Bangladeshi girls can do it all

Two Bangladeshi female referees have become certified to conduct matches at the international stage: Salma Akter in football and Masfia Afrin in tennis. Bodiujjaman writes about the two trailblazers

Football referee Salma AkterProthom Alo

Salma Akter used to dream of becoming a journalist when she was in school. Thankfully, she abandoned that dream and made her way to the playground! How else could she have achieved a feat like this?

 Salma from Netrokona is now the first female Bangladeshi referee to make it into the elite panel of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). She was also the first woman to conduct matches in the Bangladesh Premier League and became a FIFA certified assistant referee. Now, she is a part of the AFC elite panel.

Two female referees from Bangladesh – Jaya Chakma and Salma – sat for the AFC elite panel exam in Malaysia on 16-19 January. Jaya couldn’t clear the exam, but Salma did. She received the good news on 20 February. To pass this test, Salma had to clear five stages – fitness test, written test, oral test, video test and conducting a match. Salma excelled in all departments.

Salma has made it this far after overcoming many barriers. When she first tried to sit for a refereeing course exam, many tried to stop her. Salma recalled those days, “In 2013, Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) conducted a 7-day refereeing course in Netrokona. I was the only woman to take that course. Some members of the district sports council questioned my participation. They complained that I was too young to take the refereeing course. Eventually, I took part and passed.”

Salma Akter is now part of AFC elite panel of referees
Prothom Alo

Salma is currently working as the physical education teacher at the capital’s Bangladesh International Tutorial School. She would hardly get the time to practice for the AFC elite panel refereeing exam.

Salma said, “I work at a private school. I have to work eight hours a day. I’m always on the go in the school. I have to speak a lot with the children, play with them. I get very tired. There have been days where I was supposed to train as per my routine, by I physically couldn’t go through with it. Many times I would force myself to train.”

Salma is ecstatic after getting the reward for all her hard work, “I have gone through a lot of hardship. It was especially difficult to carve out time for training. I wouldn’t get the time in the morning. There is no ground where I live. So, I had to train at night on the street. Now, I feel that all my hard work has paid off.”

Salma first took part in athletics when she was a ninth grader at Netrokona’s Adarsha Girls High School. She then started regularly taking part in the 100-metre, 200-metre sprints, long jumps and high jumps. She also won bronze in high jump event in the national children-teen academy athletics competition in 2008.

She would also play football in the stadium alongside boys. But as there was no district football team in Netrokona, she couldn’t forge a career as a player.

AFC referee Ferdous Ahmed peaked Salma’s interest in refereeing. In the first match of her career, Salma was the fourth referee. It was a men’s match of the Netrokona district league. Salma couldn’t help but smile while recalling that memory, “I wasn’t scared in my first match. But I was feeling a little nervous. No one disturbed me on the field. The men showed me respect as the referee.”

For personal reasons, she was then away from refereeing for two years. Referee Mahmud Jamal Faruki brought her back to the football field. Salma was grateful to him, “Nahid bhai (Mahmud) inspired me to resume training. I sat for the FIFA referee exam for a second time and passed.”

Salma’s family never stopped her from pursuing a career as referee; on the contrary, her father Shohor Ali always encouraged her. In 2021, her father passed away from kidney complications. Salma was missing her father on the happy occasion. “I was thinking of my father a lot. My father was my favourite person in my family. He would be very happy when he would see me on the tv or on newspapers. He used to say, ‘What my son couldn’t do, you, my daughter, have done’.”

Bangladeshi girls have been crowned South Asia’s football champions after winning the SAFF Championship in last September. Salma also dreams of waving the country’s flag high as a referee.

Bangladesh women's football team celebrate with the SAFF Women's Championship trophy at the end of their final against Nepal at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal on 19 September, 2022

“There are no limits to dreams. The girls have progressed in football. My dream is to conduct matches at the highest level in Asia, take my country’s flag to new heights. Actually, it’s really challenging to be a referee as a woman from a Muslim majority country. But like football, Bangladeshi girls can also succeed in refereeing, I have proved that.”

Salma dreams of conducting matches in the Women’s World Cup, “This is just the beginning. I have a long way to go. I want to conduct matches in the World Cup.”

Dream to referee a Grand Slam

The Junior World Tennis Series began at the Sheikh Jamal National Tennis Complex in Ramna, Dhaka, on 20 February and Bangladesh’s Masfia Afrin has made history in the tournament. Masfia, a higher secondary student of Viquarunnisa Noon School and College, is now the first Bangladeshi female referee to host an international tennis competition.

Masfia is working side by side Germany’s Thomas Schulze, the tournament director, and fulfilling her responsibilities as the referee. Before Masfia, Sarwar Mostafa and Ahmed Ziaur Rahman were the only male Bangladeshis who have worked as a referee in an international tennis competition. Now, Masfia’s journey has begun.

Masfia Afrin dreams of refereeing a tennis Grand Slam

To successfully organise a tennis tournament, the referee has to play a crucial role along with the umpire, chair umpire and the community official. A referee must know all the rules and regulations. The referee also has to oversee everything, starting from the draw to the schedule. She or he is also responsible to make sure the tournament is running smoothly and in a fair manner. Masfia has been successfully completing all of these responsibilities.

Her father Mahmud Alam is an administrative officer in the tennis federation. She has grown up around tennis. She has competed in multiple national and age-level international tournaments since 2010. In her 10-year career as a player, Masfia was the national champion at the U-10, U-12, U-14 and U-16 level. She was second in the woman’s national tennis players rankings. She was the first Bangladeshi female tennis player to receive the ITF Development Scholarship and compete in Uzbekistan.

Masfia also participated in the junior’s tournament of the Billy Jean King Cup in Malaysia. She took part in the ITF U-12 regional tournament in Nepal and also in the U-14 championship in Vietnam, Thailand and India. She competed in the World Junior Tennis tournament in Sri Lanka. But she couldn’t prolong her tennis career due to a shoulder injury.

She did a level-one course on refereeing last year. In January, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Under-14 Development Championship took place in Dhaka. Masfia worked as the assistant referee in that competition. This time around, she got handed the refereeing responsibility, for which she was over the moon.

Masfia Afrin receives the Level-one referee

“I’m the first Bangladeshi girl to work as a referee in an international tournament, even that thought fills me with immense pride. I dream that one day I will become a white badge referee. Then, I could conduct grand slams,” Masfia said.

Masfia doesn’t have a moment’s rest during the ongoing World Tennis series. Her father is proud of his daughter’s accomplishment, “There are a lot of matches in the tournament, so many players are taking part. Masfia is arranging all of it. All the people she is working with are older than her. But she is dividing the duties among them. She is developing leadership quality. She is controlling complex matters, shouldering the responsibility, it feels good seeing that.”

At school, Masfia was not a member of the Scouts or BNCC. But she always had an inherent ability to lead. Her mother Sadia Afrin was not surprised seeing her daughter step up like she has. “I was never nervous about her. I have complete faith in my daughter. She likes taking challenges. She has taken many courses on leadership, it helped her here.

“I want to see her reach greater heights. She dreams of refereeing a grand slam one day. Through refereeing, Masfia wants to do what Bangladeshi tennis players haven’t been able to do as players.”

*This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy