phone’s omnipresence in their lives. “There is much more familiarity with camera being around, as people are documenting every bit of their lives. The girls themselves are very active on social media and posting photos from their games,” says Faiz.

However, that we consider Muslim girls from Mumbra playing football to be transformative in the year 2016 testifies to the existing skewed relationship between women and public spaces. Sabah says sports is still a way of controlling women’s bodies, with girls not allowed to continue playing after puberty. Mumbai’s Oval Maidan and Azad Maidan are always buzzing with activity, but only by men. So, football for Sabah is a way of normalising a public space, with more women participating in activities, including sports.

Under The Open Sky will soon be screened for players and their parents in Mumbra and, Faiz hopes, at other locations before it goes online. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

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