This story is part of our DocuWalk series. Read more here.

Text by Neerja Deodhar | Photographs by Zahra Amiruddin

Optimism is a funny thing; you can be completely immune to it if you aren’t invested in a cause. On the other hand, you can be fully consumed by it, if you really want something to work out.

I learn this as I see the sun go from cutting through clouds to nearly setting in Mumbra — a suburb of Thane district, two hours away from Mumbai. I’ve been waiting outside the gates of a sports ground for nearly 45 minutes. Around me are school girls of different ages, excitedly pulling on knee-high socks and studded shoes, pumping air into footballs with industrious fervour. Their coaches don’t share the sentiment; they’re concerned about whether or not the girls will be able to play. Sure, they were told they could use the ground, but the gatekeeper won’t relent until he hears from the authorities.

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Is this a constant struggle, I ask Muskan Sayyed, a coach who works with Parcham, the organisation that facilitates these football practise sessions. Yes, she says, with a shrug. Seven years ago, Muskan was one of these young girls — among the first ever in the community to train and play.

And yet, the seemingly endless wait has not dampened the girls’ spirits at all.

Though Muskan is a little miffed, she’s sure that they will practise — at a ground close by, if not this one. At this point, my photographer and I are invested too; it would be a shame to see people this enthused let down by bureaucratic hassles.

Soon enough, the gates open and the girls rush through.

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***

My introduction to Parcham and the work they’re doing was Under the Open Sky, a documentary that depicts how these girls came to engage with the sport, the challenges they overcame, and what their reclaiming of public space means.

The three people who have made this documentary were drawn to the subject for different reasons. Faiz Ullah says he has always been interested in how people create opportunities to participate in public life themselves, “instead of waiting for messiahs, leaders, and experts”.

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Shilpa Phadke was part of a larger research project that looked at women’s access to public space. “Space for fun and recreation was an important facet of this research. This project that engaged girls in public space, claiming open maidans for play is something that delighted me — this visceral claiming of the public for play,” she explains.

Nikhil Titus remembers how both space and time for play were rationed in the city, unless one was part of an academy or club — a restriction that continues to this day. “Open spaces are only waiting to be constructed on, because we don’t see them as being essential for a healthy and vibrant city. In any city, it is rare to find women using public grounds or streets for sports,” he says.

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What was their vision for the documentary? “To reflect on the space of Mumbra as an illustrative case of both what transforms when people collaborate and reclaim the public, and also separately to make the case that Mumbra is not an exception; across the city, women find it very difficult to claim the public for recreation or play,” Shilpa explains.

***

Having set their bags down, the girls quickly change into their jerseys, making conversation all the while — about haircuts, school, and game strategy. Laughter breaks out when one girl realises that her shoe has gotten stuck in her salwar.

The mood changes almost instantly when they hit the field, where they will pass the ball around in a circle, dribble without looking, do crisscross sprints, and ultimately play a match. They’re quick to pick each other up, if one of them falls.

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At the start, when the girls are calling out to each other and passing the ball around, their voices are sweet and their movements gingerly. When a second ball is introduced, the rules become a more complicated and the girls are thrown off; you can tell that when it comes to football, they’re still growing out their milk teeth. Over time, the squeals turn into shrieks and screams, and each task is conducted with more seriousness.

The “match” is the most anticipated part of practise sessions. It comprises several rounds; during each, one girl from both teams will try to score a goal.

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Soon the field becomes a flurry of girls running around, their hair — tied into pigtails and ponytails — streaming in the wind.

Between rounds, Muskan offers a pep talk to each side: “Instead of the ball being in our control, we’re chasing after it. Use your superior leg to dribble, the other leg to run — or the opponent will snatch the ball. Your legs need to be strong, and you all need to take yourselves more seriously.”

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***

Things have — and have not — changed for girls who aspire to play football in this community.

When Muskan and her peers, the first batch, began training, many girls couldn’t tell their parents about where they were and what they were up to. Kulsum, who coaches the current batch with Muskan, told her parents that she was attending English classes. Saba Parveen, who features in Under the Open Sky, was comfortable telling her parents the truth only after the team she was part of, won a trophy.

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“Now it is relatively easier for the younger girls,” Muskan says, attributing it to the passage of time. Parcham’s team members interact with the parents before training can begin: forms are filled, signatures are taken and relationships are built. Coaches and coordinators often have to spend time interacting with and counselling parents, explaining to them why playing sport is important and assuaging their fears, says Muskan. “We follow up if any girl’s attendance begins to suffer,” she adds.

The documentary captures how the notion of a designated space to play sport, let alone for girls, was foreign to Mumbra’s residents; such a use of land was seen by the authorities as being not utilitarian, and by extension, not necessary. In 2013, the first batch played at a ground owned by a temple trust (an endeavour facilitated by members of the Maharashtra Mahila Parishad), which was an open piece of land, because of the sheer lack of options and infrastructure. For access to this too, they needed to negotiate with the boys who would play there, who were initially hesitant. The open nature of the space meant that there would be crowds of people gawking at them, because the sight of girls playing — in jerseys, sans dupattas — was an oddity, an image that inspired curiosity. “The staring continues in some measure to this day, but there are no objections,” Muskan asserts.

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The uncertain availability of a sports ground is an improvement on this, but not quite. This is a ground run by the municipal corporation that Parcham was asked to pay for, in order to use. After the organisation and a local MLA made a case arguing against this (they said the girls' parents would be hesitant to pay), the girls were allowed to access it for free. They can use this ground on the weekends for two hours each day, but entry can be revoked at any point.

The title of the documentary in English and Hindi (खुले आसमान के नीचे) captures the heart of what these girls are fighting for — the ability to play freely under a patch of sky.

Kulsum says one of the most enduring challenges is finding a professional coach, especially one who is willing to travel all the way to Mumbra.

***

Spending one evening with the football team made it evident that an endeavour of this sort is made possible only when multiple stakeholders step up. But both Ullah and Phadke assert that the football team would not have existed if young people did not show up in the first place, and persist. “Persistence on the part of the girls, their coaches and Parcham was key. That and their persuasive powers in getting the school and Thane corporations on board,” Shilpa adds.

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In the same vein, Faiz says that communities need to initiate politics on their own. “And they increasingly are, given the forms of ongoing protests in the anti-CAA-NPR-NRC movement,” he says.

He is of the opinion that the readiness of parents to allow their daughters to train has little to do with social attitude and more to do with larger questions of gender relations, access to space, and systemic social and spatial marginalisation. “Would a film made with similar concerns in any other suburb of the city be very different? I do not think so,” says Faiz.

Parcham’s work asks difficult questions of not just feminism and the community, but of themselves.

“Their engagement offers us nuance and complexity that recovers and re-inscribes our visions of what Muslim communities are, as well as our conceptions of what feminism and feminist movements are. Here is a tiny voluntary organisation which is not afraid to take on their varied communities,” Shilpa explains.

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***

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this phenomenon is the ways in which the girls themselves have transformed. Aziza excitedly tells me that she has become fitter, is able to run faster and even study better. “The need to be nimble on the field has trained us to think on our feet in other situations as well, such as during an exam,” she says. She’s also used to the body pain that accompanies weekly training, and is no longer afraid of injury — aspects that might be non-issues for most boys who learn a sport.

In the documentary, Saba speaks of how in some cases, the restrictions on what girls can do are placed by their own brothers, who are either possessive of their sisters or want to assert control over them.

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Nisma says that since she began playing football, the boys in her neighbhourhood have begun inviting her to take part in their games.

“Previously, they’d say things like, you don’t know how to play.”

Even those girls who kept to themselves have begun opening up, because playing together has deepened the girls’ friendships, Aziza adds.

“In Mumbra, girls are brought up to believe that they must behave in a particular way. A sort of delicateness has been inculcated into them. Football, on the other hand, involves strength, extensive body movement, using one’s voice. After they begin playing, they gain some confidence, they stop being so conscious about their bodies. They become aware of their physical abilities,” Muskan explains. Over time, the visibly stark difference between the way girls and boys play in this neighbourhood begins to reduce.

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This also involves the confidence to wear jerseys and shorts. “As time passes, we tell them about the advantage of wearing clothes suited for sport. Some are still not comfortable, so we don’t force them,” Muskan adds. This is tied into Parcham’s own name, which means flag — a reference to an Urdu poem by Majaz where he asks why the veil on a woman’s head can’t be transformed into a flag.

The idea, Parcham’s team tells me, is that it does not matter what the girls wear, as long as they play.

The evolution isn’t limited to the girls who are being trained, it’s also in the girls conducting the training. In the documentary, Saba says she was hesitant about her coaching abilities, but that the welcoming demeanour of the girls she was teaching rid her of her fears.

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Football is a pastime that Aziza enjoys immensely, but for Nisma, it is a potential career. “I’d like to consider taking it up professionally,” she says, “so these practise sessions are a way for me to build my confidence.” Muskan tells me that across batches, a handful of players have strived to pursue the sport at the school, college and district levels. She and Kulsum often find themselves struggling to look for time in the girls’ schedules — between school, family, studying — to practise. They hope that more girls will begin to look at the sport as being bigger than a hobby.

Ultimately, Muskan says, the way forward for the community is to normalise the idea of girls working, playing and doing what they want to.

***

Initiatives like Parcham go beyond making demands for a playground, or one-off measures, says Nikhil. At a more fundamental level, he sees it as a fight for a better, more fulfilling life.

Specifically, these girls in Mumbra have chosen to do this through the act of sport.

Many tell me that they are the first female sportspersons in their families. “When young girls and women are seen playing in an open field, it pushes the boundaries of stereotypical visions of where girls and women belong. The fallacious but nonetheless strongly imposed binary between the private and the public crumbles just a little,” says Shilpa.

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Such endeavours transform not just the girls but the very city itself, Shilpa adds, “When we can envisage a city where women and girls can play in the open, we are imagining a very different world.

Projects such as this one by Parcham truly make it possible for us to see that another world is possible.”

Nikhil says it is through groups of girls like this one in Mumbra that we realise the faults in our master plans and mega-projects for cities, and notes, “Reclaiming public space for women and sports can give shape to a new and welcoming urban landscape”.

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