“Radhika ruk na nahin, attack mare ja” (Radhika don’t give up, keep attacking). Twenty-two-year-old Lalita Sehrawat’s voice rings out clearly as one enters the wrestling stadium at Giri Centre in Hisar, Haryana. It is seven in the morning on a bitterly cold and foggy December day, but the group of young boys and girls in the stadium already have an hour’s practice behind them. Radhika, a 16-year-old who has been wrestling for three years, is sparring with a boy and gives him at least an equal fight, if not always getting the better of him. Lalita’s energetic cheering can, however, quite easily come to stand not just for the few women wrestlers inside the stadium, but for all women wrestlers in the country who have been challenging stereotypes to carve a niche for themselves in a sport predominantly viewed as a male dominion – don’t give up, continue the attack.
Earlier this year, 24-year-old Sakshi Malik put women’s wrestling in the country firmly in the spotlight when she picked up a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in wrestling. And Aamir Khan’s Christmas release, Dangal, celebrates the spirit of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler and senior coach living in Haryana, who dared to brave social disapproval to make wrestlers of his four daughters and two nieces. It’s no mean feat in a state which has the tag of being deeply patriarchal and where some khap panchayats have been known to pass diktats forbidding women to wear jeans or own mobile phones (though other khaps have opposed that decision), a state which has the unenviable position of having the lowest female sex ratio in the country. And yet, despite this, it is a state which has a high, if not the maximum, number of women in sports – “there are as many women wrestlers in Haryana alone as in the rest of India put together,” says 31-year-old Geetika Jakhar, the first woman wrestler to be awarded the prestigious Arjuna award. Her family never opposed her dream. The only stipulation from her grandfather, her father explains, was that since Geetika was a girl one of her parents should always accompany her to tournaments.
“There are as many women wrestlers in Haryana, as in the rest of the country put together, may be more. So while there is one section which believes that a woman’s place is at home, many also want their daughters to progress,” says Geetika Jakhar, 31, two-time gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games, declared best wrestler of the Commonwealth in 2005 and the first woman wrestler to get the Arjuna award in 2006.
Does sports acumen or a medal or two, change societal expectations from women? Not overnight. Be it Sakshi Malik or Mahavir Singh’s elder daughters Geeta and Babita who became household names after winning gold and silver medals respectively at the 2010 Commonwealth Games or Geetika Jakhar, and the many other lesser known women fighting it out within and without the arena – the first few years of uncharitable comments from friends, neighbours and extended families about how could a girl think of wrestling - it is something boys do – is common to all. Twenty-three year old Sudesh Malik remembers being beaten up by her sister for wanting to wrestle. Her parents restricted themselves to vocal reprimands. “Finally my coach convinced my father to allow me to wrestle,” says Sudesh, cheerfully. There is little trace of bitterness in her voice, rather a sense of wonder at having finally got her way.
In most cases, however, the opposition to the girls’ taking up wrestling seems to have come from society rather than from immediate family members. “When I started training Geeta and Babita, I had a few other students, girls from the village. A couple of them were more talented than Geeta and Babita. But when villagers started criticizing girls for wrestling, their parents backed out. Eventually they got the girls married off. Today, when they see Geeta and Babita’s success, they tell me that they wish they had not discontinued their daughters’ training,” says Mahavir Singh, sitting outside his training centre in Balali. Inside, his two younger daughters Ritu and Sangeeta are training with his other students. The elder girls and their cousin Vinesh are away from home. “Other children in school wouldn’t talk to Geeta and Babita. When I took the girls to dangals in villages, many people would tell me that I should be ashamed of myself for making my girls wrestle,” says Singh.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games changed all that. Sakshi’s Olympic medal followed. “I now get at least five to ten calls a day from parents of girls asking me to train their daughters,” says Singh. The girls themselves would like to believe that there has been change. “Earlier parents wouldn’t even send their daughters to college, now they are encouraging them to play,” says Sakshi. Geetika agrees. “While there is definitely one section which believes that a woman’s place is at home, many also want their daughters to progress,” she says. The deputy superintendent of police in Haryana admits, however, that women wrestlers still have to grapple with negative comments. “Especially in villages, at dangals, people still comment if they see a woman wrestler,” says Jakhar.
“I was 12 years old when I started wrestling. There was never any opposition from my family but others would say that it is a boy’s sport. Things have changed in the state, however. In the past parents wouldn’t send their daughters even to study, but now they are encouraging them to take up sports,” says Sakshi Malik, 24, Olympic Bronze medallist
It’s not just about the sport, but the accompanying lifestyle in general – the travel, the proximity with boys, and the attire – that irks the conservative minded. In Rohtak, where 17-year-old Tina Malik lives in rented accommodations for her training, she mostly dresses in pants and rides a two-wheeler. While wrestling she wears tights. “But it is different when I am in the village. Most of the girls in my village wear salwar-kurtas. I still wear pants, but not shorts or tights,” she says. Like most of her fellow wrestlers, her hair is cut short for convenience, with little thought having gone into making the cut aesthetically appealing. The girls have learnt to balance. Mukesh, a 23-year-old married wrestler explains how she does a ghoonghat when she is in her husband’s village. “I still wear pants, but I use a stole to cover my head and face,” she says with a smile.
“Given the atmosphere in our village, it is a big thing for our parents to support our dreams. In our village most girls stay at home. They mostly wear salwar kurtas. Whereas I have been staying in boarding school since I was in Class 2. I would wear jeans and pants,” says Sudesh, 24, who has several national championship medals
Even when disapproval dies down, the girls’ position in society remains that of an outsider. Most of them say that they hardly ever go out in the village when they are home. Twenty-one -year-old Sheetal Devi, the wife of one of the Phogat sons says, “I had never seen women wrestling in my village, never heard of it either. When I got married into this family, I used to initially find it strange.” Sheetal is dressed in a salwar kameez, her head covered with a
dupatta. The younger Phogat girls, Ritu and Sangeeta, say they had to face little outright opposition to their wrestling since Geeta and Babita had already paved the way for them. But they have few friends among the girls. “In school we mostly played with the boys. Usually in the village girls and boys don’t mix so freely. I think, as kids, we also thought of ourselves as boys,” says Sangeeta.
Most agree that wrestling has made a difference to their lives. “In my village, most girls are married off by the time they finish school. The maximum that some of them manage is to complete their graduation. They are rarely allowed to go out. And I am living my dreams, travelling to so many places,” says Kundu. While there is appreciation of the life they are living - “When the girls from the village see me now, they wish that they had my life,” says Kundu, who is also an inspector in Haryana police – there is also often envy. Twenty-three-year -old Ritu Malik who has been a wrestler for 10 years, says her cousins don’t talk to her when she visits the village. “They feel why should I be allowed the freedom to dress the way I want to and make most decisions of my life, when they are not,” she says.
“We didn’t face any problems because Geeta-Babita and Vinesh had started wrestling before us. Papa and Geeta-Babita faced all the flak. But we never had many female friends. We were mostly with the boys. As kids we too thought we were boys,” say Ritu and Sangeeta Phogat, aged 22 and 18, National-level players, participants at pro wrestling league
Their comparative freedom, however, does not always enable them to stand up for the rights of other women around them. While Kundu says she tries her best to inspire other young girls to follow their dreams, 24-year-old Pinky says, “If I try to say something to support any girl in my village most people would say that I have not lived in the village for years and don’t know the customs and traditions of that society.”
Even with their mothers, conversations are often restricted to enquiries about each other’s well being. “When I talk to my mother, she only asks me whether I am well and eating properly. She tells me to practice,” says Pinky. As Tina admits, fathers are the ones whose decisions matter. “He has the last word on everything in the house, including my career,” she says. Few know if their mothers ever had a dream beyond managing the house. Like the Phogat sisters, Ritu and Sangeeta, who are surprised on learning that their mother Daya Kaur was once interested in wrestling. “I never had a chance to pursue it. After I got married, I never told my husband of my interest. Now when I see them wrestling I wish I could have done it too,” says Kaur with a smile.
“I too was interested in wrestling, but never had a chance to pursue it. After I got married, I never told my husband of my interest. Now when I see them wrestling I wish I could have done it too,” says Daya Kaur, mother of the Phogat sisters
Dos and Don’ts
Even for the wrestlers though, freedom comes with a rider – it is dependent on how long the parents allow their daughters in the wrestling arena. “My parents haven’t mentioned my marriage yet, but if someday my father asks me to stop and get married, I will have to listen to him,” says Tina. Others say their parents are a little more flexible. Most strike a deal with parents – such as a certain Olympic or Commonwealth participation, before which they will not be asked to marry. After marriage, the decision, to continue wrestling or not, is made by the husband and his family. Then there are children to plan for. “There are expectations of course, and I feel women also feel vulnerable. But I feel since today there is so much focus on sports, if the girl is performing well, most families would let her continue even after marriage,” says Geetika, who got married recently. Her husband and in-laws, she says, completely support her career.
Read: She packs a punch
To excel therefore is not just a dream, but often a necessity. “My parents used to threaten me that if I don’t perform well they will get me married,” says Kundu. Now married for five years, she says she has a staunch supporter in her husband. Like Kundu, who married her physiotherapist-doctor, many of the girls now are choosing partners for themselves, but the right caste is important. “People talk otherwise and I have to think of my family’s position in society too,” says 24-year-old Sudesh. Many of the girls have imbibed the social taboos and are reluctant to break it. “If there is a custom that has been followed in our society for so long there must have been a reason why it was made,” says Kundu.
“My father encouraged me to take up wrestling. If he wants me to stop, to marry, I will have to. My sister got married when she was 18. My father hasn’t talked about my marriage yet, but he takes all the decisions,” says Tina Malik, 17, an international-level wrestler
For those who prefer an arranged marriage, finding a match is usually not a problem. “You get more matches if the girl is working and well known,” says Jakhar. Most of the girls say that they give their earnings to their families – either to parents or husbands, but are quick to add that their families spend it on them. “When a girl is able to give financial support to her family it makes a difference to her confidence level. Her value goes up, her family listens to her,” says Geetika.
She practices in the same stadium in Hisar where Lalita is now ready to face her male opponent. Lalita is fiercely competitive, checking with her coach after every bout whether she has a score. “Often when you spar with boys and defeat them, the boys and even the coach will say ‘Oh you lost to a girl’,” says Geetika, watching her. As she says a little later, “ I think society can’t accept that a woman has power.” Having come this far, however, it will take more than a few snide remarks to make these girls lose their focus.