Salma Akter created history as she became the first-ever woman to officiate a match in the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) football. On August 16, she was appointed as the referee in a BPL match between Arambagh Krira Sangha and Uttar Baridhara Club at Birshrestha Shaheed Sipahi Mostafa Kamal Stadium in Dhaka. Before her, no woman officiated a match in the most prestigious football tournament in the country.
Salma hails from Netrokona, a district under Mymensingh Division. Apart from refereeing, the 23-year-old is currently studying at Eden Mohila College in Dhaka.
In an exclusive interview with The Business Standard (TBS), Salma spoke in detail about her struggles, successes and future endeavours.
"I am very proud. My name will go down in history as the first Bangladeshi woman to officiate a game at the highest level. When I finished my first match as a referee, I came to understand how big an achievement it is. I didn't expect this much response. It was overwhelming."
"I am very proud. My name will go down in history as the first Bangladeshi woman to officiate a game at the highest level. When I finished my first match as a referee, I came to understand how big an achievement it is. I didn't expect this much response. It was overwhelming," she said.
Salma was a bit worried before the match but everything went according to plan on the field. "I was slightly nervous and thinking a lot about what would happen on the field. But as soon as I entered the field, all those worries disappeared and I paid attention to the proceedings," mentioned Salma.
Salma is currently a Fifa assistant referee, having qualified last year. Now the referees' committee wants her to be a part of the elite panel of assistant referees. She explained, "The referees' committee wanted to suggest my name for the elite panel of the AFC. So they (AFC) asked for some recent footage of my refereeing. I stood as the assistant referee in a few matches but there was hardly any video available. Right now there is no women's tournament going on. So the committee appointed me as a referee in the ongoing men's tournament."
Salma couldn't move further in football after playing at the district level because of lack of facilities but she always had the desire to do something directly related to football. "I used to be an athlete. Back then, we didn't have a separate team for women in our district and so I had to practice alongside the boys. I played football up to district level but always wanted to be involved with the game," Salma recalled.
"I used to be an athlete. Back then, we didn't have a separate team for women in our district and so I had to practice alongside the boys. I played football up to district level but always wanted to be involved with the game."
"I knew one of the former Fifa assistant referees (Ferdous Hasan) and told him about my passion. It was he who informed me about a refereeing course. He told me that there were opportunities for women to pursue refereeing. I completed the course in 2012. Fortunately, I got enough support from my family and at my workplace," she added.
Salma came to Dhaka in 2013 and started her career by officiating matches in school football. But there was a time when a failure frustrated her and she stopped officiating matches. But she pulled herself together with the help of Nahidur Rahman Nahid, who is currently a Fifa assistant referee.
"I was slightly distracted for some reason and didn't officiate matches in 2016. The next year I failed to qualify as a Fifa assistant referee. At that time, Nahidur Rahman Nahid supported me a lot. Basically, he became my teacher after the failure," she said.
By this time she had toured a couple of countries and officiated in age-level tournaments hosted by Saff (South Asian Football Federation).
But Salma was still not sure as it was difficult to survive in Dhaka with the little money she earned by refereeing. "I didn't attend the test in 2018 as I found a job in a private school. At that time, hardly any women's tournament was hosted and the allowance per match was negligible. As a woman living in a place like Dhaka, I needed money to make my ends meet."
The next year she passed the test but was unfortunately disqualified because of age restrictions. She mentioned, "In 2019 I qualified as a Fifa assistant referee thanks to Nahid bhai's support. But I was ruled out because the minimum age of qualification was 23 years. I was a year younger."
"I passed the test with flying colours the next year but this time I was just a day younger than the minimum age of eligibility. Then the federation requested the Fifa to consider the fact that I was only a day younger. Luckily they did so and I qualified as an assistant referee," she added.
Thus she became a qualified Fifa assistant referee for 2021. Salma has already qualified as a Fifa assistant referee for the year 2022. The tests took place very recently.
She admires and looks up to Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) referee Mizanur Rahman Mizan and Ranjita Devi Teckham from India.
With age on her side, Salma wants to set up small goals and then look to achieve bigger things. "My primary goal is to be an elite panel assistant referee. I am waiting for AFC's response now. Of course, my ultimate goal is to be a referee but for that the minimum age is 25. So for now, I want to take one step at a time and bring honour to my country."
Salma is very worried about her future because she and the other referees aren't handsomely paid. She is now looking for a job in order to find a stable source of income.
"It's tough to pursue refereeing in Bangladesh because the match fee is the only source of income. In countries like India and Bhutan, the referees are given government jobs and enough facilities. Here we don't get enough matches. The match fee has increased in the women's league but still I am finding it difficult to survive. I need a job right now so that I don't have to worry about the next day. If I have a permanent source of income, then I'll be able to continue refereeing," she mentioned.
"I need a job right now so that I don't have to worry about the next day. If I have a permanent source of income, then I'll be able to continue refereeing."
In addition, Salma said "Right now I am not sure whether I can keep on officiating matches. We have to work really hard but the financial reward is not substantial. Financial security is a must when you have a family to look after. I have been trying to survive for three years. But how long can I continue? I don't know."
Salma thanked everyone who congratulated her on this success and said that there are opportunities for women to pursue refereeing. She urged the BFF to help those who are trying to make a mark here. "There are opportunities, yes. But the girls coming here hail mostly from a very humble background and they need a lot of support. The federation has to be more sincere in helping them financially because the families cannot bear the expenses all the time. The girls work hard and the federation should give them something in exchange, shouldn't it?" Salma concluded.