Afshan Ashiq can now afford to look back at the events of 24 April 2017, and have a chuckle about the viral photo that catapulted the goalkeeper into public consciousness.
Ashiq, 24, trained aspiring Kashmiri women footballers between the ages of 12-22 at the Tourist Reception Centre ground and was leading some of them to practice when demonstrations broke out on that fateful afternoon.
The keeper, playing for FC Kolhapur City in the third edition of the ongoing Indian Women's League, goes on to describe what happened next. "The incident that happened did not happen with the army but the local police. The policeman in charge was a Kashmiri Muslim. They abused us and slapped my students. If they treat us like that, what do they expect from us? I was labelled as a "stone pelter turned footballer", I was like 'I have been a footballer, that was just one day'. I shouted a lot 'Why are you calling me a stone pelter? I am not that' and I was told 'you threw like a professional stone pelter'. I told them 'I'm a goalkeeper, I just have a good throw'. The media made that kind of odd narrative and I asked them to remove that label'," she recollects.
She clarifies that she does not support violence in the valley and was overwhelmed by what came next. "After that incident, when I went for training, I thought nobody would know that it was me because I was fully covered but the Sports Secretary came and said 'you are famous on social media now'. I asked him what I had done. He said, 'Give me five minutes, you will come to know what you did'. There was so much media and he told me to talk to them about what had happened. I asked him how he can say it was me. He said, 'In the morning you were in the same dress'. I had to accept," says Ashiq.
The label, she says, stuck – one that she was not comfortable with. It also threatened to sidetrack her efforts in building a culture of women's football in Srinagar. Unique Football Girls, an academy she had started, had been training upto 150 girls at the TRC ground. Prior to starting the program, Ashiq had to convince the local authorities to let the girls use a ground for two hours every day.
"We have this mentality that girls can't play and I used to tell them 'give me a ground anywhere, I will train them' but they refused. I fought a lot to get the TRC ground from the government to train my girls. They were telling me that they'll give me Bakshi stadium because that's all surrounded by Army but the parents didn't want that. They used say that boys would come to watch and comment at TRC. I told them that boys used to comment even when I started playing but I got around it and the other girls will to," says Ashiq.
Women's football in the state is at a nascent stage, filled with irregularities. According to the FCKC custodian, the Jammu and Kashmir State Football Academy (JKSFA), which fielded a team in last year's IWL qualifiers promised her that they would do so this year, only to backtrack on their promises. Planning for a tournament, a crucial part of preparations, also lacked direction in the state according to her.
"When it comes to Jammu and Kashmir, I feel very sad. At the junior nationals, we conceded a lot. I was very angry. My colleague, who is the coach, asked me to talk to the girls. The girls had been training for 15 days in the camp. In 15 days, you can't become a good football player. You need to train year round," a visibly-upset Ashiq says.
Ashiq, who decided to focus on her career as a player, moved to Mumbai and is currently gearing up to play in the Roots Premier League, which is an 8-a-side tournament. Looking at the needs of the women footballers in the state, Ashiq states that her intention is to return and help her former charges.
"They will practice the whole year but they won't play a game, so they won't know where they lack. Football has made sure many girls come out to study so that they can play the game. Tanzilla (a student of Ashiq's) is going to Baroda University and she will play football there. There are a couple of my students who play outside," she says.
A paucity of female coaches in the state, Ashiq states, is also a hurdle in the development of the women's game in the state. Ashiq and Nadia Nighat, both D license holders, are currently the only two licensed women coaches from the state.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel with the JKSFA operating a league last year with women's teams from every district participating. "Leh was the winner. In Leh, there are always in training and there are proper coaches. There are no grass grounds there but they are undertaking training," she observes.
The success of Real Kashmir, Ashiq says, has inspired many youngsters from the state to think of a career in the game. She herself trained with the team in 2015 and prior to that, trained with I-League division two team Lonestar Kashmir, adding that she was the only woman who had trained with the state's two biggest professional clubs.
Finding a sponsor for a women's team is tough, she admits but hopes that one day, Kashmiri women will have a platform to showcase their skills.
"I have asked Real Kashmir, when are you starting a team? I want to play for a team from my state."
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Updated Date: May 19, 2019 13:00:41 IST