As more and more women are excelling in sports, the phenomenon needs to be examined more closely. Films like Chak De India, Mary Kom, Dangal, Saala Khadoos, and forthcoming boipics of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and probably Sania Mirza, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, plus a fictional film about a group of homemakers starting a football team, all point to a trend of sportswomen or female sportspersons — whatever sounds better — getting their share of stardom. For many years, just PT Usha and the glamorous wives and girlfriends of sportsmen (given the collective label of WAGs by the British tabloids) were in the public eye. Now Indian women are fighting to excel at sports, in spite very little encouragement, and abysmal facilities.
But, as women playing various sports and winning medals are splashed in the media, making decent money and getting endorsement deals, parents who earlier thought sports were an ‘unfeminine’ waste of time (who will marry a girl who parades around in shorts?) are now encouraging their daughters. Upper and middle-class girls with resources are opting for cricket, tennis, badminton, but the wrestlers and boxers are mostly coming from rural or working class backgrounds — as Dangal and Saala Khadoos showed. The women and their parents are hoping that winning at sports will get government jobs, the respectability that offers, and a way out of poverty.
There is a documentary called Burqa Boxers by Alka Raghuram — that made the rounds of national and international festivals and was screened at various venues in Mumbai recently — that goes into the bastis of Kolkata, where young Muslim women are training in boxing, going much against the commonly accepted image of Muslims as ultra-conservatives. There is a telling sequence of a young woman stepping out of her modest home covered in a burqa and then going to a ground, changing into a tracksuit, and training in boxing.
The most interesting story in Burqa Boxers is that of Razia Shabnam, one of the first Muslim girls to start training as a boxer; she now trains other young women. Her confidence and articulacy are remarkable, as well as her ability to achieve without stepping out of the bounds of what is expected of her as a wife and mother.
Razia, a mother of two, is not just one of the three international women referees from India, she is also a trainer at a Kolkata NGO that works with children from the red light areas. She herself was encouraged by her brother, who was training himself with the famed Mirajuddin Ahmed, who also agreed to train her. She decided on boxing as a career when she saw Muhammad Ali’s boxer daughter, Laila, on TV. She says, “When I started out, people used to treat me like I was doing something dirty, but at the time my father supported me. He used to tell me to keep my eyes on the goal and not worry about the circuitous path needed to reach it.”
The girls train outdoors in the dust and their ‘ring’ is just a raised platform with an overhead light. That does not prevent them from training with all sincerity, participating in tournaments and winning some, too. They have no great hopes from their boxing as such, except to get a police job. They believe being in uniform will give them some kind of power in their male dominated neighbourhoods and that men will be scared to harass them. At least a couple of them know that marriage will be the end of their dreams of sporting glory, but accept the prospect with resignation. (The wedding of one of the girls has been shot, and after that she vanishes from the practice arena.) But there are also girls like Sufiya Noor, who has told her parents that’s she will not marry till she is a boxing champ, and they supported her decision.
Poverty would have come in the way, if the girls were not so determined. They could barely afford the gloves and kits, were it not for donations and hand-me-downs. One of the girls, Khatoon, is the daughter of a vegetable vendor, whose parents made sacrifices so that she could get better nutrition; she had to overcome great obstacles, still she rose to represent Bengal at a National Boxing Championship. She also hopes to get a job with the railways and help her family.
Alka Raghuam writes in her director’s note, “I grew up in a small town in India, and I have experienced the societal pressure to conform as a girl, for my own safety as well as to fit into the world outside. To recognise the conditioning and chip away at it has been a life long journey… I empathise with the characters in Burqa Boxers, and want to cull out the mixture of qualities, awareness, grit and courage in telling their story especially in the current context of increased conversation about sexual violence against women in India. In Burqa Boxers, I want to tell a story of inspiration, of a counter narrative that girls can make a change, of role models from within the community, who are taking steps to change the way girls think about themselves, and their role in society.”
The names of Ajmira, Taslima, Parveen Sajda may not ring a bell, but these are the faces of the new Indian Woman, who is boxing stereotypes right out the ring. As Razia Shabnam says, “A stumble is also a step in the right direction.”
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.