Thursday, March 8, 2018

#GirlsMustPlay : Reclaiming Spaces

A girl’s relationship to public spaces evolves as she grows older. It skips ahead with delight and, hopscotches its way to friends. And just as she’s about to retain that confidence she learnt during these games, she’s told to step back and go back. This relationship with her favourite streets and parks might sour over time, might become one of detachment, fear or hesitation, it might be accepted as a strange and cumbersome part of life, or it might turn into one of rebellion and constant reclamation. Whether it’s the majority of population of Indian girls that resides in rural areas or the ones in urban, it’s almost impossible for girls to have a free, healthy or even neutral relationship with public areas. Eventually, many girls stop playing in such spaces at an early age. This lack of games leads to a lack of sports in their lives.

Bijal Vachharajani, Senior Editor at Pratham Books, recounts an incident, “Many years ago, as a journalist, I remember interviewing Ashok who worked with Magic Bus in Mumbai to get children back to school using football. And one of the challenges he talked about was getting girls to play the sport. And since then I think it's stuck in my head about how divisive things can be in innocuous ways. Free play and sports participation is so crucial - it equips children with life skills, builds confidence, and imagination. In our books, girls play, they run, the climb trees, just like in real life.”


Playing games and occupying public places helps boost self image, gives girls tools to tackle tough situations, makes them better at communication, and teaches them leadership – everything they must learn. Games give young girls visibility, form and shape. But many families would prefer them to remain hidden away from the scorn of others or from the lurking fear of street sexual harassment. Games, a normal part of life for boys, are gradually seen as a surplus activity for girls that can be harmlessly done away with. There are even stigmas attached to girls’ bodies and playing games is seen as a way to break their hymen, thus making them unfit for marriage. Also, since public spaces are not designed for girls, and safe spaces meant for girls are out of reach, logistics comes into play here which can be financially draining for some families. Gender clearly plays a crucial role here.

Here’s Kusum Kumari from a village in Jharkand presenting her Tedx Talk about how football changed her life:


Mala Kumar, Senior Editor at Pratham Books, meets many girl characters in the books she edits. In ‘How Heavy is Air?’, Lakshmi is the central character. “Lakshmi is not just a smart young girl, she is a confident student. She asks questions. She experiments. And she is not scared to announce that her teacher is wrong. ‘Air has no weight, Miss,’ she declares. It’s characters like Lakshmi who give young boys and girls a healthy sense of gender. In ‘Who's on Divya's Map?’, a young girl goes around her locality, meeting people, and drawing a map. By doing so, she owns public spaces and encourages others to do the same.” Mala further talks about ‘Miss Laya and her Fantastic Motorbike’, a series of four books that she wrote recently, “In many schools, 'teacher' is a feminine noun, and many children giggle when you call a male instructor a teacher. Miss Laya teaches games, rides a motorbike, teaches games, is kind, encourages children to travel with her, and imbibes in them a sense of community pride.”

Many NGOs have been working to combat this issue by providing safe places for girls to play freely like Girl Skate India, Yuwa, Just For Kicks, Isha Yoga Foundation, The Art of Sport, etc are just a few Indian initiatives and NGOs that are breaking the gender stereotypes by creating safe, nourishing environments for girls to play a sport and express their bodies freely. It’s important for parents, teachers, girls and boys to see the presence of girls in parks and on the streets. They should read about girls like Kamali who followed her six year old heart and learnt to skateboard. Also, the books they read to their children and students must have female protagonists who play and explore, and are not confined to cooking and serving.


Shinibali Mitra Saigal, Consultant Editor at Pratham Books, talks about her upcoming books that revolve around female leads, “Almost all the books I have worked on have spunky, strong and fearless girls doing something exciting and fun. I don't think it was a staunchly conscious decision but an organic one where it seemed almost obvious to have a girl as the protagonist. We have a story in the pipeline about seed bankers, all women,  of course. There is a story written by women's movement pioneer Kamla Bhasin about a girl who loves cars and knows everything about them. There is also a story about a visually challenged girl who aspires to form a cricket team and wins a match. She does it all. Girls are more fun (for me) but that is not to say that I wouldn't like boys in my books. At the end of it, both walk together.”

Clearly, the solution is not to keep girls hidden, but to make their external environment safe. For girls, part of having the confidence to occupy public spaces to play also means being able to respond like Mia when an empowering sentence like “You play like a girl” is turned into an insult.

“My coach said I ran like a girl, 
I said if he could run a little faster he could too”
― Mia Hamm




(This post was written by Sherein Bansal. Sherein is an Assistant Editor at Pratham Books. Sherein lights up when she stumbles upon good music. She becomes grumpy in the absence of travel. She loves food and can talk about it till others have finished their meals and left the room.)

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