As 23-year-old Sakshi Malik gets India its first medal at the Rio Olympics after winning her 58kg freestyle bronze medal bout against Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan, we replug a profile of the wrestler, by HT Brunch .
They have to fight hard to overturn gender discrimination and deliver a sucker punch to convention. A woman’s journey from womb to womanhood is the bumpiest in Haryana when compared to girls in other Indian states. Born in a state with the country’s worst sex ratio (879 women every 1,000 men according to the 2011 census) and a worsening child sex ratio (just 834 girls for every 1,000 boys), women are often at the receiving end of deep-set patriarchal prejudices. Here, marriage is a compulsory milestone, and it arrives well before a girl completes her teens.
Those fortunate enough to finish their education have to comply with their parents’ wishes and marry men chosen by them. Love is considered a crime and those committing it have to face harsh punishment, even death – the so-called ‘honour killing’ phenomenon – in extreme cases.
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Braving hostile circumstances, a minuscule minority of girls is using its fists and reflexes to announce to the world that Haryanvi girls are as good as, or even better than their male counterparts. The state once infamous for suppressing the girl child is today a hub of wrestling and boxing for girls, disciplines once meant just for the ‘stronger’ sex.
If, over the years, the Indian wrestling and boxing squad comprised the maximum number of men from the state, now women from the hinterland are also making their mark felt. Of the seven-member women’s wrestling squad at the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, five – Geetika Jakhar, Babita Kumari, Vinesh Phogat, Lalita, who goes just by her first name and Sakshi Malik – hail from the state. In boxing, too, two of the three pugilists who boarded the plane to Glasgow – Pinki Jangra and Pooja Rani – belong to Haryana.
To know how these girls are chasing their dreams to change the perceptions of a khap-dominated society, Brunch travelled to Hisar, 230km from the state capital of Chandigarh, the district with the worst sex ratio (844/1,000) in Haryana. Hisar is the hometown of Commonwealth Games team members Geetika Jakhar, Pinki Jangra and Lalita.
Jakhar, 28, was fortunate to be born in a family that let her decide her own destiny. In 1999, her schoolteacher parents shifted from Agroha village to Hisar in order to provide quality education to their children. Initially, she got hooked to wrestling just to keep fit. But she soon developed a fascination for the sport and within two years, became national champion in her age group as well as in the seniors’ category. “I am lucky that my parents supported my decisions. Today I’ve been able to achieve my dreams because of them,” says the country’s first lady wrestler to be conferred with the Arjuna Award.
Very few women athletes in Haryana get the kind of support that Jakhar received from her family. Even a decade-and-half into the 21st century, most Indian women can’t take education and participation in sports for granted.
“Had we stayed in a village, God knows whether I would have got a chance to be part of the sporting world,” says Jakhar. “The main problem in our society is that we don’t let our girls get education.” The wrestler’s sporting achievements got her a deputy superintendent’s job in the Haryana Police in 2008.
All this could happen because Jakhar’s parents didn’t discriminate with her on the basis of gender. Still, despite all her sporting achievements and the freedom not to consider marriage till she wants it, Jakhar is well versed in her family’s traditions. “My family has always treated me like a son, but that doesn’t grant me permission to overrule family traditions,” adds Jakhar.
Wrestling finds state patronage in Haryana and the sport has a long history of producing champions from the days of Lila Pehlwan in the 1960s to Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt. Every village in the state may not boast a school, but each would have an akhara for sure. Still, despite wrestling being part of the ethos of the state, girls were never encouraged to take up the sport. Toiling in a mud pit means the girl and her family might have to face criticism.
“Till date it is considered a male bastion. But I was lucky that my father didn’t pay much heed to them. Today the same people are congratulating my father and if I return home with a medal, they will all queue up to honour me,” she adds.
Two years ago, with her parents’ consent, Lalita got engaged to former international wrestler Balraj Nain. Since then, with her father now paralysed, the responsibility of taking care of his fiancée’s travel and training has shifted to Nain. “Society is changing. Still, our families have to face sarcastic remarks,” says Nain. “People say it’s been two years since our engagement and we still haven’t got married. The villagers ask Lalita’s father who will marry her in case the boy leaves her. But I have one question for these so-called custodians of the society: what if I desert her after marriage? It’s all about commitment anyway.”
The Lalita-Balraj Nain duo represents a refreshing new Haryana. But they, too, know the importance of century-old traditions and the consequences of defying them. “When it comes to marriage, the lines are clearly drawn. It has to be done keeping family customs in mind,” says Nain. “There is no place for a love marriage, especially if it is inter-caste or within the same gotra or same village, or even in another village within the brotherhood.”
Double Olympian athlete Seema Antil, who is married to coach Ankush Punia, gives a simple analogy to explain the dynamics of relationships in Haryana: “If someone drops ink on your shirt, the stain remains forever. It’s the same when a woman marries against family customs. The stain on the family name stays forever. The family has to bear the consequences of defying traditions. At that time no one in the village wants to be associated with the tainted family.”
It is common knowledge that a violation can get a khap panchayat (caste council) to proclaim the couple as siblings and thereby invite social boycott. Daughters who cross the line can also be mercilessly murdered along with their spouses to serve as a deterrent to others – all in the name of family honour.
Khaps perceive honour killings as a means of redeeming pride. Nearly 90% of such killings in the country – there were 1,000 in 2008 – take place in the north Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
“Khaps are never against women’s participation in sports,” claims MS Malik, a former DGP with the Haryana Police, who says he has researched the phenomenon.
“They play a supporting role. After the Delhi Commonwealth Games, many khap councils felicitated women medallists from the state, including wrestlers Geeta and Babita. Khaps are mainly against same-gotra marriages. Many studies show that kids from such marriages risk severe health problems from having a too-similar gene pool. Honour killings happen in every part of the country. In 95% of these incidents, it is the kin of the deceased who are involved. Khaps have never passed orders for any honour killing,” adds Malik.
Haryana’s Little Cuba
To assess whether mindsets are indeed changing in other districts of ‘Her-yana’, we moved from Hisar to Bhiwani, also known as Little Cuba, for its propensity to produce world-class boxers.
At Nimdri Wali, boxer Pooja Rani’s village, when a daughter turns 18, the hunt for a suitable groom gains top priority in the minds of her parents. So, many girls drop out of school and learn to roll chapatis in the kitchen. Even the 22-year-old boxer’s elder sister was married off at 18. But Rani, who has qualified for the Glasgow Games in the 75 kg category, says two years ago, her parents recognised her passion for boxing and respected her decision to postpone marriage. Now they want her to earn name, fame and glory for herself and for the country.
"Nowadays parents in rural India have started giving equal importance to girls. Still, we have a long way to go," says Rani’s coach, Sanjay Sheron. "During training sessions, whenever she got a nick or a cut on her face, Pooja refused to return home. She was scared her parents might tell her to leave the sport. But now the same parents who were looking for a match for her two years ago, want her to focus on boxing. Marriage has taken a backseat."
If the village of Nimdri Wali takes pride in their boxing champion, another hamlet on the other end of Bhiwani district has become a wrestling hub owing to the exploits of a family of lady grapplers. Balali village, which gained fame in Haryana as the ‘Geeta-Babita Village,’ after the daughters of Mahaveer Phogat excelled at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2012 Olympics, has another reason to rejoice. Now, Vinesh, their first cousin, has been selected in the squad for Glasgow in the 48kg category. Even if a knee operation has kept elder sister Geeta out of action, her 20-year-old cousin has ensured that the family’s share in the women’s squad hasn’t taken a dip. The village is now suddenly very fond of the Phogat sisters. So much so, that their mother won the village sarpanch elections four years ago. "The popularity of my daughters helped me emerge triumphant in the elections," says the mother, Daya Kaur.
Bad Old days...
Till a few years ago, Balali, too, was another patriarchal Haryana village, where the men called the shots and women were pushed to the periphery. When Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former wrestler, first thought of training his daughters in the sport, the villagers were up in arms. “They were dead against the idea of girls slugging it out with the boys in a mud pit. But gradually, when the girls began winning medals, their mindsets changed. Now they took a renewed pride in Geeta and Babita,” says their father.
Phogat recalls the time when the two had a tough time finding other girls in the village to spar with. Without any other option, they practised with their male cousins. “In village dangals, not only did they compete, but began defeating the boys,” recalls Phogat. But then Geeta won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and the villagers began to bask in reflected glory.
Phogat has introduced his third daughter Ritu (21) and two of his brother’s daughters – Priyanka (23) and Vinesh (22) – to the sport.
In the next decade, you might see a few women athletes speaking out against a system that is tilted heavily in favour of men. For now, they’ll do well by winning more medals.
The road ahead for Haryana’s lady athletes is full of challenges. But as we discovered, they are raring to begin running towards a golden future. We wish them luck.
From HT Brunch, July 27
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