Kicking predjudice (english version)

[Hä, das Bild kenn ich doch? Ja stimmt. Auf vielfachen Wunsch eines Einzelnen wurde dieser Blogartikel ins Englische übersetzt – ein herzliches Dankeschön an Christa Hebestreit und Mike Marklove für die Übersetzung!]

Normally I am not a big soccer fan. Nevertheless, I took a very long trip right to the very north of Bangladesh to meet soccer players. Young female soccer players, who have scored decisive goals in making changes in Bangladesh.

Once again I am travelling with a photographer, who in the past has shot some excellent pictures for me illustrating a magazine story. And of course I am accompanied by my longtime travel companion, friend, organizer and translator for me, all in one person.

Our first stop is at a school in Kalsindur, a very small village, of which, not too long ago, many people in Bangladesh hadn’t even heard of. Meanwhile this has changed. And Kalsindur is known by a lot of Bangladeshi, because of these soccer playing young girls… Again, we are travelling by motorcycles on this trip, as there are no bus connections to these distant villages. And cars cannot drive here due to the poor conditions of the roads. Speaking of bad conditions: In this picture you can see the soccer pitch in front of the school!  Sometimes it is also used by cows and goats and also for the local market.

 

Upon our arrival at the school we are welcomed by a committee, teachers and other representatives of this small village. People in Bangladesh love to represent, it seems. Simple visits quickly become ceremonial. Here – for the first time – I hear the first stories of the soccer playing girls, but a version, which is new to me. Their school ‚muftis‘ told me the government of Bangladesh wanted to strengthen the self confidence of young girls – „Allah, protect our wise Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina“ – and thus they started a program that encouraged girls at schools to start playing soccer. But as not all schools were so courageous and progressive, there was only such a project in Kalsindur.

 

Incidentally, I had heard a completely different version of the story, which was verified by local journalists, a middleman in the district capital and the father of one of these girls. It seemed to me that this soccer team was somewhat founded out of defiance. In a muslim country like Bangladesh it is normally forbidden for girls participate in sports. And running around in sports-wear is normally a no-go. At this school in Kalsindur they already had a soccer team, but for boys. But their coach was not at all satisfied with the discipline and engagement of the boys. This made the coach once scream out: „Even girls can do better“. This caused big laughter among the boys,  and this infuriated the coach even more. As a reaction to this, the coach made girls play soccer. Of course, the girls talked about this at home. And most parents were not amused about this teacher, who did not follow the Muslim rules. At first, the parents didn’t allow their girls to play soccer. But this teacher was a persistent man. He went from household to household and talked to the parents with a large amount of persuasion. In the end the teacher was able to build a small girls soccer team. These were girls coming from the slums of Kalsindur, the poorest of the poor. But that did not seem to matter. The girls started their daily training and after a short while the girls had a lot of fun with their new sport. And, most importantly, the girls did a really good job.

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The first girl I meet is Sajeda, a 14 year old soccer ’nerd‘, at least that was how she introduced herself to me with a bright smile. I am really surprised by this girl. Normally, female teenagers in Bangladesh are very shy and hardly speak a word. Sajeda seems to think it is very normal that people from far away want to interview her, or at least she has been briefed well. We sit down at the place before their simple shelter. But then I  rise again and walk over to the people who are standing behind us, once again a commitee of representatives and family members. And I explain to them very politely, but quite firm and with a certain authority in my voice that we would now need silence, for the interviews as well as for the pictures which would be taken. The answer is an astonished murmering, but they accept my request. ‚Orders‘ coming from a woman will only be accepted if done with a lot of ‚Chutzpa‘, I have learned in the meantime.

 

I notice that Sajeda is constantly playing around with her new pink coloured sportsjacket. „Nice clothes“, I say. And then suddenly, like a soap bubble, the last caution flies away. Her eyes glow when she tells me that she is immensely proud of this. It was always her big dream to become a member of this school soccer team. And these new sports jackets were given to them not long ago. Even her name is imprinted on it. She stops, blushes a little and then says hastily: „To become famous is not so important to me, but I want to be a very good player. That really matters to me!“

I enjoy talking to Sajeda. She explains very vividly that she always had a good feel for the ball. Well, ball is not the right expression. In her childhood she had no football, her parents were too poor to give her a ball. Instead, she played with unripe limes, mangos or everything that even looked like a ball. This training must have been a good training. Because she stuns me when I watch her play in her everyday clothes. The balls seems to stick to her foot as if tied to a rubber band. She rolls it around her ankle, flicks it to her toes, to her heels, kicks it high and catches it with her instep where she rests it calmly. It looks very easy and playful, but the 14 year old girl is highly concentrated, moves a strand of hair from her face and laughs: „I am a striker. And I am pretty good in keeping control of the ball.

 

Since she has been playing in the soccer team of her school, she trains one and a half hours every day. My eyebrows rise in disbelief – one and a half hours? Besides going to school? She nods challengingly. It is not easy to achieve, she admits. „I get up very early every morning, clean my teeth and help my mother with cooking. Afterwards, I go to the river for a swim and a wash and then to school“. Training starts at three. „I never miss that. As soon as I am back home again afterwards, I help once again with the housekeeping and do my homework.

Sure, in the beginning the neighbours talked behind her back about her. Some said this behavior wasn’t suitable for a young girl and went against religious rules. She dressed in a dissolute manner… With the movement of her hand, Sajeda wipes away these imaginary voices. Ant the time, the soccer team was already very successful, even outside Bangladesh. And because of this success, talk ended soon. In the moment when Sajeda talks about the success of the team abroad, she slides back and forth in her chair. She is proud to have been to India and Tadschikistan already. „That was great, the playing grounds there – wow!“ I smile and remember her local pitch in front of her school, covered with sand holes, waste and cow dung. 

Everything has changed so much because of the girls soccer team, says Sajeda. They now have their own soccer jerseys. And actually, the whole village has profited from the success of the girls team. At least every house now has electricity. „In earlier days, we could watch soccer on TV only in the house of our Lady teacher. Now I can do this together with friends and neighbours, although not every household is connected to cable or satellite“.

Now the photoshooting starts. I ask the girl to take off her sports wear and put on her everyday clothes. After all, we’d also like to see her everyday life, her life in her family. Her eyes widen very shortly. „Without my soccer clothes?“  But she loses her brief irritation very soon after I explain to her, that people in Germany can’t imagine what the life of a 14 year old girl in Bangladesh is like. And that we would love to show that too. But before that, she replies, she wants to show us her medals…

 

Shortly afterwards she is posing for us: cooking, washing, with her girl friends, with her family – all of a sudden, Sajeda is in her element. She shows no signs of shyness at all. She seems very much within herself, very self confident and content. And she talks very happily with our photographer, tells him that during the last season she was the top scorer of her team, oh, and by the way: The girls-team is much better than the boys soccer team…

 

We say good bye to Sajeda, but will meet her again during her training in the afternoon.

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And upon leaving I realize how happy I am because of this encounter: I have seen a lot of girls from very poor families. Most of them were very timid, were afraid to look into my eyes and were very edgy, jerking suddenly and anxiously after certain movements. What a difference this open-minded and uncomplicated young girl makes.

„To be continued“