Ajmer Girls are Rewriting the Rules of Patriarchy through Football

Pooja Gurjar | Hansiyawas, Ajmer | Rajasthan | A group of adolescent girls from rural Rajasthan are moving the goalposts against patriarchy. In our world, where dreams and aspirations of young girls are often limited due to absence of resources, this group of girls has come together to fight the system and create a space for their dreams. Even with presence of opportunities, women and girls are abstained from availing it. From a small age, they are burdened with responsibilities of the entire house, with no time for themselves and their dreams. Even today, there are communities who strongly believe that girls are not meant to acquire education and should contribute only towards household chores. These girls are scoring goals against this mindset by participating in football at national level.

Young girls from Hansiyawas, Chachiyawas, Meeno ka Naya Gaon and Sakariya villages of Kekri block, which is 30-40 kilometres from Ajmer, were brought together by an organization called Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS) in 2016. A football team was formed that started playing on September 15, 2016. Today, some of these girls have made their place in the national football team.

“There were many hurdles in the beginning. We come from a place where girls are restricted from following their dreams. It was difficult to even think of sports, let alone participate in it,” said Pinky Gurjar, a member of the football team. According to her, the villagers could not find any reason for them to play football and were against their interest. They believed that playing football will spoil these girls and make them shameless!

The indomitable spirit of these young girls helped them persuade their parents. Although they have ‘allowed’ their daughters to play but not without carrying the extra burden of being a girl in this world. “I complete all my household chores before I step out to play so that parents have no reason to scold,” informed Pinky.

Seeing her friends play this sport, Sapna from Hansiyawas village got inspired to join the team. “I wanted to break the misconception that football is a men’s game and make my identity as a footballer,” said a fearless Sapna who believes that football has helped in the personal growth as well. “We are no longer fearful of stepping out of the house, no longer hesitant to speak our opinion. As our courage and confidence has grown, we have started to question the wrong,” expressed Mamta.

Mothers of these girls have supported them pursue their dreams against the pressure from the villagers. Footballer Sapna’s mother, Kishni Devi said, “Since childhood, along with studying I was also interested in sports. As girls’ participation in sports was considered to be wrong, I could not fulfil my dreams. I will not allow this to happen to my daughter.”

Sapna is not the only girl who is living her mother’s dream. Footballer Pinky’s mother, Laali Devi is also proud of her daughter. “She excels in sports as well as in studies,” said Laali Devi whose parents never allowed her to study or play and restricted her to the household chores. She was married as a child and was sent to her in-laws, which shattered her dreams. Not wanting the same life for her daughter, Laali encourages and supports her daughter to follow her own path. Football is not only nurturing these girls to realise their and their mothers’ dream but come out of the trap of illiteracy and child marriages.

Rajasthan known for its traditionally patriarchal society, has a terrible female literacy rate. According to the Census of India (2011), the female literacy stands at 52.12 % staying far below from males, which is 79.19 %. According to a report, in terms of literacy rate, Rajasthan has the biggest gender divide of 23.2 % across the country. The state also witnesses more instances of child marriages as compared to other parts of the country.

Ajmer based organization, MJAS works towards the all-round development and empowerment of women and girls in this district and its nearby villages. This women-led, rights-based organization is providing these girls an opportunity in sports. “Girls here live in fear and terror because of the social environment and the centuries-old traditions like child marriages. They are hesitant to even speak. The organisation, through this initiative, is trying to unveil their talent and introduce them to football, which is still considered to be a men’s sport,” shared Indira Pancholi, the secretary of the organisation.

The initiative received great resistance not just from the villagers but from the schools as well. They wanted to keep the girls away from anything that involved running. The efforts of the organization and the persistence of these girls made them withdraw.

Despite the resistance and hurdles, these young footballers are moving ahead in life. In 2019, Monika Gurjar, Mamta Gurjar and Kanchan Gurjar, went to Bhilwara to participate in district level tournament in which they secured fourth position. In the same year, they were selected for the National level tournament in Odisha. However, could not participate as the tournament was called off due to some misunderstanding in between the organizing committee.

These three girls along with their whole team were also invited to play as a guest team at the ‘Sports For Change’ initiative under HCL foundation in Noida in 2019. They were then invited to play at the National level under the same initiative held in Lucknow. Everyone was happy and proud of their achievement, but Covid-19 pandemic affected their further plans up to some extent.

However, post lockdown, another member from the team- Suman Gurjar and Mamta Gurjar went to participate in district-level tournament which was held in Bhilwara in October. After the tournament, both these girls were selected for the Rajasthan Senior Women’s Football team. The team is now all set to participate in the National Football Championship (Under 18) in Kunnur, Kerala, which began on the 28th of November 2021, to be held till 9th December 2021. As time has gone by, the number of MJAS girls participating at the national and state levels has grown exceedingly.

Initially, there were a total of eighty girls from all the four villages. Today, the number is more than hundred. In Hansiyawas, it started with thirty girls, and now fifty girls are part of the team from this village. Likewise, in Chachiyawas, the number of girls playing football increased from twenty to forty. Currently, over two hundred and fifty girls are receiving training from coach Sudhir Joseph. Three days in a week, they get to travel to Ajmer at the Patel Stadium and three days, they train in their respective villages. They leave for Ajmer at seven in the morning and return at eleven. In their village, they practice from five in the evening for one and a half hours. The travel arrangement is taken care of by MJAS.

There is a change in the perception of villagers. Today, they  are not only encouraging the girls to play football but are also supporting all the related activities related. Panchayats have made arrangement for the playing field and the kits. Football training are organized by MJAS in Ajmer. Playing football has made these girls benefit from several government schemes. This has allowed them to pursue higher education. One girl has received a scholarship of Rs. 50,000. Through football, these girls are rewriting the rules of a game where they are moving forward, defending and attacking to win their freedom!

(This article was first published in Femasia)

The article is written by Pooja Gurjar, currently in first year of graduation. A resident of Hansiyawas, Pooja is an advocate for equal rights for girls and women. She has completed a course on Grassroots Journalism organized by MJAS.

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