History was made when back in 2006, Germany played a friendly football match against Iran. What made this match historic was that for the first time ever, Iran’s women’s football team had played against another country. The mutual love for football got the two teams together, despite restrictions on clothing, compulsion to wear headgear while playing the match, etc. The initiative was a historic diplomatic feat, beautifully captured in the documentary, Football Under Cover. This match was not only covered by the sports section of the newspaper, but also featured in the political section. A group of young women in Germany then realised that football could also have a political impact and they started Discover Football, to promote football amongst girls as a means of empowering them.
Usually people associate football and other ‘manly’ sports like hockey and cricket with men. What we don’t realise is that playing a sport is empowering, not just for men but also women. It helps create spaces and positive narratives for women that don’t relegate them to the margins, affording them equal opportunities in sports as elsewhere. Many young girls leave sports like football and hockey at an early age because these aren’t thought to be sports a woman should take up professionally. Those who do take it up, hardly receive coverage from the media, as their male counterparts are always considered more ‘entertaining’ to watch because of the ‘manliness’ component they bring into the sport.
Discover Football is trying to change this patriarchal narrative through a small team of just under 20 women. As Lea Gölnitz who works with Discover Football explains: “We highlight barriers, what is stopping women from playing positive outcomes. We try to make visible positive success stories to inspire other women to enter sport. Football is a mirror of society. Gender inequality in football is a good example to make people understand gender injustice at large.”
Soon after they came into being, because of Discover Football’s initiatives and the platform it was providing young women to play sport, Tibet Women’s Soccer (TWS) got in touch with them to participate in a football tournament. TWS is an organization that provides Tibetan women an opportunity to empower and express themselves through sport. With their help, the Tibetan Women’s soccer team played its first international game, and that too against the Chinese team, proudly representing their country. The initiative, in fact, united the Chinese and Tibetan women because their cross-cultural interaction made them realize that all animosity was being caused by governments, not by people. And that’s what the goal here is – to take the sport beyond political barriers – and connect women through the love of sport.
In India too women face all kinds of barriers when they wish to pursue sports. Without the backing of a government association like the All India Football Federation (AIFF) or a state football federation, it is difficult to organize events. There have been instances when football matches have been stopped because the outfit worn by female players on the pitch angered local maulvis. Parents too oppose when a school introduces sports like rugby into the curriculum. The media also often portrays women players in negative and objectifying images, reproducing sexist stereotypes.
Playing a sport brings out a woman’s inner strength, makes her courageous and helps her stand up against discrimination – qualities which many girls and their parents are unaware of. Discover Football now wishes to expand into India, where it plans to hold a football tournament in 2017. They will be working together with Tibet Women’s Soccer and Indian female football players, and providing them a platform to play football. There are many Indian women who already play football and they aim to tap on that resource. They wish to make Indian women believe in themselves, and in the power to overcome societal stereotypes, that make them believe that sport is only the ambit of the males.