Play … but only when no one can see

Guest blog: Nasima Bokova tells of the adventure of a group of Muslim women challenging cultural barriers in Moscow, during the Football People weeks.

Whatever this sunny and dry mid-October day was planned to be, it surely wasn't going to be able to foresee the adventure we were going to have as a group of girls took over a corner of one the most popular parks of Moscow to play football.

These were not some random local young women, these were Muslim girls, wearing headscarves and therefore catching the attention of city dwellers. You cannot imagine the anxiety and the feelings of insecurity a simple headscarf can cause.

"I haven’t played football in ten years, I am so glad we are finally going to play again today" said one of our players on her way to the park, expressing the feelings of many of our people.

At the field we had tables piled high with informative materials, medals and at the centre a cup was waiting for the participants. A beautiful banner on display, reading Fare and Sadikova Team, decoded the initiative, a harmless football tournament for women of migrant backgrounds.

Nilufar Sadykov, the event organiser's search for a place to host the tournament has been a long one. In Moscow, renting pitches is expensive and getting approval from authorities for such an initiative is almost impossible.

On the other hand, parks and public places, or football cages, are open and accessible to everyone. Which means that anyone can come and play, or so we thought...

Less than ten minutes after we started the first guest arrived riding his bicycle – the park’s security guard. “What's going on here and who's in charge?” he asked in a suspicious tone.

Facing him there was an optimistic and sympathetic girl smiling and in her own way she explained "We just want to play football."

It was not long until two other security guards arrived on their bicycles. One of the cyclists decided to show off his wit saying: "What if there’s explosive in your bags?" and then suddenly there were four as the fourth guard appeared on foot with a German shepherd dog.

This was when we realised it was time to stop. It was pointless to talk about our rights, to recite the law or the rules of the park.

Muslim women in Moscow are perfectly aware of their rights, each of us has a dozen absurd and unfair stories to tell: “You cannot swim in the pool in a Muslim swimsuit” we have been told, “remove that roll from your head” dentists have said.

It is understandable how security guards can be suspicious of a group of girls in headscarves rather than some idle drunk in the thick jungle of the park.

There was only one option left, start begging. Begging almost in tears “Please, let us play football.” The guards eventually gave in and although we were forced to remove some of the banners, we played on.

FP 2015

One other curiosity: it turned out also to be forbidden to take photographs, a special instruction applied exclusively to us.

Two guards stayed with us for the duration of the game, to protect us and closely observe our moves and the type of threats that come from a group of women that mostly want to take selfies.

All and all, we played football and we took photos, cheeky us, we had fun. We had hoped the event’s main guests would come - young African migrant mothers. Unfortunately, the harsh reality we encountered was that they did not, whether because of the distance, no one to leave their children with, or being afraid to cross Moscow on a weekend.

After the match, two of the security guards agreed to try our delicious pilaf and talk about the art of taking pictures while playing football.

In the end, with a deep sense of "we have nothing to lose" we hung our posters and banners back up. Our new friends, long bored by all this, decided to put aside the bikes and gave us a few minutes to take pictures.

Compared to what we are used to, the everyday reality of wearing a hijab in Moscow, the event went well. We even managed to pray. No, not all together, and no, not on the pitch, but just around the corner and taking turns, laying on the cold grass and using banners instead of a prayer rug.

This is not just a story about the discriminatory hurdles we face as Muslims, or as young women, trying to play football, but this is a real story, this is partly the story of our lives.

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