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‘The Bangladeshi flag and the jersey number I am known for is what means the most to me’

  • Published at 02:55 pm November 15th, 2018
WT_Nov 15, 2018
Photos: Courtesy

In conversation with Ashreen Mridha, the first Bangladeshi basketball player to get into the ESPN mentorship program

The game of basketball as it is known today was created by Dr James Naismith in December 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts, to condition young athletes during cold months. Now, more than a hundred years later, it’s safe to say that women’s basketball has come a long way since then. Girls playing basketball can now dunk and play the game with a range of abilities which are equal to that of men. 

Ashreen Mridha is one such example. She is currently working as the brand manager of Marketing for Unilever Bangladesh Limited and the shooting guard/former captain of the Bangladesh women’s national basketball team. She seeks to empower and enable women to play basketball regardless of age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

Where it started    

Growing up in Dhaka, Ashreen was introduced to basketball through her father, who organized sports events at her school. She found a group of local girls who were also interested in the sport and they began training together in the evenings at the federation’s training academy. Without a proper set-up for competitive women’s basketball, Ashreen took the situation into her own hands while at North South University. She and another student recruited girls for the school’s first women’s team, and by 2012 hosted Bangladesh’s first ever inter-university women’s basketball tournament. Two years later, Ashreen was given the university’s Best Female Athlete award. As a member of the national team, Ashreen participated in the first South Asian Women’s Basketball (SABA) Championships in 2016, and captained the Kolkata-Bangladesh friendly series in India the same year. 

Missing ingredients

In Bangladesh, conservative Muslim culture often comes into conflict with the growth of women’s sports, especially relating to academics and uniforms. Discussing the challenges that she had to face, and eventually overcome in the process, Ashreen informed us that one of the biggest challenges she and most of the girls playing this sport face is the lack of a safe, accessible place to play in. “Basketball is a sport that requires infrastructure —it can’t be played on any field—you need a specialized basketball court with two hoops to play it. Most of the well-built courts in the cities are part of schools/clubs. There are hardly any public courts where basketball can be played and this is even more critical when it comes to women,” she said.

Because of the infrastructural support required, this still remains an urban-centric sport. The key challenge, in her opinion, is to make basketball accessible for rural athletes. But where would they play? Rural schools do not have basketball grounds. In fact, apart from cantonment areas in cities (other than Dhaka and Chattogram), there are hardly any open basketball fields available. Organizations like BKSP are training men for basketball only, whereas there are many girls there who are athletic, and have tremendous potential. “Appreciation for this sport needs to spread across rural Bangladesh —why don’t we create documentaries of women in basketball and showcase it to the rural population? Lack of competitive tournaments is also a big issue,” she added.

Small steps

In order to solve these issues, Ashreen, along with a group of other female basketball players, have taken a few steps privately. “We have created a Facebook group with all the female basketball players in Dhaka. We communicate all news and information—basically anything related to women's basketball in Bangladesh in that group so that girls can stay updated on what is going on and participate. Beyond schools and colleges, women struggle to find a place to continue playing, and this leads to a large number of people dropping out of the game. We have set up two zones where girls can play on a weekly basis based on their preferred location: Abahani Indoor Court (Dhanmondi) and Gulshan Youth Club (Gulshan), where the latter is self-funded. However, we need to create more zones and spread out to other localities and cities. We need sponsors to help us organize these, because it is not possible for players to fund practices. Access to courts need to be free for women,” informed Ashreen. They also organize small scale tournaments to encourage girls and women of all ages to keep playing. 

When asked about the initiatives being taken for female basketball players in the country, Ashreen went on to say, “Despite proving the potential of women’s basketball with the small opportunities provided, the female ballers never get the respect, recognition and grooming they deserve. It has been nine years since the establishment of the Bangladesh Women’s Basketball Team, but the women’s team has had only a handful of opportunities to play against other teams of the world.” 

Funding towards basketball is inadequate, to the point where national team players do not get any form of remuneration for representing their country. “There aren’t enough school or college level tournaments to find newer players. In addition to that, corruption exists in every government sports body. There is no visibility on the annual budget that comes to the federation for basketball, and when weighing between whether to invest in the men’s or women’s team, men of course get first preference. There are no female basketball coaches in the whole country. There are no opportunities for girls to learn how to be a coach. Who will be our female role models?” added Ashreen.

A feather in her cap

Ashreen became the first Bangladeshi basketball player to join the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP) funded by ESPN and the United States. “I felt proud and excited to finally be able to do something on developing basketball for women in Bangladesh, because nobody else has considered this as a priority till now. I now have an educational degree in sports management from the University of Tennessee, and a Sports Diplomacy Award from the US Department of State. I hope this credibility will take me a long way in promoting the sport for women in Bangladesh,” she shared.

The GSMP is a five week program in the US. The curriculum is conducted by professors from the University of Tennessee Center for Sports, Peace and Society. This year, there were 15 delegates from 14 different countries, all women in sports. “I was mentored by Laura Dixon, Head of External Relations of Spurs Sports and Entertainment. I spent two and a half weeks with the NBA team Spurs in Texas, learning about how the organization works and how the team practices are done. I also experienced women's college basketball at University of Texas, and did some TED Talks at UT and Trinity. All the delegates were also part of the espnW Women+Sports Summit in Los Angeles, where we got to meet top female executives and athletes in the sports sector in the US. After the mentorship experience, we made our action plan presentations to the US state dept. to come to our home countries and start executing. My initiative is called Deshi Ballers, which can be found on Facebook, with the hashtag #TheCourtNeedsHer, because men have been there for a while, it's time to share the court with women,” added Ashreen.

“The Bangladeshi flag and the jersey number I am known for is what means the most to me,” she said. 

Ashreen hopes to create a platform for women of all ages and backgrounds to play basketball by spreading the sport from the more progressive capital throughout rural parts of the country, where she will hold camps and clinics for girls.