Mehwish, 13, passed through the university grounds overlooking a mosque where she saw a bunch of boys playing a game involving a stick, rolling and dribbling a ball around the field. The uniqueness of the sport fascinated her and she wanted to try her hand at it — but something stopped her. There were no other girls in sight; just boys playing among themselves. Dejected, she continued walking to her house. The game did not leave her mind, though; she dreamed of it when at last she fell asleep.
A year later, there is a girl holding a stick, running and rolling a ball along. A few more girls chase her down with their own sticks, but her speed is unmatched as she puts the ball into the goal. Who is this girl, you might wonder? It is Mehwish, living her dream with a smile on her face.
About 130 kilometers from New Delhi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, lies a small town named Aligarh. The town is famous not just for its lock industry, but also for Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). AMU was established in the 1860s by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan with the prime purpose of providing education and holistic development for Muslim women. Today, the university ranks among the best in India, having a wide variety of programs to boast of in medicine, fine arts, law, theology, engineering, West Asian studies, English, Hindi, Urdu, and others. It also encourages other activities such as co-curriculars and sports.
For a long time, the university’s sports programs have been lopsided, with men dominating fields in cricket, field hockey, and volleyball. But at last, this balance has begun to tip.
For the first time in the history of the institution, a women’s field hockey team is being cultivated so that women can represent AMU and perhaps even go on to represent Uttar Pradesh and India in competition. The team consists of students between the ages of 13 and 15 and they train on the university’s field. Their coach, Anis Ur Rahman, represented India in hockey in the late 1980s and is the current deputy director of the AMU Sports Committee.
“The biggest challenge as of now, is to a build strong women’s hockey team who can go on to represent the university,” he said. He is not deterred by the challenge, encouraging the team to do its best. Iqra Naz, a member of the team, gushes about their hard working coach. “Sir is always making us work hard each and every day and makes sure that everyone is at their full potential. He tries to hone us more and more.”
The members of the women’s team are all under 15. They are school-going students who study at AMU ABK High School (Girls). At their age, they are learning the art of multitasking and time management in juggling their studies with field hockey practice. Their practice sessions begin at 3:30 p.m. and last until 7:00 p.m., a grueling yet fulfilling routine for the girls. The team is always enthusiastic and the girls put their hearts and heads in the game. During every practice session, the team plays a match against the boys’ team, which gives the girls a chance to show what they are made of.
What keeps these girls enthused is the fact that their families wholeheartedly support them. Mohammad Idrees, who works in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the university, is nothing short of ecstatic to see his daughter, Rozi, creating history. “I have four daughters and one son and have always told my children to do their very best in what they do. I am a very proud father seeing Rozi playing the game she loves and would love to see her representing the university and Aligarh after that,” he gushes.
In some conservative Muslim households, girls are not allowed to step out of the house to study, let alone to play a sport. This has led to a misconception held by many that the broad Muslim community is regressive and narrow-minded. The girls’ field hockey team playing on the fields of Aligarh Muslim University erodes that misconception. The resident coach at the Women’s College, Razia Rizvi, has been coaching girls since 1982 and has witnessed the onward and upward journey of many in various sports. “I have seen many girls touch the stars and receive high accolades. I feel blessed that my encouragement has helped them push forward with more fervor,” she said.
There is no restriction regarding what to wear while playing any sport. Kulsoom Zaidi, member of the university basketball team, talked about the freedom to wear or not to wear a hijab while playing. “We played against the team from Jammu and Kashmir and all the girls wore hijabs while playing the sport. With our team we had the liberty to wear whatever we wanted.”
For these young girls, the field hockey team in particular, it has been nothing short of a fairy tale. Their dreams and aspirations have taken successful flight. Who knows, one day we might see them playing for their country, maybe in the Paris Olympics in 2024, and bringing back a medal.
Keep reaching for the stars, ladies. Your time is now and here to stay. Chak De!
Akanksha Saxena is currently pursuing a Masters in Mass Communication, with specialization in Journalism from Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune, Maharashtra, India. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Aligarh Muslim University.