A group of women fought for the right to play football. Will Delhi finally let them have some fun?

Bhavya Dore

One day in March 2017 a group of women – many of whom played for the Delhi state team – showed up at a public football ground in Sarojini Nagar, kitted out in their shorts and cleats. They had recently been granted official permission to use the ground for a few hours of play and were looking forward to the session. When they reached the ground, they found that a boys’ academy was already in training and refused to let the women access it.

It took several months and a series of visits to public officials across Delhi to avail of something as simple as this: a place for women to have fun playing football. “We didn’t move, they didn’t move,” said Jyoti Burrett, a member of the state team. “There was a lot of friction.” The impasse remained for two weeks – each group rushed to the ground hoping get there first; each side played occupying half the ground.

But while the beginning of the Delhi Women Football Players Welfare Association cannot really be described as auspicious, the Association has since become the only open soccer space exclusively for women in Delhi and perhaps in the country. Women of all ages and skill levels can mingle and play at the ground in Sarojini Nagar, with new members accruing through word of mouth. It’s also become a safe space for new players to learn.

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No fun without the fundamentals

When they first approached the state government, the women football players were shunted between officials responsible for grounds across Delhi. While these were public grounds and technically open for anyone to access – the women would invariably find them occupied. “They were booked by boys’ academies,” said Burrett. “It was a total failure.”

After several visits and phone calls, the women players managed to reach the sympathetic ear of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi, who promised to help them access a ground in Sarojini Nagar.

Burrett and her teammates were prepared to fight for their use of the ground in court, if it came to that. “At that point we thought we might need legal recourse,” she said. “They [the boys] were very serious when they said ‘we are never going to let you take it.’”

Finally, it was only when Lekhi sent personnel with the team to make sure the women weren’t bothered, that they reached a compromise with the boys’ academy – the women would use the ground three days a week for two hours each.

The feeling of relief was tentative and fragile at first. “It was like ‘Oh my god! Are the boys going to come back?’” said Burrett. “But finally, we had what we needed.”

Discriminatory grounds

While sports development initiatives tend to focus on children, almost all of them taper off once the children – especially girls – grow up. In Indian cities, where public spaces are few and recreational sports for women virtually non-existent (especially for those without elite club memberships), the battle for a football ground has been a rare victory for Delhi’s women.

When women stop having access to institutional structures that provide playgrounds or sporting clubs like schools or colleges, where should they go? Most women athletes simply stop playing. “The logistics of where and how [to play] aren’t easy to figure out,” said Burrett, who now works as a personal trainer.

Although she has played for the women’s football team at the State and National level, Burrett learnt the sport only a decade ago at college, not as a child – like most professional players do. A slight, fast 27-year-old, she used to play with the boys back then, because there was no girls’ team at the institution.

“I didn’t know where to go,” she said. “I had no idea how to get in touch with women who wanted to play. I kept looking for a girls’ team.”

Dhwani Kitchlue, who played on the Delhi state team with Burrett, also played the sport through school and college. She always had access to a ground at the institutes where she studied, and her college had a strong team. But Kitchlue found that playing on the state team was a desultory affair: they’d play as a team only once a year, with a two-week-long camp at the most, even for advanced players. “We needed our own place to play, even if we didn’t use it all the time,” said Kitchlue, 21, a recent graduate. “Playing the sport as a girl there is no option of giving up. You are always against the tide. But we are not used to giving up.”

Even during the national football camps, the women found they were constantly sidelined. “Wherever we play, its the boys that are focussed on,” said Usha, one of Kitchlue and Burret’s teammates. “We get put in a corner. So we thought, how can we practice? We needed a ground.”

Multiple battles

This August, the women found themselves on a panel at a football and women’s rights festival called “Our Bodies, Our Rights, Our Game” organised by the German non-profit organisation Discover Football. The festival was organised as a tournament for grassroots teams and non-profit players from across the country, and was more recreational than seriously competitive. It included groups like the Parcham Collective from Maharashtra and Khelduar Foundation from Bengal. Players from other teams spoke of combating issues of discrimination, self-confidence and poverty and how football had helped them.

“We wanted to come here and hear other stories and tell our own story,” said Burrett. “You may think people from Delhi don’t have issues. But for us it’s not about not getting out of the house it’s about getting the space.”

The ground at Sarojini Nagar still isn’t perfect – the women still don’t have a toilet and parts of the ground are patchy and clumped with stones. But the group’s struggle over the past months has shown that the hurdles for women don’t only come from conservative families who want them to stay at home, or communities that promote gender stereotypes. Sometimes it’s just a question of logistics.