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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A kick for identity: Tibetan women form national football team

July 28, 2014

July 26, 2014 - There was a time when most of these shy girls were unable to articulate their innermost thoughts. Today, as I speak with them on the phone, the confidence in their voice is unmistakable. "Football is not just a game, it's a rainbow in my life. Whenever I am sad, I play. It makes me happy," says 15-year-old Ngawang Lhadon of Ladakh..

Lhadon is a member of the Tibetan Girls' Select football team, Tibet’s's first ever women’s national squad for any sport. It is a 21-member team of schoolgirl footballers. And it has changed the girls' whole outlook on life. Lhadon, a diffident girl earlier, is now the captain of her school team and a source of inspiration to the younger girls. Tenzin Pema, 14, her junior in school, wishes to follow in Lhadon's footsteps. "I too want to be selected to the national team.. This year's selection list will be out soon. So, my fingers are crossed," she says.

'Football' and 'happiness' are words that connect Lhadon with Tibetan schoolgirls from across India. Playing football has not only armed them with a skill but has also crystallised their views about national identity, gender biases and the issues that affect a community struggling in exile. As Tsering Lhamo of Dharamsala, the team's vice-captain, puts it: "Being a team member has taught me how to communicate and enjoy life… . I feel my future will be more courageous and confident."

The girls know that in Tibet, the six million ethnic Tibetans would be arrested for flying their old national flag or for displaying the photograph of the Dalai Lama, their political and spiritual leader. It is, therefore, with pride that these young girls sport their national colours at a match. They do it knowing that they represent the dreams of many others of their community. Their team may only have been conceived as a means to empower women, not to make a political statement, but football has become a peaceful means of reiterating their national identity. The footballers, aged 13 to 18, believe that "When we kick the ball, it's for Tibet".

"To them the team means breaking social boundaries created by men and politicians," says Delhi-based Irshal Ishu, a filmmaker who teaches Tibetan kids free of cost. He recently made a documentary, Kicking Boundaries, about the team. Kicking Boundaries was invited for an official screening at the IWG World Conference on women and sports in Finland on June 13 but political pressure from China led to its cancellation.

Cassie Childers was the person behind the idea of the team. In 2011, at a photography exhibition sponsored by the Tibetan National Sports Association, or TNSA, in Dharamshala, the American school teacher realised that Tibetan women had no role in the community's sports life. "As a soccer player and a coach myself, I had a vision about a national team that would empower Tibetan woman," she says. She founded Tibet Women's Football, which, in collaboration with TNSA, introduced a programme to train young girls in the game.

"The Tibetan Girls' Select team is chosen every winter at a month-long training camp," says Kalsang Dhondup, chairman (executive committee) TNSA. "Football coaches holidaying in India volunteer to train the girls." The programme currently includes 500 girls from 13 Tibetan schools across India. The schedule at the camp begins with yoga and circuit training in the morning, followed by running, meditation and nutrition and then a session on empowerment that includes talks on teamwork and building self-esteem. After that, the girls have individual sessions on sports therapy and personal growth.

It is amazing how these camps have helped the girls. Childers shares the story of 18-year-old Dolma (name changed) from Gopalpur in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh who attended the training camp in 2011. "When she joined, she was scared to even walk onto the football pitch," says Childers. "But after that camp, she was speaking up, laughing out loud and expressing herself beautifully." Some time after the camp, Dolma decided to participate with her mother and brother in a march to carry the Tibetan flag all the way to Tibet. At the Nepal border, they were beaten up by the Nepalese border guards and sent back to India. A week after Dolma's return to Dharamsala, the team was to play its first official match in front of thousands of Tibetans in an exhibition game as part of the Gyalyum Chemo Memorial Gold Cup. To encourage the shaken girl, they made her the captain of the team. "Dolma scored the first official goal in the history of Tibet women's football," says Childers. Today, Dolma has become a leader at her school and within the community. "Football is extremely liberating. Stands full of cheering crowds are a source of immense inspiration to me," says Dolma.

Earlier disapproving, parents have now begun to support their daughters' decision to play football. The mother of Pema, the aspirant who idolises Lhadon, began working as a labourer after her husband abandoned them. Though she and Pema live in a one-room rented house that doesn't even have a toilet, she takes care to put aside some money to buy a football kit for Pema.

However, cautious to the extreme, the players clam up when topics other than football are broached. The phone lines go silent as soon as one asks them questions about whether they were born in India or Tibet, or when their families crossed over to India from Tibet. "Almost half the girls have come from Tibet and they have taken a lot of pain to reach India. Some of them don't want to be exposed to the media as their parents and relatives are still in Tibet," explains Dhondup.

The team recently drew with Manipur at the First Ladies' Spring Soccer Festival in Imphal. "Our team defeated one of India's top team," gushes Dhondup. The Tibetans lost one match, drew another and won the third to tie for the first place. But the loss to the women's team from Punjab's Guru Nanak Dev University last year during a two-match series in Dharamsala still rankles. The score was 0-0 till the last minute of the match when Punjab managed a goal.

The boys from under-12 and -18 teams used to view the women's team with amusement but are slowly beginning to accept that girls too can play football. As 17-year-old Lhamo Choekyi told Childers: "Tibetan men say that girls can't play soccer. But we shocked them by playing well."

By Avantika Bhuyan 

Everyone associated with the team is hopeful that the squad will be ready for its international debut by 2017. Until then, they plan to play as many matches against Indian teams as possible. Currently, neither FIFA, the international governing body for football, nor the International Olympic Committee recognises Tibet as a nation eligible for competition. It's something that Childers and TNSA hope will change with the help of supporters across the world. "I won't give up till the Tibet Women's Football team is walking into the Olympic and the World Cup stadiums. And it will happen," says Childers.

 

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