Sumaiya Karim, 16, during a basketball practice. She hopes to play for a club team in India, which would guarantee her a job and living quarters.
MUMBAI, INDIA—Afreen Karim is doubled over, gasping for breath, cramps in her legs, feeling light-headed.
It’s 9:30 p.m. on a recent muggy evening and the 18-year-old has spent the past two hours playing alongside five female friends in a spirited, chippy even, game of basketball against a team of local boys.
While most of the local boys in this gritty Mumbai neighbourhood have played basketball for much of their lives, Afreen first picked up a ball in 2009, only a few weeks after the National Basketball Association paid to renovate and repair the court, which is encircled by aging British Raj-era apartments and tin-roofed hovels.
Three years on, if she’s not one of her community’s best players, Afreen is certainly among its most aggressive.
As sweat drips from her forehead, Afreen turns to a friend standing nearby. “I will be here tomorrow for some more practice at 7 a.m. Will you come?” she wheezes.
Local coaches say Afreen has developed into a good athlete with a smooth jump shot, a skill for sensing open lanes to the basket, and an unrivalled desire to be the best player in any game. She has a chance this year, some say, to make it to Maharashtra’s state team.
If that happens, Afreen may be in line for a life-altering payoff.
Playing for her state would increase her chances of winning a coveted and rare position on a club team.
While India doesn’t have a pro basketball league, it does have a semi-professional circuit of club teams. Various government agencies — railroads, the army, police and income tax departments — offer full-time jobs to talented players, who typically receive salaries of more than 20,000 rupees ($430 Canadian) a month, lodgings, and a lifetime job, even following their retirement from basketball.
But Afreen’s story of success is about more than sports and money.
It’s also illustrative of how families in orthodox neighbourhoods can challenge social mores. Nagpada is a community of Muslim families. Seven mosques are within a stone’s throw of the outdoor basketball court and on the dusty, noisy streets here, where chickens and goats run free, most locals still say girls like Afreen should not be playing basketball.
In the world’s biggest democracy, there are no laws preventing women from playing sports, but as with customs about marriage dowries, which remain prevalent even though they’ve been illegal for a half century, traditions here have a grip on the local community that are as strong as any legislation.
“These girls should be staying in their homes,” says Imam Saeed Gulam Sarwar, the spiritual leader at a mosque across the street from the court. “Everyone here knows that girls who are 18 should not be playing sports. They should be home observing purdah,” the Islamic custom of secluding women from men.
Sarwar, whose beard is dyed with henna a fiery red, says he’s included Afreen and her teammates in his sermons. He’s also confronted Afreen’s father, demanding she and her 16-year-old sister Sumaiya stop playing.
The paint on the green and rose-coloured court is faded and rats scurry along the drain troughs that run along the edge of the playing surface. Three years ago, after the NBA visited Mumbai and replaced the pre-existing potholed court, installed new backboards, and handed out a case of new basketballs, Afreen cornered her father in their one-room home here.
“I really wanted to play,” she pleaded.
If she was expecting a confrontation, she didn’t get one.
Sheikh Karim, her father, nodded his approval.
He and his wife Mumtaz have lived a life typical for most lower-class Mumbai residents. The daughter of a local real estate broker, Mumtaz was 7 when she stopped attending school. By the time she was 16, she was married to Karim, a local taxi driver.
“I was lucky,” she says over a lunch of rice biryani in her family’s home. “He’s a good man.”
With a ruddy face, kind eyes and a good command of English, Karim doesn’t see much of his family. He works six days a week driving the chaotic streets of this city of 16 million. He starts at 10 a.m. and finishes his shift at midnight. He pays 350 rupees to rent his taxi, and another 200 for fuel. In a shift, he’s lucky to make 900 rupees, making his take-home pay about 350 rupees, or $7.50, a day.
But Karim says he’s tried to instill in his four children the belief that just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they can’t be happy.
So why not let them play sports?
“I am not less of a Muslim because my girls play basketball,” Karim says, tightening a royal blue sarong around his waist. “Life is tough here and what is there for kids to do? Why can’t they play? Afreen’s a good girl, and smart.”
The family still reminisces about the time six years ago when Afreen returned home to find her older sister Rehana, then 14, lying passed out on the concrete floor. She had failed a test at school and taken poison. Afreen lifted her older sister over her shoulder and carried her to the closest hospital, saving her life.
“When she first started going onto the court, the imam came to me and said this was wrong,” Karim says. “I didn’t want to argue or disagree with him so I said, ‘Okay, we’ll see. I’ll consider it.’ ”
Early on, the girls struggled on the court.
“There were a lot of air balls, they were not very good,” says Taha Khan, a 16-year-old who has played for Maharashtra state’s boys team. “But you can see now they are playing more confidently. And parents are becoming more open to it as well. Even those who said girls could play said they had to be home by 7. Now, they are letting them stay later.”
Steadily, their skills improved and by last summer, the girls from Nagpada advanced to the state semifinals.
Now, the girls have become a mainstay on the court and a curiosity for spectators. As the girls practised one evening this week — they wore track pants to cover their legs, and short-sleeve shirts — some residents watched from their nearby balconies.
Afreen and her sister Sumaiya dribbled balls near centre court, both trying to maintain control of their own ball while knocking away the other’s. They walked confidently, smiling often, and exchanged high-fives with boys, most of whom grinned when they saw the girls coming.
“It’s a new generation, and I like them being out here with us,” Khan says.
Zarin Rangwala, a 16-year-old forward who wore a light blue jersey and her long black hair pulled back in a braid, may be the best female player on her team. Last year, she was selected to represent Maharashtra, but says she has no ambitions for playing for a club.
“I’m going to medical school,” Rangwala says. “I’m out here to refresh my mind and body.”
A report released this week concluded obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes are becoming increasingly common in urban India. Over the past seven years, the prevalence of diabetes in 1,100 young women in the study has doubled to 7 per cent.
Sports, Rangwala says, is a great way for locals to increase fitness levels.
Still, some locals frown at the changes.
As the girls practised, 43-year-old Farhat Khan sat in his shop nearby with a group of friends talking about cricket and local politics. Khan clucked his tongue when a visitor asked whether most residents were pleased with the new court, which some say has helped cut down on crime because it has kept teenagers occupied.
Nagpada, locals are eager to mention, has been a well-known hub for organized crime in Mumbai with the nickname “den of the dons.”
“Maybe it has helped,” Khan shrugged. “I have two girls, 17 and 13 and they know not to ask me about basketball. They want sports. They can do as much studying as they want. I won’t have my daughters playing with their whole bodies exposed out there.”
To be sure, that sentiment is hardly unique in many conservative Muslim countries, where some say women playing sports is immoral and immodest. Increasingly, public opinion is forcing a number of those nations to reconsider the issue.
Three Muslim countries — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei — have never sent a woman to the Olympic Games. Phys-ed is banned in Saudi Arabia’s state-run schools for girls, and local fitness centres are not advertised to avoid drawing scrutiny.
Last year, a Washington-based dissident named Ali al-Ahmed started a campaign called “No women, no play.” He is lobbying the International Olympic Committee to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics until it allows women to participate.
For years following the revolution in Iran, women were allowed to attend the country’s few golf courses. But they were expected to play while wearing long black robes known as the chador. Those restrictions have since been lifted and women in Iran now line up their putts wearing head scarves, pants and long-sleeved tunics.
In Iraq, women’s wrestling teams were formed in 2009, with the support of the country’s wrestling federation. While some women have competed wearing veils, others have reportedly grappled in shorts and soccer jerseys — but only when there are no male wrestlers in attendance.
In Kenya, where about 10 per cent of residents are Muslim, some girls have chafed over being ordered to wear the long-flowing hijab while playing volleyball, prompting the United Nations to ask Nike and others to help design something more comfortable for athletics that is still conservative.
Even in India, there have been unlikely and high-profile showdowns over women in sports. In 2005, a group of Muslim clerics issued a fatwa, or Islamic judgment demanding that Sania Mirza, the first Indian woman to break into the top 50 in pro tennis, cover herself during matches.
Mirza, then 18, temporarily bowed to the pressure and traded her skirt for shorts.
A few days after her evening practice in Nagpada, Afreen sat up on a thin yellow mattress in her family’s lone twin-sized bed and stretched.
As her mother prepared tea, Afreen yawned and admitted she hasn’t given much thought to what she’ll do if basketball doesn’t work out. She’s currently taking general courses at Burhani College, an English medium school that costs her father 2,400 rupees a year.
“Maybe teach,” she said after a pause. “Maybe teach basketball.”
But that may depend on whether her eventual husband is as open-minded as her father.
Karim says he’s been saving to pay dowries for both of his two teenaged daughters after paying 100,000 rupees for his eldest daughter’s marriage.
“I won’t take a single rupee for his wedding,” Karim says, ruffling his 15-year-old son Amirhamza’s tousled hair. “But traditions are strong. Change comes slow.”
Maybe so, but thanks to a taxi driver father, it is coming.