Champion of grit: Why Sania Mirza is a cultural icon for India

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 04, 2015 17:42 IST
Martina Hingis (R) and Sania Mirza celebrate after winning the women’s doubles at the 2015 Wimbledon Championship. (AFP)

If you have doubts about Sania Mirza as a cultural icon, think of a double-handed backhand shot in a cold foreign country. Or a T-shirt she wore that said: “Well behaved girls rarely make history”

Think of a young woman from tropical southern India in unlikely climates--geographical, political and religious. Think of grit and determination. Think of a style and elegance with which they are displayed.

Then ponder over trophies she has won in strange lands, tweets that show defiance of social mores and a personal life that shows a will that leads to the way. Every which way, Sania Mirza is a symbol of aspirational India.

This is not just about the current advertising virtue of celebrating youth. As a woman in a man’s world, as a Muslim hounded by conservatives and as a player from a developing country in a sport popular in rich nations, she has jumped over several hurdles to emerge as a role model--doubling her achievements with acts as a public figure that show a woman who can handle the fire and give it back where needed.

As she paired with Swiss Martina Hingis to take the doubles title at the WTA (World Tennis Association) finals this week, it was the capping of a dream run year for the woman who will turn 29 on November 15. There have been nine titles for the “SanTina” pair so far this year, including the Wimbledon and the US Open.

But this is not about her game, but her spirit and her persona.

Last year, when she was named a UN goodwill ambassador on gender equality and women’s empowerment for South Asia, it was the natural consequence of her personality cocktail: sport empress meets style diva meets social reformer.

“Gender equality is something we all advocate. Some speak about it, some don’t. I have chosen to speak about it,” she said.

The fact that she has chosen to, instead of ducking behind staid statements like “Let my actions speak on the field,” is what makes her different.

Sania Mirza walks the ramp at a college function in Indore. When Islamic hardliners objected to her on-field skirts and T-shirts, she hit back by saying, “How I dress is a very personal thing.” (Amit K Jaiswal/ HT file photo)

She even spoke up for “safe sex” once - though she clarified this was not a reference to sex outside of marriage, it was a bold stand for someone in an India where women, even elected, outspoken leaders, are shy of broaching the topic.

Born in a middle class Muslim family in Hyderabad, a hotbed of religious conservatism, she has juggled her roots with global shoots, and shrugged off fatwas (edicts) from clergymen - though it is known that a shaken morale can funk out sportspeople.

She was only 18 when a Sunni Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against her wearing skirts to play her favourite sport. She must have smashed it over an imaginary net:

She has won 32 WTA doubles titles and one singles title so far, and nearly $6 million in prize money.

Ms. Mirza might remind those who are familiar with the cuisine of her home city, Hyderabad, of its famous dish, mirchi ka salan, which must be an excellent metaphor for her personality: the force of green chilies tamed by the elegantly crispy peanuts.

Islamic hardliners objected to her on-field skirts and T-shirts that exposed her midriff, and she just hit back, saying, “How I dress is a very personal thing.”

Outside of the playing field, she has been on ramp walks and is regularly photographed in everything from sleeveless blouses and skirts to resplendently red bridal wear. The visual message is stark: Her colours are her own.

On Twitter, where she has 3 million followers, she pouts in a turtle-neck sweater. The bio says: “Dreamer. Believer. Doer”

It has not helped her that she has also faced the Hindu right-wing’s carping when she decided to marry Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik (after breaking off a local engagement) even as she proudly wore India’s tricolour across the planet’s tennis courts. One BJP leader even advised her to think twice on her marriage, and there were conservatives who used patriarchal idioms to describe her as Pakistan’s daughter-in-law.

In taking on both sides of the conservative spectrum, she is socially executing her famous double-handed backhand.

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