Woman footballer banned from playing in Kashmir, says Mumbai doesn't judge her

May 13, 2018, 07:26 IST | Jane Borges

In a week when criticism against Kashmiri stone pelters reaches fever pitch, a young footballer banned from playing in the valley over a viral pelting video, speaks of finding her voice in Mumbai, and changing the face of the sport back home

Afshan Ashiq ahead of a match at St Andrew's Turf Park in Bandra West. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Afshan Ashiq ahead of a match at St Andrew's Turf Park in Bandra West. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

At St Andrew's Turf Park in Bandra West, evenings, Monday to Friday, are reserved for the hundred-odd passionate footballers who throng the space to compete at the two season-old Roots Premier League (RPL). Among them, is 23-year-old Afshan Ashiq. At 5'9", Afshan is a delight to watch on field. Playing for Demelition Squad, the team owned by South African model and now a Mumbaikar, Gabriella Demetriades, Afshan is in a league of her own. But unlike most, who leave their homes in search for better prospects, Afshan hadn't dreamt of leaving her home in Srinagar. She had to.

The day everything changed
On April 24 last year, Afshan, the coach for the J&K women's football team, was on her way to the ground with a group of 15 school girls, when a confrontation with the police in Srinagar turned ugly. A demonstration had unexpectedly broken out and despite the risks involved, Afshan — for whom witnessing protests is now routine — decided to brave the mob with the group she was escorting, and was stopped by the police. "We were walking peacefully towards the ground, but the officer hurled abuses at us. When I questioned him, he grew personal, and dragged my mother and sister into the conversation. How much can you tolerate?"

A grab from the video dated 2017 of Afshan during a protest in Srinagar
A grab from the video dated 2017 of Afshan during a protest in Srinagar

she says, seated by the stands waiting for the evening game to begin. "We continued to try having a reasonable conversation, when another policeman slapped one of the girls," she recalls. Losing her cool, Afshan picked up a stone by the side and pelted it. It was only a matter of hours before photographs of her, in a bright blue salwar, a dupatta of blossoms veiling her face, went viral. While youth politicians like Waheed-ur-Rehman Para lauded her for her bravado, the J&K Football Association (JAKFA) banned her from playing for the state for two years. "My family was aghast. They put me under house arrest for a month," she recalls. Within weeks, everything she had built for women footballers in her state, had come undone. For Afshan, it felt like she was back on the starting line, when playing football was still a distant dream.

Passion for the game
As a child, she remembers being involved in everything sport. She was the only female cricketer in a team of boys who would play in the neighbourhood. Afshan's parents, Ashiq Ahmed and Jawahir Bano, however, felt the only way up for their children — two daughters and a son — was education. It was while Afshan was in class XI, pursuing Arts from Kothi Bagh Girls Higher Secondary School, when a 75-year-old football coach, Abdullah Dar, spotted her on campus, and asked if she was an interested in playing. "I thought, why not. It sounded like fun," she says. When she went home that day and sought permission from her father, he agreed, although reluctantly. Under Dar, Afshan trained as a goalkeeper. "Abdullah sir taught me everything I know about the game, but I soon realised that there was no future [there], because I was the only girl participating from my school."

Two years on, when Afshan shared her misgivings with Abdullah, he got in touch with a former student, Aijaz Dar, who was with Real Kashmir FC, a professional football club based in Srinagar, and asked if he'd allow her to join the team for practice sessions. "But my father couldn't imagine me playing with a group of boys. He was worried about what family would say. He was already at the receiving end from neighbours, who thought I was giving the community a bad name and setting a wrong example for other girls," says Afshan. She didn't end up telling her parents that she had joined the club, and would escape for practice on the pretext of going for tuitions. Even at the club, the jibes continued. "One person asked me if I was mad to imagine I could play with men. I didn't hear him. My focus was on the game." As months went by, things started to improve. "People in the club grew forthcoming and put an effort in fine-tuning my skills. They started treating me like a sister," she said.

By then, Afshan's heart was set on playing for the country. But there was no women's team in J&K. After pleading her case with the state sports ministry, JAKFA extended its support, and a team was in place. In 2014, Afshan, who was pursuing Bachelors of Arts at Women's College, started campaigning at schools and colleges, enrolling girls, who were keen to join the sport. Since parents were reluctant to have their daughters trained by a male coach, Afshan decided to turn mentor. She earned a diploma from the National Institute of Sports, Patiala. By 2016, she had over 100 girls and 50 boys in the under 12, 16 and 20 categories, training with her. That year, the team played their first match in the under 18 category in Goa. "We conceded 50 goals in two matches. It was such a shame. People asked me, if this was why I had formed a team. But it was our first time, and even so, I was proud of our girls," she says. Then, after that fateful April day in 2017, things were back to square one.

Mumbai calling
Ironically, the bad publicity brought with it an opportunity. When news of what happened to Afshan went viral, a friend from Mumbai reached out to her on Facebook, and asked if she would come to the city. The Premier India Football Academy (PIFA) Colaba FC, a registered club with Mumbai District Football Association, had a women's team that was in need of a goalkeeper. When her father, who runs a tourism business in Srinagar, learned that she was keen to go to Mumbai, he declined. "One morning, I left home without telling anyone, and boarded a flight to Mumbai. I called my father only after I arrived. He was distraught and came looking for me," she recalls. It was also going to be the first time that Ashiq saw his daughter play the sport. "That day, he got very emotional, and broke down. I knew then, that I had convinced him about my future in the sport."

Mumbai, she says, has liberated her. Though she lives with family friends, "there is no one judging me here". Her journey with RPL is recent, and she thinks it helps her keep in touch with the game. Her goal, however, is to work with the girls back home and prepare a strong team for J&K, once the ban on her is lifted. "The girls call me, dejected, and say 'you gave football to us, but what will we do with it now'. It pains me to imagine that the sport is in doldrums," she says. But, another woman in a better position of power, she says, is doing her bit. J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who is president of the Jammu & Kashmir Sports Council overruled JAKFA to form the CM's XI Women's Football Team. Last November, the team made its debut at the Indian Women's League. Afshan is its captain and goalkeeper. And with nascent success, fame might be right around the corner. A biopic on her life, directed by Manish Harishankar and produced by Gulshan Grover, is on the anvil. "Life is looking up," she says, back to chat with us after striking a goal, right into the net.

6
No. of goals she has scored in the seven RPL matches she has played till date

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