I recently took my one-year-old, on his stroller, to the nearby playground. It seemed like the usual day in which we would follow the everyday ritual of walking two rounds on the ground, picking a few flowers and leaves on our way, and greeting the people we meet on the way with ‘hello’ and flying kisses. But the day held a surprise for us, and it came in the form of an 8-year-old girl playing football with her friends who were all boys. I thought to myself it’s been ages since I have seen a girl playing football on the ground, let alone with an all-boys group. It was such an unusual sight that I had to stop our walk short as I was curious to see her play.
The girl was magical with the way she handled the ball. The boys would hardly pass her the ball, but that didn’t stop her from being aggressive and frisking the ball away from the boys. She would fall down a lot of times, be pushed and shoved, but she didn’t let any of that affect her game. If she fell, she would dust herself and immediately start running again. If she was pushed, she would push back never once losing her focus on the ball. After a few minutes into watching her play I switched mentally from being a mother to an athlete and started rooting for her. It was about ten minutes into the play when she finally found herself in a position to score a goal. She looked at the goalkeeper once and then looked at the ball, she also noticed the boys of the opposite team closing in on her from all sides. As I saw that drama unfold, my heart was racing. I really wanted her to score that goal, I had seen her being pushed and shoved enough on that field. I wanted her to score a goal, so that I could celebrate it. She did score, the goalkeeper had no chance.
When she did score that goal, my fist went up and I screamed a loud, “Yes”! My baby looked at me startled. I came home and narrated the entire incident to my husband. I told him how a little girl beat the big boys. After listening to my animated narration, he asked me, “Why do you get so fired up every time the girls beat the boys on the field? You don’t celebrate it the same when it is an all-girls game?”
Must be the patriarchal culture I belong to …. where while growing up I saw my father play cricket after dinner while my mother – who also happens to be a former athlete - did the dishes and put us to bed. As a child I never saw this equation in reverse, that was not the norm. May be because when I started playing, my parents had to defend their decision of letting me pursue sports to the society and also to themselves until I became India’s top junior player. May be because as a young girl I always found it confusing when my friends called me a boy, just because I enjoyed playing cricket rather than playing with dolls. Maybe it is because every time I went to work in a school in the hinterlands, I had to fight with the teachers for things as simple as letting girls wear shorts when they played. May be because in a city like Mumbai when I enter a sports club to play Badminton, I am still the only woman on the court, and it is 2021!
As a social sector professional though I have realized that I can’t make the case for sports for girls just because I need to reverse the culture towards women in sports. While I am always tempted to make the case for using sports as a medium to bring a change, what I know is that playing sports is an important end in itself. A girl should play because it is her right, not because she needs to break gender norms. If she breaks them that is a bonus, but I never played Badminton with the intention of proving a point to the society that questioned my parents. I played because I truly enjoyed playing and competing.
Why is it important for every girl in India to play football (or any other sport)? It is not because she has a point to prove to the society she belongs to, but the act of hitting a goal is a learning opportunity that she cannot afford to miss.
Let’s break down the meaning of ‘goal’ in a team sport like football. When a girl is securing that goal, she is learning a lot of things. A goal on a football field is something that has to be done almost instantly. The strategy, planning, execution - everything has to happen in a matter of seconds. Even if you have practiced penalty kicks a million times, a goal is not assured. At that moment, the girl has to rely on her skills, her luck, her precision, her stable mindset while betting against the goalkeeper.
When she eventually secures that goal, a plethora of wisdom gets unlocked. She learns that scoring (and accomplishing) the goal was not really an individual act, in fact, quite the opposite. The hard work, the strategy, the discipline and more importantly the faith shown in her by her team, presented her with the opportunity to score a goal and help not just her, but her team win. Granted that hours of practice she put in helped but without her team, she realizes, she is nothing.
Amongst other things that she learns is that just like she became her team’s hero for scoring that goal, the goalkeeper of the opposite team didn’t. She accomplished her goal and that meant someone else didn’t. So, when she shakes hands with that goalkeeper after the match, she also empathizes with them. She realizes that they too must have worked equally hard, but today just wasn’t their day. Tomorrow it could be the opposite. And that is why she subscribes to humility, not arrogance.
This goal changes her self-perception as well as the perception of others. The boys who are watching her play suddenly realize that she can score a goal with the same precision as them. Parents who are on the fence about sports and girls realise the possibilities that exist for their own daughters outside of conventional education or marriage.
For the girl herself, she defies her own physical boundaries and her assessment of it. After that grueling, physically, mentally tiring length of play when her body wants to give up, she pushes herself to focus and concentrate just one more time and manages to score that goal. She feels liberated because that is the moment when she breaks the shackles of her own distrust about her capabilities. She realizes that a sports ground is a magical place. The possibilities of learning on the ground, both about herself and others, are endless.
This Women’s day, we need to work towards a culture that looks at sports as a way of life for girls, just as it looks at conventional education for them. This women’s day, us women have to realise that not only do we need to take the ownership of pushing more girls on the ground, but also push ourselves to play with them. We have to realise that the coin of patriarchy has two sides, the other side is us women and we can flip the coin. When my father went to play that cricket match after dinner while my mother did the dishes and put us to bed, my mother never asked him to do the opposite. May be if she had, I wouldn’t be as animated about a girl beating the boys at football.
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About the author
Aditi Mutatkar is the winner of five national badminton championships – under-13, under-16, under-19 and senior nationals – and has represented the Indian badminton team in international tournaments. She is a silver medalist in mixed team event in CWG. She achieved career best world ranking of 27 in 2008. Post her player career, Aditi has completed her masters in Public Administration from University of Texas. She also holds a graduate certificate in Public policy from Takshashila Institution.
About Simply Sport
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