Opening photo: The Deshi Ballers in action during The Deshi Ballers’ Third Annual “Choose to Challenge” tournament in celebration of the 2021 International Women’s Day. Photo by Tanvir Ali
By Anne Sherman and Jonathan Gomes
Ashreen Mridha played for Bangladesh’s national women’s basketball team for nearly a decade. But over the years, she became less focused on her basketball performance and more interested in how sports could empower her female Bangladeshi peers. In 2018, Embassy Dhaka nominated Mridha to participate in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), funded by the Department of State in partnership with espnW. Mridha spent five weeks in the United States being mentored by National Basketball Association (NBA) executives and players, learning about sports management, developing a business plan to implement upon her return to Bangladesh, and bonding with women from around the world fighting for equal opportunities in sports in their countries.
Mridha had always wanted to support the development of women’s basketball in Bangladesh, and GSMP gave her the skills to do just that. After returning from the program, she and teammate Monika Gulnahar Mahbub co-founded Deshi Ballers. Deshi Ballers is a non-profit organization with a mission to offer female youth players in Bangladesh opportunities to learn and play basketball while instilling life lessons and values such as teamwork, discipline, respect, and sportsmanship.
Female athletes in Bangladesh face a variety of obstacles and forms of discrimination. Men’s teams are given greater resources, women who are married or over the age of 30 are deemed “unfit” to play, girls who wear sportswear are bullied, court space is denied because of concerns about the safety of women after dark, and parents and teachers discourage girls from spending time in the sun and participating in athletics. In short, competitive sports are perceived as a male domain. This mindset deprives women the opportunity to enjoy sports and the space to experience the self-confidence, leadership, and teamwork skills built through athletics.
In just three years, Deshi Ballers has provided nearly 400 girls an opportunity to play basketball or volunteer in weekly practices, training camps, and the group’s own annual International Women’s Day tournament. In March 2021, a Deshi Ballers team won the prestigious national Bangladesh Games championship, which included women’s basketball for the first time.
Department support has been key to the organization’s success. In addition to GSMP, five Deshi Ballers were selected for the ECA Sports Diplomacy Division’s Youth Basketball and Women’s Empowerment Sports Visitors Program in 2020, and four players participated in the Division-sponsored “AAU Global Academy Championship Principles” nine-week online program in 2021.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Embassy Dhaka Foreign Service Officer Anne Sherman led 30 consecutive weeks of online fitness bootcamps for the Deshi Ballers to help the girls stay active and connected with their community. In addition, Ambassador Earl Miller, Embassy Dhaka’s public affairs section, and Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs leadership have spotlighted the organization’s accomplishments in public events and on embassy social media accounts. Promoting awareness of women playing competitive sports and working in sports leadership positions is key to breaking down barriers and giving other girls the confidence to seek out such opportunities for themselves.
With the support of a Sports Diplomacy-funded $10,000 GSMP COVID-19 response grant, Mridha and Gulnahar Mahbub plan to expand Deshi Ballers’ impact even further by organizing new tournaments and offering workshops on self-defense and cyberbullying to help address broader, systemic challenges facing young girls in their communities. In addition to building a powerful community of future women leaders and athletes, they dream of developing revenue-generating opportunities for female basketball players and establishing the first-ever Women’s Basketball League in their country. By supporting organizations like Deshi Ballers and empowering pioneers like Mridha and Gulnahar Mahbub, the Department can continue to advance gender equity and people-to-people ties through sports.
Anne Sherman is the environment, science, technology, and health officer, and Jonathan Gomes is a cultural affairs assistant at Embassy Dhaka.