Fashion or Function? How 10 Adolescent Girls Tackled Taunts on ‘Indecent Clothing’ in their Community

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This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.

By Arvind Premanand and Dr. Shilpi Sharma

A key challenge along OSCAR’s journey was the mobilisation of female participants. In fact, a study by the BBC (2020) indicated that a mere 29% of surveyed women in India played sport. The primary reasons for the above were safety, strength and the inability for women to participate in sport during all times of the month. The findings are very consistent with our observations on the ground. In addition to the above, traditional gender roles which included chores such as cooking, filling water drums and taking care of younger siblings greatly restricted their leisure time and were therefore significant barriers for entry for female participants. Moreover, the perception of football attire, particularly shorts, as indecent clothing created hesitation not only among potential participants and their families but also among those willing to engage. Girls attending sessions often felt profound discomfort as they navigated the narrow, maze-like alleys, contending with taunts and unwelcome comments from passersby and residents in the communities, amplifying their unease.

OSCAR, in partnership with Vacha Charitable Trust and the Emerging Markets Foundation piloted a unique participatory approach in an attempt to address the stigmas associated with football attire. Ten girls (aged 9-12), under the mentorship of two coaches from their community, volunteered to engage in the project. Both coaches were instrumental in mobilising female participants from the communities and were regarded as role models by the girls. After deliberation and planning among the group, the girls decided to organise a sports event for residents in the community, most of whom were parents themselves. Predictably, women turned up in typical Indian attire like sarees and salwar kameez while men wore trousers and shirts. They struggled to participate in sports activities that were organised as their attire restricted their movement. However, they enjoyed the experience of working in teams and engaging in fun games on the ground. As the session concluded, the girls addressed the parents explaining to them the importance of sports attire. A football kit served as a functional necessity and was not a fashion statement or rebellion against more conservative attire. Communicating the same was not only liberating for the girls but also equipped parents, even those who were supportive with an explanation on the importance of the kit.

Three months after the first event, the girls planned an exhibition booking a small space in the community. They designed a number of posters featuring slogans, poems and art that conveyed progressive views on gender and featured empowering messages. The communication normalised stigmatised ideas like talking to boys, pursuing careers, playing sports, sharing household responsibilities with men and much more. The girls also screened a video that challenged stereotypes and advocated for a liberal future for girls and women. As the day progressed, the girls invited passing locals to visit the exhibition. While many participated in constructive discourse with our participants, some were less than impressed. “I cannot watch these corrupt ideas anymore”, a woman stated during the screening of the film, before storming out of the room. As the day drew to a close, the participants reflected on the diverse viewpoints encountered. The girls admirably manoeuvred moments where their progressive ideas were challenged, maintaining composure and respect throughout. They adeptly moderated discussions, steering towards fruitful conclusions at times, while also exiting respectful disagreement at others. Their ability to engage in dialogue, holding space for differing opinions while advocating their beliefs, showcased both their resilience and commitment to fostering constructive discourse within their community.

After a month, the girls reconvened with their mentors to evaluate the progress of their campaign. They opted for a door-to-door signature drive across the community, aiming to assess resident support. Working in pairs, the girls surveyed 1850 residents, with an overwhelming 1600 expressing support for their initiatives while 250 held opposing views. The results brought immense satisfaction, affirming the dedication of our participants who courageously ventured beyond their comfort zones to reclaim their streets. This success instilled a newfound confidence and a profound sense of ownership among the girls, solidifying the impact they had achieved.

Throughout the project, regular discussions with the participants and mentors played a pivotal role in uncovering areas for improvement and potential obstacles to the project's success. In this case, the project relied on strong personalities leading by example, collaborating with various stakeholders and influencing change. For sustained success of similar projects, it was imperative to introduce a process driven approach to identify community role models/mentors to guide participants. Crucially, there was a need to respect the complex relationships that existed in our communities. Sharing liberal or progressive views that were not welcomed by important stakeholders within the community had the potential to compound issues faced by participants and their families. Multiple parents who were supportive of the girls shared that a way to address their difficulties could have been to negotiate and compromise. For example, girls could change in and out of football attire at the ground and wear conservative clothing while in the community. This was valuable insight as it aimed to strike a balance between residents who had diverse views but ultimately had to coexist in the same densely populated community. While residents of the surveyed community in this case were open to discourse, others might be more abrasive or conservative which could lead to different results. Therefore, attaining a well-calibrated equilibrium between participants, mentors, community residents, and supporting stakeholders (partners, ancillary staff) had the potential to determine the success of such projects. A balanced approach holds promise for replicability in diverse communities, each presenting unique challenges and opportunities. Although giving agency to our participants is of paramount importance, it is also beneficial for representatives of organisations to closely monitor situations and make necessary interventions taking into consideration the wellbeing and safety of our participants. It was also important to ensure the logistics of the project were participant centric (in this case, girl and women centric) and revolved around their household responsibilities, safety and academic expectations. The above observations, feedback and subsequent discussions helped the organisation identify keys to success which proved to be effective in ensuring community acceptance for our value proposition. The same is illustrated in the diagram enclosed.

In harnessing the power of participatory engagement, a transformative journey led by courageous young girls helped change perceptions that were once set in stone. Their initiative not only challenged societal norms but also highlighted the nuanced dynamics within underserved communities. While celebrating the overwhelming support received, it became evident that sustainable change demands a delicate balance between progressive advocacy and respect for community sensibilities. The girls' resilience and commitment reflect the potential for grassroots movements to reshape perceptions, albeit while recognizing the need for continual guidance and caution in navigating complex societal landscapes. This journey conveys that fostering empowerment among youth requires not just empowerment itself, but a judicious blend of advocacy, empathy, and adaptability.


About the authors

Arvind Premanand is the communications manager of OSCAR Foundation. He is a graduate in Sport Management from Loughborough University, UK. He previously worked with Star Sports on the broadcast of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. He is also an avid photographer and a member of Vital Impacts, a non-profit that uses art and storytelling to support people and organisations protecting our planet.

Dr. Shilpi Sharma is the COO of OSCAR Foundation. She has a doctorate from the Columbia University School of Social Work, New York. Her training as a researcher and experience as a social worker makes her a highly experienced, methodical and skilled asset at not only managing high-performance teams but also understanding the deep-rooted issues of society.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good