31/1 Ekbalpore Road would have stayed another nondescript south-west Kolkata address but for a resident who shares her name with Razia Sultana. In her two-roomed quarters, Razia Shabnam is the empress; one who’s conquered social hurdles in her quest to be a boxer.
It has taken her out of the mohalla to Moscow, Taiwan and Turkey. It has made her realise that the plight of the woman is universal. And it has made her determined to try and do something about it.
Mother, housewife, boxer, karate coach, international referee, Shabnam has donned many hats. But it was her decision to take up boxing that created the maximum flutter in the conservative and predominantly Muslim locality of Nabtini Bagan in Khidderpore where she lived with her parents.
Shabnam fell in love with the sport watching younger brother Sultan Pervez Alam train to be a boxer at the Khidderpore School of Physical Culture (KSOPC). Her instincts caught boxing administrator Asit Banerjee’s eye and he asked Shabnam if she dared to give it a shot.
That was in 1997, some years before Manipur’s M.C. Marykom brought India its first gold in the women’s world boxing championship. Shabnam, then 17, took to being a fighter by trade with vigour. But the road was not easy.
“Had it not been for my father’s support, I wouldn’t have been able to do much,” says Shabnam. Her father, Rahat Hussain, is a former wrestler and it was from him that young Shabnam and Sultan learnt the first steps. “He would wake us up early and tell us to do some jogging and light exercises,” says Shabnam, who also has a brown belt in karate.
Trouble started when she decided to join KSOPC. The neighbours didn’t like her wearing tracksuits and do something so decidedly male. They also objected to her training with boys. At times they even threatened her. But that only steeled Shabnam’s resolve.
“Neighbours often complained to my dad about my taking up boxing saying that ‘apnar meye kharap hoye jabe (your girl will go out of hand)’.” That didn’t bother her father much. “Mom would get a bit upset though, thinking that it would harm my chances of getting a good groom,” Shabnam says.
“My father didn’t want to antagonise the neighbours and suggested that I wear salwar-kameez while going for practice.” Shabnam did as told, changing to her boxing attire only on reaching the training centre.
Her boxing career though, was brief. She took part in two East Zone championships and a national championship before she decided to try coaching. In 2001, she became India’s first woman boxing coach. Two years down the line, she achieved another first, being India’s only international woman referee. In between, Shabnam graduated in arts from Khidderpore College.
Even the decision to study met with resistance. “But this was minor to what we faced when I started boxing,” says Shabnam, who was the first girl to go to college from her area. Going to college also meant Shabnam had to travel farther than she ever had but the spirit was willing.
Gradually, the neighbours and the locality were won over. “Today, I have silenced the critics. People are proud of me,” she says. “After what I have achieved, they dare not speak anything against me.”
Shabnam’s career as an international referee took her to Moscow in 2005 for the women’s world championship. She also officiated in two Asian championships in India (2004) and Taiwan (2005) and at an international event in Turkey (2003).
During her travels, she has found that the travails of women were the same, irrespective of religion. “Be it a Hindu household or that of a Muslim, women are oppressed,” she says. “Men don’t take kindly to women doing male things.
But today a lot of women have broken that mould. Be it becoming the President, pilot or just an office-goer, women have forged ahead given proper backing.”
Shabnam feels she has been lucky. “I had great parents and I have a wonderful husband without whose support a lot many things would not have been possible.” Shabnam married businessman Mohammad Faiyaz in 2004 and has a 10-month-old son, Mohammad Saihaan.
Shabnam met Faiyaz after she returned from Turkey and married couple of months later. Faiyaz had very little knowledge of boxing but liked Shabnam’s spirit. “I liked the way she faced and overcame obstacles. Some were against the idea and told me to steer clear but we paid no heed. She should be a role model for many girls,” says Faiyaz.
“I feel proud to be her husband,” he adds. Though he gets very little time to enjoy sport, Faiyaz makes it a point to accompany Shabnam wherever she goes coaching in Kolkata. For now, Shabnam is busy looking after her son but wishes to be back in the ring pretty soon. “We have a women’s national championship coming up and I would like to accompany the Bengal girls as coach,” she says.
Despite a string of firsts, the 27-year-old feels she has a long way to go. “What I have achieved so far has been limited. I have to reach a larger audience, draw girls from poor and humble background to take up sport. Not just boxing, but any sport for that matter.”
She is aware that not all would emerge champion boxers but “it will boost self respect and self-confidence”. That’s what drove her to boxing and that’s what driving her to nurture future champions.