From the Slums of Mumbai to FIFA; Gulafsha Ansari is using Football to change mindsets
“Football changed my life, I want to give back what I received by giving others the same opportunity.” - Gulafsha Ansari.
Behind Gulafsha’s wide smile is a woman of action, mature beyond her 21 years, with a steely resolve and an overarching desire to give back to society what she has received. Raised in the slums of Mahim, in a 170 sq. ft. room, one of four siblings, Gulafsha’s story is a true testament to the talent hidden in the most unlikely corners of India.
‘A Muslim female football player and coach from the slums.’ There are many things that sound out of ordinary in this statement. From being a woman in a male dominated sport, to coming from a conservative community where girls going out is frowned upon, not to mention wearing a uniform of shorts and t-shirts, an absolute taboo in her community; Gulafsha has seen all kinds of biases and hardships and shattered them all.
The Turning Point
She was all of 9 years when she got the opportunity to go for a football class through a program run by an NGO. Her parents encouraged her to go, thinking this will be time well spent away from the slum and a chance to learn a new skill. This was Gulafsha’s first encounter with football and she loved it.
She wanted to continue playing, but to play she had to first get the ball; away from the local boys who ran their own fiefdom on the grounds. She and her mates had to endure their teasing and bullying and were not allowed to play. “I decided that if I have to play, I have to enter and take the ball from them, no more waiting. I did just that. From that day on, my confidence grew”, says Gulafsha. Her dedication led her to being selected for technical training by the same NGO. She started training in earnest, practicing on the streets and wherever else she could.
A Winning Streak Of Achievements
In 2010 she got a chance to go to the FIFA World Cup and participate in the ‘Football for Hope’ campaign, where NGOs from all over the globe had representative teams. That was a very proud moment for her.
Later, she also made it to the Junior Nationals, Under 15 category. In 2011 she got a chance to attend a Leadership Camp conducted by Olympic gold medalist Julie Foudy in the US. The Leadership Camp encouraged the participants to try and identify a real-life problem facing them and take affirmative action to solve it. Gulafsha’s immediate thought was about the girls back home who couldn’t get the chance she got. “I thought, why am I the only girl from my community here”. She wanted to do something to change this.
Where girls are expected to stay indoors, help with household work, and get married at a very young age, Gulafsha had got lucky mainly because of the support of her parents who believed in her passion. But others were not so lucky. She knew she had to do something for her community girls, to enable them to come out of their homes and experience the world through football. She decided to start football coaching for the neighborhood girls and tried to convince people to send their girls there, reasoning that if their parents could see her succeed and thrive in this field then surely, they would be more open to letting their girls try it out. But that was easier said than done.
“People would say I was instigating their daughters to do ‘galat kaam’, that I was spoiling them, but I kept insisting and talking about the many benefits of the sport. Even my mother helped by talking to her friends. We soon realized that we had to convince not just the mother but the father too and even entire families. I started invited parents to come and watch their girls play, I told them to send their girls in whatever clothes they liked, even join in and try it themselves. My focus was not on technical training, but on bringing about a change in thinking”, says Gulafsha.
Her campaign, to get girls from the slums to play football, was chosen as the best project in an online poll by the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy. She got over 6000 votes from the international community and as a reward got to attend the London Olympics as a ‘Junior Ambassador’ for McDonald’s.
Since she had not registered her organization, she couldn’t raise the necessary funds to continue. After the Mahim slums went into redevelopment and all the girls dispersed to different places, she had to stop the coaching. “I gave them each a football so that they could practice wherever they were”, says Gulafsha.
Gulafsha Ansari (Extreme right, bottom)
Meanwhile Gulafsha, who has a D-Licence, which is a certified football coaching license, started coaching at an NGO. In 2016, she went to France for the Street Football World, Football-3 Tournament, which had 500 children from 32 different NGOs participating. This time she went as a Mediator, part of the organizing committee. She is also pursuing an MBA in sports management from NIDM.
Dreaming In A Slum – A Women’s Empowerment Initiative
Last year she launched her organization, ‘Dreaming in a slum’ which is an initiative for women empowerment through football. “We provide football coaching to girls/women from the urban poor background in India. We want to train the girls so that they learn life skills and become self-sufficient”, says Gulafsha. Her dream is to create an Under-12, 14 & 16 professional league from the slums. She currently coaches 50 girls from the slums, most of them are kids of single working mothers, working as cleaners, etc. Gulafsha says, “I want to give them an opportunity to break from the cycle of menial work. Tomorrow when they become professionals in football, they will be eligible for sports quota. Apart from that, these girls will get more exposure and would get empowered to decide what's best for them”.