‘Don’t let life change your goals, because achieving your goals can change your life.’
Life isn’t a bed of roses when you are born as a girl in a conservative patriarchal family belonging to a minority community in a backward district of Bihar. Add to it the fact that you are the youngest and fifth child of an auto driver with limited family income and resources which means that you have to struggle hard to survive and succeed. The constraints get further aggravated when you fall in love with football at a very young age, a game that is associated with your society as a domain solely reserved for boys and men. But then, once a while comes along a young girl with an inner passion and desire to play football so strong that all these challenges of circumstances, culture, and traditions get blown away in face of her indomitable spirit. That’s Laila Khatun for you.
Laila grew up as a rebel of sorts. Early in school, she decided that football would be her sport of choice, gender bias is damned. Her love for football gave her answers to all the questions the family, community, and society raised. Not finding many peers to help her pursue football, she watched the boys, taught herself the rules and skills and got together a group of young girls from neighboring communities to play football with.
Just when things seem to have started cruising along, life threw another challenge in the form of her family discontinuing her education and getting her married at an early age of 15 years to Shatiullah. Her life’s dreams and desires for playing football stood poised to crumble as Shatiullah belonged to the same social milieu as her parental family. But then, Lady Luck decided to smile and Shatiullah turned out to be a life partner who not only loved her dearly but also admired and supported her passion for football. He had her back, faced the barbs and brickbats of a misogynistic society and let her pursue playing football. He was so supportive that on realizing that she may not be able to play in the town of where he worked, he even allowed her to return to her native place to practice and build a team. There were few initial hiccups but then WHERE THERE IS A WILL… THERE IS A WAY..!!
Along the way, she became a mother of two children in quick succession. With that her familial responsibilities multiplied manifold. Even this did not deter her and she continued along her chosen path. To make sure that her duties and responsibilities towards her family are not compromised, she drew on her inner strength and discipline only a sportsperson can summon at will and learned to multi-task as a daughter, wife, mother, and player.
She smiles coyly as she acknowledges the immense support of her husband in her sports career “mere shouhar kehte hai – jab khelna hai…to phir kuch paana hai, kuch kar ke dikhana..!! (My husband says – when you have decided to play… then you need to achieve your goals and excel in it…!)
In 2016, Laila met with a serious road accident and fractured her leg. Doctors told her that it would take at least 6 months before she could start playing again. With such a bleak scenario and two young children to care for, anyone with lesser gumption would have hung up their boots. But not our Laila. Even a tragedy of this magnitude failed to dent her courage and in just about 3 months she was resiliently back on the field, first at the sidelines and soon on the ground.
Her dedication and hard work finally bore results when she was selected for SPN National Inclusion Cup 2020 (organized from 28th February to 3rd March 2020 by Slum Soccer with the support of Sony Pictures Networks on the picturesque Miramar Beach, Panjim, Goa) to represent Bihar. This proved to be a major milestone in her life and served as a huge source of motivation for her.
While participating at the SPN NIC 2020, she celebrated her twenty-third birthday. Asked what she was taking back with her, she responds with alacrity, “Yahan aake hamen bohot accha laga, aur bohot kuch sikhne ko mil raha hai. Agli baar aur accha kar ke jayenge” (I am feeling very nice here in the tournament, I am learning a lot and next time I will do even better).
Laila believes she is destined to become a footballer of some repute against all odds and nothing can stop her from moving ahead in the game. The determination in her eyes is unmistakable as she makes it very clear that SPN NIC 2020 was just a stepping stone “Ab Bihar kya, ab toh India ke liye Khelenge!” (Now after Bihar, I will play for India!) . A lofty goal waiting to be achieved.