Some stories are hard to tell but must be told. Doesn’t matter if it’s uncomfortable for the society, is without clear beginning or end. Because, as soon as you try to find solace without a fight, put your guard down, surrender, and adjust to the roughshod surroundings, the universe has this uncanny knack of bullying and boiling you as a ‘frog placed in hot water’.
As Nobel laureate Maya Angelou perfectly puts it in her autobiography, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Such examples are ample in conservative Muslim societies, where girls are either forced into submission or forced so hard that they break the shackles and seal the lips of a patriarchal order that continues to say: ‘Girls shouldn’t consider sports’.
As the public debate rages on over the choices Muslim women make in vibrant multi-cultural societies such as India, Dr Majiziya Bhanu, a hijab-clad powerlifter native of Orkkatteri (Kerala), narrates her journey: From being a girl from an orthodox Muslim background to becoming a back-to-back world champion.
“It wasn’t easy,” the 25-year-old shot straight away.
“Growing up, Muslim athletes face a unique set of challenges not faced by other females,” she said.
“We are expected to satisfy two different sets of people that are poles apart, namely, the conservatives who strictly base their arguments on Islamic theology and ethnocentric hawks who smell of Islamophobia under the garb of Western principles. The two sides are, of course, at loggerheads, but they end up hitting the same place: A blank wall.”
Majiziya, who is also a dental surgeon, says that for Muslim athletes to convince and clarify certain points to both the rigid factions is almost impossible, given how blinded partisans from each perspective are by their respective certainties.
“I was once asked during a competition if I were from the moon,” Majiziya chuckled while giving an example of how people made offensive comments revolving around her hijab (headscarf). She adds that handling ‘negative comments’ over her hijab from the trolls she knew were nothing good in life except for mocking ‘wasn’t painful’ and were ‘laughable at best’.
“I felt the real pinch when one of my relatives tried to stop me and said, ‘yeh mazhab ke mutabiq sahi nahi hai’ (What you’re doing isn’t right according to the scriptures).”
“It was an extremely odd scenario,” she recalls.
“On one hand I was always encouraged by my parents to respect the elders, but on the other, they also encouraged me to always stand by my belief, come what may.”
At that moment when a young Majiziya was being indoctrinated by her relatives to drop out of boxing and powerlifting classes and shun sports completely, she realised how important it was to speak out and make people aware of her perspective. “It created a feud within me as I couldn’t put my vision in front of my relatives.”
Majiziya studied in an Islamic school, and as is the case with majority of girls who hail from small villages, she was ‘shy’ and ‘introvert’ growing up.
“But it changed soon,” Majiziya said in an ambitious tone. “And that’s one of the perks when you follow your heart, you become bold and confident; my interest in combat sports helped it boost further.”
Being a woman, especially one who stands firm on her principles and sports a hijab, it became imperative for Majiziya to become vocal and make sure next time someone engaged in a debate with her, she had the answers ready.
“I then watched tons of Serena Williams and Mary Kom videos, learnt a thing or two on how a powerful woman should carry herself. These two became templates of my approach to the world as I too wanted to be my own commander.”
As Majiziya turned 21, her intent grew stronger, lack of infrastructure and gyms in her town didn’t deter her from the pursuit. “During the summer break in 2016 while I was in the second year of BDS (Bachelor of Dental Surgery), I travelled 120 kms to-and-fro every day to a training facility in Kozhikode.”
The efforts soon bore fruitsa and after a few months of formal training, Majiziya won her first gold medal at the Calicut District Powerlifting Championship. No one thereafter, be it a ‘western hawk’ or a ‘conservative’, could dare come in the way of this ‘powerful’ woman. She then went on to win a streak of silvers and golds for the next two years, nationally and internationally.
“At one point, I literally lost a count of how many medals I had won,” the ‘tiny woman’, as the world called her, proudly said.
In 2017, She won a silver in the Asian Powerlifting Championship. Next year, she won Ms. Kerala competition - making her the only woman to do so in a hijab. The rest is history… Majiziya then won the Best Lifter Award in the World Powerlifting Association’s World Cup held in Moscow later that year. If people called it ‘luck’, she did it again in 2019. “It was a double whammy for my distractors!” she exclaimed.
“I can never thank my parents enough but by winning these two medals, I can at least say that I did my best to repay the faith they put in me.”
Once a shy girl, the present-day Majiziya has grown up to be the biggest celebrity from her town. “I never thought I will be a public motivator one day,” she laughs.
“I am frequently invited to speak about women empowerment as a chief guest not only here, but from all across the country.”
Majiziya says that as a speaker, one of the points on which she stresses on the most is ‘inclusivity ’.
“I yearn for a day when women athletes are not judged by their attires but performances. So whenever I get an opportunity to interact with the younger generation, I make sure to put belief in them, to make them realise that just because some woman next door chose to become a ‘sitting duck’, you don’t need to do the same, the world has missed out on celebrating many a women champions just because they succumbed to the pressure, to get rid of the inferiority complex which young girls face when either of a race dominates a locality, to accept oneself even when no one supports them, teach them: Religions are meant to unite; those practicing exclusion and trying to suppress women, are nothing else but devils in disguise trying to sow the seeds of hate and insecurity.”
Inspired by her success story, a lot of girls and married women in Majhiziya’s village are breaking the glass ceiling and have entered the world of fitness. “Earlier, there were only three or four gyms in my village, but the numbers have now doubled.
“And if the grace of God continues to shine on me, Insha-Allah, I will open a few fitness centres on my own.”If not for Dr Majiziya Bhanu’s courage to take on all the negativity the world had to throw at her and make it into stepping stones, the story which will inspire many girls and help change the minds of men who brandish women sports as less-watchable and unworthy of being sponsored, could have remained ‘untold’.
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