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Bend It Like Rajpreet

Jan/06/2024 / by elizabeth-marglin

Getting girls active and involved in sports from a young age provides lifetime benefits

Since the release of cult-classic film Bend It Like Beckham almost 12 years ago, progress has been slow for South Asian girls and football. The movie was loosely based on Permi Jhooti, the first British South Asian footballer to play professionally in 2000 in a London-based football club. Now there are more than seven women who play professionally for England, showing slow but significant progress. 

Getting South Asian females into any kind of sport is a victory: According to a report from Active Lives, a Britain-based sports data company, South Asian women and girls have always been the least active of all the ethnic groups sampled. The reasons for this are complex. At the heart of it, identifying as an athlete is not the norm for female desis. As Minreet Kaur, a journalist turned sports advocate, says, sport isn’t something that women in the south Asian community see as important. There’s a pervasive sense of “that’s not for us or our kind.”

Gradually, more South Asian girls and women are realizing that athleticism is intrinsic—it’s the cultural norms that have gotten in the way. Still, many South Asians don’t see sport as a viable career, particularly for women. The cultural pressure to secure a guaranteed wage in a respected and stable profession is strong. Also, while expectations around careers and South Asian women may have changed, many women feel the implicit burden to focus on cooking, house cleaning and raising kids, instead of having an active physical life. 

Modesty is another huge barrier to entry for burgeoning female athletes. Most sports show skin and highlight the physical body, which has a lingering stigma for South Asian women. PUMA and the Institute of Health and Sport at Victoria University in Australia published insights into sport uniforms and how they affect participation. They found 43 percent of girls’ uniforms make them feel conscious about how they look. However, brands are starting to take note of what female players want. For the 2023 World Cup, Nike released period-conscious shorts for all their federation kits. The brand also made waves in 2018 when it released its Nike Pro sports hijab.

Finally, the lack of role models in sports plays a huge role in representation. Sporting Equals chief executive Arun Kang told Sky Sports News in a 2022 interview, “There’s a lot of latent demand from South Asian women and girls for football and I think they just need to see more people who look like them playing the game. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

“Anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”