Why Girls In India’s Largest Muslim Ghetto Are Betting Big On Football - The Incredible Story Of Parcham

Historically, Mumbra, a small city in the suburbs of Thane district, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First it was the Bhiwandi riots of 1984, and later it was the Bombay riots of December 1992 that shaped the socio-political topography of the place, located two hours away from Mumbai.

Even two decades later, the impact of these unforgettable events continues to mould the fate of the marginalised communities living in these regions, save for one difference. Now, if you happen to drive through this suburb, you might spot a squad of young girls, decked in bright blue jerseys playing football and breaking all stereotypes that people have formed about Mumbra and Muslim girls over the years.

With football, girls are breaking all stereotypes that people have formed about Mumbra and Muslim girls

And it’s all thanks to social activist Sabah Khan and her non-profit collective, Parcham, which was launched in October 2012.

“Parcham means the flag or banner that is carried during revolutions,” says Sabah alluding to a poem written by Urdu poet Majaz and a particular stanza which reads, “tere mathe pe ye aanchal bahot hi khoob hai lekin, tu is aanchal ka ek Parcham bana leti to acha tha.” A loose translation of these verses is, ‘this veil on your forehead makes you look very beautiful, but if you had made a loftier flag out of this veil, it would have been more meaningful.’

In these lines, the famous Urdu poet alludes to the idea of revolution and sovereignty. At Parcham, it translates into breaking free of the prejudices, advocating unity, harmony, and women empowerment, through sports.

But why Football and why Mumbra?

“Football for us is a means to many things – claiming our right to public space, increasing the visibility of women in public spaces, building bridges of friendship among people who have been taught to hate each other, building confidence in girls, talking about equality and financial independence,” says Sabah, emphasising, “This sport also challenges every stereotype of Mumbra and Muslim girls.”

In 2012, when she was approached by a friend who was working with Magic Bus, an NGO focusing on kids’education, to start a football programme in Mumbra, Sabah leapt at the opportunity. It was just the right kind of mission for the activist who had by then already worked in the suburb and built a rapport with the girls there. It made perfect sense to start here, she recalls.

But soon, Sabah would realise that it was easier said than done. “After we started, we discovered that playing in an open ground was a bigger challenge than we had imagined. Most of the girls had not told their parents that they were playing football, because they were certain they wouldn’t be given permission. They would tell their parents that they were going to learn English and played football instead,” she shares.

And then there was the issue with onlookers and the unavailability of the playing grounds, because who has even heard of women in hijab playing football?

“Almost always,” recalls Sabah, “the ground would be fully occupied by men and boys playing cricket, and we had to negotiate and wait for them to complete their innings for us to start playing. This ate into the precious little time girls were allowed to stay out of their homes.”

The challenges were manifold, but Sabah was determined not to give up. The activist, who was at the time involved in the campaign for People Centric Development Plan of Mumbai, realised upon some brainstorming that every city had allotments of lands reserved for various uses, including play and recreation.

“We studied the map of Mumbra, zeroed in on a plot reserved for a recreation ground and initiated a signature campaign demanding that it be reserved exclusively for girls and women,” she tells us.

Her campaign picked up steam, and in no time, it garnered some 900 odd signatures. Sabah even found a strong ally in local MLA, Dr. Jitendra Awhad, who not only helped her take the initiative forward but also arranged a meeting with the Municipal Commissioner who signed off the reservation of the ground for women, the first such reservation in the country.

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Reclaiming freedom through football

What started as an initiative to get more and more girls – from both Muslim and non-marginalised communities – to come out of their homes and reclaim their freedom and football, has now snowballed into a full-fledged movement, training girls and women, and even preparing them for competitive events.

Says Sabah on this progress, “Since 2012 we have trained over 1000 girls, and this is not only in Mumbra but also in Mumbai.”

In 2012, Sabah Khan was approached by a friend who was working with Magic Bus, an NGO focusing on kids’education, to start a football programme in Mumbra

Some of these young talents have also made it to sports leagues and professional coaching. “Afifa from our first batch now plays league matches across the country,” says Sabah adding, “Another player, Saba Parveen, coaches girls of the Thane Municipal Corporation school in Mumbra.”

While Parcham and its football initiative might have taken flight with simpler goals, over time, it has gone beyond just sports. Today, its football training is interspersed with perspective-building, aimed towards understanding society, inequality and the struggles to overcome these.

“We also have residential workshops for the girls to stay together and get to know each other,” shares Sabah adding, “These workshops are spaces for us to talk about diversity among many other things.”

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Dreaming big, and beyond football

The fruition of Parcham’s goals marks a huge leap, not just for the girls of Mumbra but also for Sabah, who much like these girls, grew up in the Muslim ghetto of Madanpura in South Mumbai. And while she was fortunate enough to receive the best of education – she studied in an English medium school, got a degree in Economics and Masters in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) – she too grew and evolved in the process of running her sports-centric initiative.

Sabah Khan with the women of Parcham

“Through my childhood, I was never conscious of my gender identity. The identity I knew was that of being a Muslim and a good Muslim,” she says. Perhaps that’s why she was upset when, in the second year of field work at TISS, she was assigned an organization working solely with Muslim women.

“I believed that I had been assigned the organization because of my identity and I tried to argue against it,” she recalls.

Since then, confesses Sabah, she has come a long way in her understanding of Muslim women’s issues. She is more focussed on her football initiative now, which is only temporarily halted due to the Coronavirus lockdown. And soon, she hopes to have the Parcham Football Academy on its feet.

“We have to have a team of women coaches who train Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, and underprivileged girls. We want to see them at the national level,” she says.

The girls of Parcham are just getting started. As Sabah says, “the accomplishment of one goal has only led to dreams of other bigger goals.”

(Edited by Athira Nair, Video Produced by Urmi Chatterjee)

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