For a man to dream of playing football for his country is daring. But for a woman to pursue such a dream, when her country is Bangladesh, it is yet more remarkable. It's hardly controversial to note that there remain significant cultural and societal impediments to Bangladeshi women striving to excel in sport. This is true in the capital; even more so in a regional district like Narail.
But in the villages of Hatiara, Guakhola and Bakuli in Sheikhhati Union of Narail Sadar Upazila, the women's football scene is both competitive and lively. About twenty-five kilometres from district headquarters, such is the enthusiasm for the game that women from these three villages have been regularly travelling into town by local Nosimon – a noisy, small-engine transport vehicle. They don't wish to miss their training, which starts every day at 3 p.m. Ironically, the women's football participation rate in these villages far exceeds that of Narail town.
Yet as a result of their efforts, a number of town-dwelling women have also joined the team – including young women from the various ethnic minorities who were long ago brought to work in Narail's indigo plantations from distant regions of India and currently live beside the field where training takes place. To see the village women train has been their inspiration to pursue the game themselves.
The growth of village women's football in Narail began with the World Cup fever of 2010 when all over Bangladesh both men and women regularly found themselves glued to TV sets taking in the latest match in South Africa. At the time, Putul Mojumder, Bichitra Biswas and a few others from Hatiara village hatched a plan to arrange a women's football tournament at the Guakhola high school field.
With money collected locally they bought their first football and began to train for the upcoming tournament. Initially their efforts met with disapproval from some within the community – unsurprisingly since the sight of women playing football was certainly a novel one. Yet they persevered and the villagers at large gradually became accustomed to the women training.
Eventually there were no objections to the first tournament, which took place on 24 July 2010. It was a memorable day that drew in thousands of spectators from across the district. Village history had been made!
The two teams – the “married” team of mothers versus the “unmarried” team of daughters both played well, with the unmarried team gaining the upper hand to take the match four goals to one. Though the married team stood defeated on the field, it was undoubtedly a victory for all the women involved and of course, for village women's football.
Then additional deputy commissioner Hawlader Mohammad Rokibul Bari as well as officials of the district sports committee were in attendance and congratulated the players.
After that, football coach of Narail district sports committee Kartick Das, impressed by the groundbreaking tournament and the enthusiasm for football, agreed to provide the women with regular training, with the support of a local NGO, Bachte Shekha. Later Manusher Jonno also agreed to support the endeavour financially, in order to develop a fixed team and further skill development. With such practical barriers overcome, for the women there was little left to do but to train, improve their skills and play.
“We hope we can continue to run our activities smoothly,” says coach Das, “to encourage our players and inspire other women to join the team.”
Initially he had been concerned when he noticed his players often faced eve-teasing and inappropriate behaviour from men. “But they learnt to protest this behaviour,” he says, “and the local administration has also helped to combat it.”
Ultimately women's football in these villages of Narail has become competitive. Of fifty aspiring players, twenty-eight have been selected. While many of the mothers who initially participated are unable to attend regular training due to their household commitments, their daughters continue.
As a sign of the team's success, ten women were chosen to participate in the first Promila Football League tournament at Bangabandhu National Stadium. Local players Bipasha, Runa, Shormila, Beauty, Rony, Soroshati, Potima, Bichitra, Shefali and Samoli are currently attending a football camp in Dhaka for the under 15s national team.
“One of our players,” Das smiles, “has gone even further. Our player Saroshoti has already played in the Bangladesh national team!”
In-charge of the Bangladesh Olympic Association and also secretary of the District Sports Committee Asiqur Rahman Miku, meanwhile, believes that local NGO support for women's football has proved a key turning point in developing the game. As a result, women in Narail have been able to benefit from greater opportunity, both on and off the sports field – it has helped to further develop that most obvious of understandings: that women can!
In the meantime the daily journeys into town continue. Training starts at 3 p.m. The dream to be a great player and desire to represent Bangladesh one day is always present. In that, there is certainly no difference to their male colleagues pursuing sport. It's just now the women have overcome societal inhibitions to create the opportunity to pursue that dream: and of course, the future must be bright.
The writer is the Daily Star correspondent in Narail.