'Make Indian football a safe space for girls' - AIFF executive committee member's appeal

The Football House, headquarters of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), in New Delhi Qamar Sibtain/The India Today Group via Getty Images

Incidents of sexual harassment of Indian women footballers are common, redressal is rare and the system has few mechanisms to deal with such complaints. That's the view of Anjali Shah, a member of the AIFF's executive committee and women's committee, who says she heard about several such cases in the past few months but was unable to help because, on one hand, the victims didn't want to pursue the case and, on the other, she believed the system within the AIFF didn't give her the confidence that her complaints would be handled appropriately.

The most urgent need right now, she says, is not the staging of big tournaments but simply to make football a safe space for its women players, especially girls.

Shah was speaking to ESPN after news emerged on Thursday of a member of the coaching staff being sent back for "misconduct" from the Under-17 team's tour of Europe.

"What should I say, it's just horrific," she said on Thursday. "This has been going on for some time actually and it was bound to come out at some point. I've had news of girls being made offers [by a member of the coaching staff] in the past, but for whatever reasons the girls chose not to pursue the case because they came from really poor backgrounds and were the sole bread-earners in their families. They didn't want their names to be associated with anything like this. They said 'Ma'am, we don't need to go to the national team, so let's just ignore this.'"

Shah spoke of a specific player in her PIFA Academy who had received such messages; Shah tried to convince her to make a formal complaint but the player - an adult - asked for her to drop it, citing societal and similar issues.

"These girls are in such a vulnerable position, they're willing to do anything to be in the coach's good books. They want playing time, proper advice on the game and whatever they do, they feel they should be in the good books of the coach. Unfortunately, he has taken advantage of that."

Shah also warned of the flipside of the action against the coach. "This will affect the entire team now. Some of them looked up to him as a father figure, and he's suddenly no longer there. It's going to be very difficult for them. They're going to need every bit of counseling plus their own parent's support to make them feel safe and secure."

She said she'd been aware of these cases for the past few months and it was a "big burden" on her. Why didn't she bring them out in public? One reason was the victims' own reluctance, as described above. The other reason was the nature of the institution that runs Indian football, the AIFF.

The federation, she says, is run almost entirely without a thought for the women who are involved in the sport. "Unfortunately, the AIFF has become such an unaccountable federation that anyone could do whatever they wanted to. At every level. And they knew they could get away with it. No one was accountable for anything. The welfare of the girls was the last thing on their mind."

There is a women's committee in the AIFF but Shah suggests it exists only on paper. "We have not had any committee meetings since last year. No meetings in 2022. There was nothing I could do about it like taking it up with them either. There's no mechanism, zero."

Ironically, there has been a relative rise in the profile of Indian women's football with the AFC Women's Asian Cup staged in India in January and the FIFA Under-17 World Cup coming up in October. But Shah says the women's committee was never consulted on any of this. "Never consulted on anything. It's a sham of a committee. It's just there."

"The AIFF called for a couple of meetings pre-COVID. They would come up with an agenda, have a meeting and after the meeting, the minutes of the meeting were never circulated. The women's committee was never taken into consideration while planning any big women's events in India. Not even the senior nationals. Nothing."

So who decides on matters relating to women's football? "All the decisions on women's football are taken by the league committee and national team committee - and there isn't a single woman in those committees. I brought this up with them, I asked them to at least take a woman's perspective on women's football. At least for women's football let us make a decision? What is the reason for the women's committee otherwise? It's just a tick box to show FIFA."

Shah says there used to be a three-member women's department that solely handled women's football. "About four years ago [after India bid to host the Under-17 World Cup], I was told in a meeting that there was no women's football department anymore. They said we've scrapped the department because there is so much work in AIFF that women have to contribute to men's football as well. That was it - that was the end of the women's department without any official communication with anyone. Overnight, the women's department was disbanded."

What about a POSH (prevention of sexual harassment) committee? "Nothing. As per the rule, there was someone earlier who left and when the sexual harassment case against (former general secretary) Kushal Das came up, they suddenly put together a committee. The head of which was Das' secretary."

What is the way forward? "There needs to be a complete overhaul of the AIFF. I am demanding a separate department for women's football in the AIFF...We want to work independently of the men's department, we want our separate budget."

The men in charge, she feels, will never make the right decisions for women. "Women play football for very different reasons than men. If you don't understand that basic concept, you're never going to be able to do anything for women's football in the country. She's standing up against abuse, against stereotypical roles, against early marriage, whatnot. She's standing up and trying to prove her identity, who she is. You need to take all this into consideration. If you can't think with that hat on, no matter what you do it's going to be a failure."

There may be one silver lining amid the gloom - the AIFF itself is in the midst of an overhaul ordered by the Supreme Court.

There is scrutiny, both by the CoA - which includes former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi - and from FIFA. A new constitution is being written, and Shah said she will raise some of her suggestions with Quraishi.

"The timing is so right to bring about positive change since the AIFF is also going through total scrutiny."

Shah warns of many more cases of sexual harassment being made public now but she says the focus has to be on the players. "Qualifying for the World Cup is a very distant thought. Forget the World Cup, right now let's just make it a safe space for our girls. The bare minimum: make Indian football a safe place for our girls."

Note - ESPN has reached out to multiple members of the AIFF - including the acting general secretary - for their version of events.