At 7 feet 2 inches, athletic-built Saba Parveen towers over most men in her locality. In a sweatshirt over her cotton shalwar-kameez, the girl rules the makeshift football ground.
In Muslim-dominated Mumbra, she fears none, including the clerics, but it’s different when it comes to her three elder brothers at home. The reason why the football is invariably hidden from their observant eyes in the house. In the last four years, the 25-year-old Class XII girl has learnt to strike a balance between her two contrasting lives — in a burkha, duty bound to follow her religion as per her family’s wish, and in track pants, chasing the freedom to play football and become a coach.
When she walks around on Mumbra’s cluttered streets, it is hard to imagine that the burkha-clad girl sheds off her veil at 9 pm every night to become the local girls’ football team captain. For the next 45 minutes, she practises her kicks, aims a goal into a non-existent net on the dark muddy 2,000 square feet ground inside Thane Municipal Urdu Medium School.
Starting September 5, the 12-member girls’ team will participate in their first professional tournament, Bandra Leagues, pitched against seven teams from across Maharashtra. They are hopeful if a trophy comes their way they would be able to change the perception of the society about hijab wearing Muslim girls taking up sports.
It all started in 2011, when an NGO offered Saba and her friends the idea of playing football. “Until then, I thought I am only supposed to sit at home and pray. Football proved I was wrong. There is no harm in Muslim women entering sports. Religion and your profession are two different entities,” says Saba.
She, along with three other Muslim friends, visited several schools and colleges in Mumbra with pamphlets on football. The first day, 40 nervous girls gathered on a ground near Shankar Mandir. “No one dared remove their burkha,” remembers Saba.
It took six months for the girls to shed their shyness. But a dupatta inevitably covered their head and the upper body. Local boys mocked at them on the ground. Maulvis came to scold them. “Are you not ashamed? You girls are removing pardah to play sports,” Saba remembers the scolding. Several had to hide their football hobby from their parents. For Saba, her younger sister covered up for her whenever she went away to practise.
In 2012, NGO Magic Bus organised a small match in which the girls won with the help of a coach arranged by the local NGO. The coach left soon after and the girls were left to teach themselves. “From 40, the strength came down to 12. We did not have a field for practice. The boys did not give us space,” says Saba.
If the movie, Chak De India, could get any real, it would be the story of these Mumbra girls. They played two matches with local boys in cricket and football. “We lost in football, but won the cricket match. After that, they started giving us ground for three hours daily,” the lean woman smiles, her gold nose-pin shining.
But another problem persisted. “No coach was ready to visit Mumbra, that too for a girls’ team,” says Sabah Khan, attached with NGO Parcham. The girls then went digital, to Coach Google, and learnt kicks and techniques watching videos. Saba cannot read English, can’t pronounce the techniques, but can kick right if she sees it once. In 2013, after they won another Magic Bus match locally, the jibes reduced. The battle was, however, only half won.
With the Shankar Mandir ground converted into a parking lot two months ago, no coach to guide, and the eternal fear of her family discovering her secret life, Saba approached the local MLA to get a dedicated all-women ground in MM Valley. “The fight to freedom is difficult,” she laughs, remembering the various excuses she has given at home when found with an injury or visiting MLAs.”Once my eye got hit. I had to take drops, visit a doctor.
I stayed at my friend’s house whole day until the swelling subsided. My mother was always suspicious,” she smiles. In 2014, she fractured her toe after hitting the football the wrong way. She narrated a well planned story of falling over a huge stone on the road. A few months later, however, she confessed to her mother about football. “She was elated. Can you believe that,” the surprise in Saba has still not subsided. Her mother has joined her younger sister in covering up for her absenteeism at home.
“My father is no more. My brothers handle the household expenditure. By 11.30 pm, I have to be home before they return,” she says. She is currently pursuing Arts and is also preparing for HSC examination. Her team of 12 practises separately on weekdays in morning and night batches according to their free time. On Sundays, they practise together for three hours. “We haven’t practised together well. Time is running out. I hope we perform well in the tournament,” she says.
At night, a local resident, ‘Faisal bhai’, hangs around for their safety. “Once two boys came smoking to the ground at night when I was practising alone. Faisal bhai told them, ‘Yahan Mumbra ki ladkiyan football khelti hai. Yahan se jao (Mumbra girls practise football here. Go from here)’,” Saba recalls, hinting that not everyone is opposed to the idea of allowing them freedom to play.
Two weeks ago, the gang found a coach willing to help them. The tournament is days away. Saba will break the house rule of not exiting Mumbra periphery to go play in Bandra. Her sister-in-law cannot come to watch, the brothers will know. How she wished her family could watch her play in track-pants and be proud.
Another team coach had told the girls, “khichad me khelna alag baat hai, field par alag (It is different to play in mud, different to play on real field)”. Saba is adamant to prove him wrong this time.