If you believed Indian girls either don’t take to sports or when they do, they play predictably genteel games like tennis or hockey or basketball, and that most of them come from middle-class families from the majority community in our metros, you are in for a real surprise.
Meet Aaliya, the champion boxer from Haryana. Aaliya is a Class 11 student in the Bansi Vidya Niketan School, Faridabad. In a highly female deficient, conservative state, Aaliya has won gold for boxing at the Haryana Women Festival held in Panchkula last month. Aaliya has been training under her school coach Ramesh Varma for just two years after the chairman of her school, Narayan Dagar, spotted her talent and arranged for the school to provide her with a boxing kit and arrange for her training and travel as well.
Is Aaliya being commended by friends and family for the courage it takes for a girl from a minority community in patriarchal Haryana to be a star in a tough sport? Is she at least getting encouraging nods from them for travelling to events through the year, while also studying for her Class 11 exams? Aaliya simply says her parents “trust” her, especially her father Islam Khan, an employee of the Faridabad municipality. Her mother Firdaus, she says, gets angry at her sometimes, because their narrow-minded neighbours taunt her about sending a growing daughter out of town, with just a male coach for an escort.
But Aaliya is unfazed. “Once I, too, start bringing medals for the country like Sania didi (tennis player Sania Mirza), they’ll just shut up,” she says.
Like any developing country, the myth of success in India is mostly structured around young males. It implies that talented young boys from humble homes succeed because they enjoy full parental support. That if need be, the family will sacrifice its meagre resources for their talented son even if it means letting go of him for years as he trains. You will see there is little room in this mythology for talented young girls from underprivileged and conservative communities. Trace the stories of most sportswomen and they’ll read similar.
As I googled my way into the complex stories of young female athletes, wrestlers and boxers, I found Mary Kom, another feisty young female boxer from Manipur. Mary Kom said that initially her father was fiercely opposed to her becoming a boxer even though she was doing it not for a lark, but to supplement the family’s income. He told Mary that as a boxer she’d only end up with a battered and bruised face and no husband. She got no help from him initially. Today, of course, Papa is proud of her.
There is also Razia Shabnam from the ghettos of Kidderpur in Kolkata. She is our first Muslim woman boxer-turned-coach and international referee, and now a role model for many Muslim girls from her area. Razia idolizes Laila Ali, daughter of boxer Muhammad Ali. Razia’s social worker father, who supported and shielded her without doubt, told BBC that in their area, for a Muslim girl to take to boxing was almost like waging a jihad against established community conventions. All the neighbours and family members constantly disapproved of her vocation and cautioned the parents against allowing her to continue in such a dangerous, unwomanly sport.
Women’s boxing was officially introduced in India in 2000. And amazingly, despite the social stigmatization and parental fears, it has produced many good boxers, most of them from poor families. These girls learnt boxing not just for self-defence, but also to supplement the family income. Yet their families hardly ever promoted their dreams. But still, they have won matches. Their courage and tenacity make you wonder, especially when you realize how a girl in India, aiming high in sports on the basis of a small scholarship, will initially attract not admiration, but social disapproval. In the local press and even among her schoolmates, each defeat of hers is humiliatingly underscored as an overachiever’s just deserts. Yet these girls have not stopped dreaming big dreams of a day when they’ll win international acclaim and make their families proud of them.
The stories of girls like Aaliya and Razia highlight the complex emotional maze any gifted girl must traverse even as she trains and learns to control her body for a sport. Discussions with teachers and coaches reveal how, after six decades of independence, our girls’ raised hopes, their hunger for change and years of hard practice are still colliding head-on with a culture on sports fields and coaching centres that underestimates and dissuades girls in numerous ways.
The success of the women’s hockey film Chak De! India... shows that projecting the courageous tales of such gutsy women players more and more in the visual media helps these bewildered young girls and their families, and also those who have simply not thought about this so far. All of them realize not just how brave our young girls from underprivileged families are, but also that there are many healthy avenues of excellence available for girls other than becoming neurotic anorexic clotheshorses or hassled, timid wives.
As they look at how far our young Aaliyas have come and how, they’ll realize there can be no turning back.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor, Hindustan.Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org