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Playing ball

School kids going about their day, running, and having fun in groups on the big school playground as witnessed through a net.

“A woman must continually watch herself”, wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. Thus, she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.”

As a girl grows up, she must bear constant scrutiny. Her appearance, mannerisms, ideas and decisions are evaluated continuously according to the standards set for her in society. She is expected to keep herself in check for so long that a twisted form of self-vigilance sets in. At one point, she need not be told by anyone else to behave; she does it herself. For every digression, every minor violation, she blames and punishes herself. While men are taught to externalise pain and agony, women are taught to internalise it. Anyone who does not conform to the binary conditioning of manhood and womanhood is told that there is no place for them in the world.

When we went to a school for a work assignment, the place brought back bittersweet memories. For us, school did not just embody nostalgia, but also, childhood trauma. This was where we had perhaps been the best version of ourselves: brimming with optimism and curiosity, eager to build friendships unadulterated by heartbreak, staring dreamily at a future filled with possibilities. But this was also where we had the least agency: gender-questioning was infantilised and dismissed as imagination, older people were assumed to be always right, and obedience was equated with goodness. 

Our work assignment was to ethnographically observe the implementation of a program that taught essential skills related to substance use prevention (education on substances, refusal skills, alternate coping skills etc.) through the medium of sports. The program was conceptualised by our organisation Sangath and the students invited to participate were in the seventh grade, mostly 11 to 12 year olds. As we walked through the corridor, we came across a blackboard with a drawing depicting Women’s Day. The school had expanded letters of the word “woman” into an aspect they felt indicated the importance of women in society. “M-Marvellous Daughter”, “A- Adorable sister”, “N- Nurturing Mother,” said the drawing.  Even at a school, the value of a woman was reduced to her roles in catering to the various needs of the men in her family. This contradicted the principle that schools as an institution are widely associated with in society: equality. Even the existence of a “uniform” is rationalised on the basis of establishing equality among students.

Ironically, there was nothing uniform about the uniforms. Girls wore frocks extending till under their knees, a half-shirt under the frock, and had their hair oiled and tied in manageable braids. Boys wore comfortable and airy half-pants and t-shirts, an attire clearly more compatible with sports activities. Upon closer examination, one could see further non-uniformity. Depending on privilege – well-fitting socks as opposed to old, loose ones; polished shoes rather than worn-out patched ones; T-shirts that were various shades of white. 

The students of the class were segregated into two sections according to the grades they had scored in exams. One section was for kids conventionally considered ‘academically promising’, and the other was for those who were ‘lagging behind’. When this segregation had been done during our own time in school, the justification given was to “make sure that the ones struggling, receive extra attention and guidance.” Irrespective of this, the teachers would hardly change their approaches to accommodate the students who needed to be taught differently. By the end of the year, none of the students from the section ‘lagging behind’ would ever qualify to the section of the ‘promising’. “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions”, Michel Foucault had written in his book Discipline and Punish, “to define, classify, control, and regulate people.” 

The classrooms were dimly lit and half-ventilated, with blackboards that could never be wiped completely clean. The majority of girls had boys as bench-mates, but there was barely any conversation between them. Every time an older person walked into the classroom, the students would unanimously burst into a cacophony of “good morning”. When the coaches instructed them to make a queue and jog to the playground, the boys would instinctively take the lead and the girls would follow them as if it was an implicitly agreed arrangement.  

The activity sessions for the sports program were usually scheduled at 11 AM. People squatted under trees for shade, thirsty stray dogs hunted for puddles, and kids had their clothes drenched in sweat by the time they reached the playground. When the class was divided into teams for the games, they were hesitant to form mixed-gender teams. If a child volunteered to mix, others would immediately insinuate that this was embarrassing and abhorrent. In their minds, boys and girls would never willingly mix. They could never be friends. Socialisation among genders seemed stigmatised even at the age of 11; they were minutely aware of the genders being different and the difference being irresolvable.

A mist of dust would blow about as the kids started playing. The organised activities ranged from dog and the bone to dodgeball and bowling – all modified to involve a football. While the games did not rely on one’s football skills, being used to the sport helped in playing these other games. During the first few sessions, the girls seemed less enthusiastic than the boys when football terminology was used to introduce the activities. On the field, they did not run very fast or bend very low. They were clearly conscious about attracting attention and had a hard time managing the added burden of a calf-length pinafore that blew with every gust of wind. 

The gendered assumption that girls are generally disinterested in sports, could be easily refuted by the fact that the principal’s office shelf was adorned with multiple trophies awarded to the girls’ hockey team for winning championships. On conversing with the girls later, we realised that while they were skilled in other sports, football was not their game. They never had the opportunity to access the playground which remained occupied by the boys during game periods. They never had a female coach to train them and, as beginners, they could not cope with the aggressive playing methods of their male classmates. This masculinising of a common space, like a school playground, by the unimpeded exclusion of girls was a reminder of how schools perpetuate and reinforce the gender binary like any other institution.  “Boys’ spaces traumatised me”, wrote Alok Vaid-Menon in their book Beyond the Gender Binary, “that’s where I experienced the most harassment. I didn’t go to the restroom in high school because I was so afraid. As soon as I got home, I would rush to the toilet”.

As the sports sessions went on, the girls realised their strengths and were able to tap into them. They were not great at playing skilfully, so they learnt to play smartly. Instead of chasing the ball, they controlled it by maintaining a steady pace rather than frantically running across the field. They were not proficient in tackling but compensated for this by managing to defend well. They passed the ball when needed, organised the team in ways that were most compatible with individual strengths and constructively accepted feedback from the coaches. Towards the last sessions, it was clear that sports became an act of self-discovery and self-actualisation for them. While in the beginning, they were reluctant to answer questions raised by the coach, by the end of the program, they had gained confidence regarding their expertise.  “The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body”, Judith Butler had written in their book Gender Trouble. While looking at the girls running freely, unbothered by being observed, we wondered if sports could be a method of unlearning this gendered stylisation.

The group dynamics and cohesiveness between the boys and girls evolved with time as they learnt to play as a team. As the girls performed well, boys trusted them with the ball, depended on them during the game, and sought their opinions periodically. Now that they had mastered the game, girls found their space in the team. Given the limited socialisation between genders at the school, it was a milestone that only a month of playing together could help bridge some of the distance between them. However, it was sad that for the team to achieve any kind of camaraderie, winning the approval of the boys was crucial and girls had to prove themselves worthy of inclusion. As if, no matter how much the girls learn to tackle, the ball inevitably lands in the boys’ court.

Note: The project mentioned in the article is MeWeSports, which aims to co-produce and evaluate a sports-based substance use prevention program for young people. It is led by Urvita Bhatia, and supported by Forca Goa Foundation and Pro Sport Development. For more information please visit:

Cover Image: Photo by Xavier Wateva on Unsplash