United by football: The gender politics of a favourite frontier sport
Coach Philip Thaosen with football players of the Doyapur women team

The youngest woman to play a local football tournament from Doyapur is fourteen years. Some decades ago, this was considered almost impossible. Doyapur, a village in the Dhansiripar Subdivision, was earlier under the Dimapur district. Now, it comes under a new district, called Chumoukedima. The village lies on the banks of River Dhansiri (which also forms the boundary between Nagaland and Assam and neighbouring Karbi Anglong district), inhabited mostly by the Dimasa and Naga population. Most young players, encouraged by the opportunity to play at state-level tournaments, show up for practice each morning despite several economic and social hurdles. 

The Covid-19 lockdown was a crucial period for the village because it became imperative to engage the indigenous residents in physical well-being. Football, with its massive popularity in rural areas, became a vehicle to achieve that. During this time, Tia Ao from the 5th Assam Rifles began training the football teams. 

Ao is an experienced trainer (and former national football player) who played in the Assam Rifles Team for 21 years and has been training the Assam Rifles women’s team since 2018. He too was pleasantly surprised that so many women in Doyapur participated. Married women with kids, despite their domestic struggles, signed up for his training.

Ao says, “It motivated me to invest more time in coaching. Due to the lockdown, there were some roadblocks but it was a great pleasure to teach women.” As someone who was transferred to Doyapur then, he asserts, “The women are playing better in the sport and are soon creating new vistas. So, I feel motivating women is much more important, despite the stereotypes associated with the game.”

Frontier football milieus

But the pandemic is ‘over’. Does that mean the football interest has subsided? Far from it. On the contrary, Doyapur villagers shared with EastMojo that women self-help groups from the village are collectively organising a women’s football tournament this winter. This is surely a hopeful sign in a region where sports have been tools of many negotiations and reconciliations between disparate political groups, communities, tribal factions and more. Duncan McDueira writes in his essay “India’s Sporting Frontier: Race, Integration and Discontent in the Northeast” that “In Nagaland, football has been a tactic in reconciliation in various ways, including the 2008 match between Naga civil society groups and members of different armed factions held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where talks were taking place, and later the same year in Kohima.”

In Manipur, the state which is now synonymous with Mary Kom, Mirabai Chanu and several other sportspersons, footballers are a flourishing breed. Pulak Lahiri had written in 2006 that this is “the result of tradition and talent and not formal grooming”. Much of this is also true for Doyapur where traditional sports are held during occasions like the Busu Dima (harvesting festival of the Dimasas) but they are usually conducted as part of the celebration, not competition. Although there are traditional sports for women like Suthai (played with stone), most physical sports are exclusive.

Traditional sports and prejudices

Philip Thaosen, born in Doyapur and training women’s teams, says, “In my opinion, it has to do mostly with norms about physical strength. For example, in Rimin Nelaiyaba, women are not included, perhaps because it’s a ‘physical’ sport.” He describes, “These traditions also stemmed out from the community’s division of labour which was historically based on physicality, so that same tradition continued in sports too. Even today, many parents don’t see a sport like football as a viable career for their daughters. Among those who wish to train, lack of adequate infrastructure, finances, and gender stereotypes act as hindrances,” he adds.

With the support of the Women’s Society Doyapur, Dimasa Students Union, Doyapur Youth bodies, and Assam Rifles, Thaosen and his team can sustain the passion for this game and the players. “Prejudices about strength exist regarding football but they haven’t been able to limit us,” he says. “If you take a glimpse of the Dimasa traditional sport Duyung Selaiyaba, (tug of war) you will very much agree that strength is a matter of training and endurance.” This particular game, where the ropes were made of tree barks in the past signifies the gain in strength and health of that category (youth, women, adult) for that year.

Put your best foot forward

Hamthaidi, captain of the Doyapur women’s football team and a mother of three, has played football since a child. She works as a school teacher and shares, “There is no barrier if the will is right. I am determined to break those and have broken quite a few.” Reshna, another senior member of the team from Kothaguri originally, comments, “The village people are usually reluctant to women travelling outside and seeking sports opportunities. So, we have to cheer the new players.”

This effort can go a long way in dismantling the notion of “older” women being perpetrators of patriarchy themselves.

The senior female members also show the road for younger women like Thaibili Khemprai and Barsaindi Hojaisa. Both sixteen-year-olds are passionate football players and find the opportunity of intermingling with other female players in the region exciting. It also enriches their classroom experience in school.

Sports to engage in gender justice

As expressions of indigenous cultures and their engagement, a sport like a football has a long history in northeast India. But to what extent does this history reveal about women players and the barriers they overcome to retain an interest in the game? Local troubles (both financial and political), politics of the nation-state, and politics of representation remain some of the major concerns even today. Anurita Pathak Hazarika, director of NorthEast Network (NEN) thinks these aforementioned issues are interrelated. “Anything to do with sports as a profession is conventionally dealt with as a male subject. Therefore, for women to move out of their homes for a sport is a laughable matter.” Further, she says, “Women’s capabilities and skills as sportspersons take too long to be recognised. Discriminations persist in terms of payments, promotions and exposures.”

In Chizame, a village of mainly Chakhesang tribes in Nagaland, football, as a game, is so popular that even during the peak of the agricultural season; people would stay up past midnight to watch international football. Wekoweu Tsuhah (35) working with NEN at the Chizame village states, “We often find football as a connecting point to bring women together and educate them about gender justice.”

“In the past, we have also organised some workshops for rural women. Once they were spectators in the field. But today, we can see them playing and we have to thank multiple regional football associations in and around Kohima for that,” she happily adds.

(This story is published with the support of Laadli Media Fellowship of Population First, 2022. The writer is an independent researcher and tweets barman_rini.)

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