India at 70: How Razia knocked out ‘male things forbidden for women’
Razia Shabnam, one of the first women boxing coaches in India, sought freedom from the stereotype that boxing did not belong to women, least of all to those from the Muslim community.
India is days away from celebrating its 70th Independence Day: A remarkable journey for a large and diverse nation with a flourishing democracy that accords its citizens powerful social and economic freedoms.
Independence has helped people and communities to smash barriers of caste, class, gender, ability and faith and achieve their dreams. But structures of oppression persist, and many people languish in islands of darkness where freedoms are few and choices absent.
HT brings you stories from across our nation, of hope, courage and perseverance in “free India” that reflect the actual promise of independence, and of isolation, hate and despair that stalk the “unfree India” among our midst.
In Part 1, read about the inspiring journey of a Muslim woman boxer and the challenges of a Naga woman fighting for her rights. Here is the woman boxer’s story:
Razia Shabnam has a thing or two to say about how freedom does not come free.
Shabnam took to the boxing ring in 1998 and went on to become one of the first women boxing coaches in India, in 2001.
She is also the country’s first woman to become an international boxing referee and judge, and has travelled abroad to officiate in international boxing tournaments.
The freedom she wanted was from the stereotype that boxing did not belong to women, least of all to those from the Muslim community.
Each step was a struggle. Her journey revealed the limits placed by society. Yet, it showed the possibilities of freedom for individuals in independent India.
Fighting gender discrimination
Shabnam considers herself luckier than many.
Her family favoured her participation in the sport when boxing clubs in Kolkata’s Muslim-dominated localities of Ekbalpore and Kidderpore area opened their doors to girls in 1997-98. Her father, Rahat Hussain, was a wrestler and brother a boxer.
Her neighbours, however, were not happy with the idea.
“My family came under immense pressure from the community. They were told what they were doing was un-Islamic. They threw taunts that a woman boxer would not get a good groom. We were stopped on our way to the class and abused publicly,” said the 37-year-old. The family also faced criticism for letting her study in college.
Yet, her parents stuck to the decision.
All they asked her to do, for fear of ostracisation, was go to the coaching class in traditional attire, salwar and kameez.
“The firmness in my parents’ decision came from my father’s conviction that sports helped develop better personality,” Shabnam said.
During the years of struggle ‘to be able to do the male things forbidden for women,’ she realised that women – cutting across socio-religious sections – suffer nearly equal gender discrimination.
“As a boxer, coach and referee, I never faced religious discrimination but I had to battle gender discrimination all throughout,” she said.
The 1BHK flat in an old building inside a dingy lane in Muslim-dominated Ekbalpore area tells that her laurels don’t enable her to support her family.
She has no job. The remuneration from officiating boxing matches and salary from coaching young girls is paltry. The family runs on the income of her husband, a trader.
Yet, her success paved the way for others.
At Kidderpore School of Physical Culture – where Shabnam started taking her boxing classes in 1998 – fathers, mostly from poor families, now plead with the coach to take their daughters as a student.
Most of the parents hope excellence in boxing would open ways for jobs under the sports quota. Others feel girls need to know basic self-defence knowledge.
While some of the Muslim girls still arrive in burkha and change to boxing costume at the club, more girls now arrive in loose tracksuits and shorts. They practice on an outdoor boxing ring.
Many of them, however, quit boxing by the late teens and early 20s when they get married. Others quit as the prospects of getting a job get bleaker.
Support for freedom
Shabnam, though, is still a part of this world.
Just back from the five-day certification course for Star 1 level international referee and judge, conducted by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) in Guwahati, Shabnam juggles her passion for the sport with family responsibilities.
Her husband, Mohammad Faiyaz, takes care of their two children when she is away.
“Like my father, my husband too faced taunts for letting me continue, particularly because I also officiate in men’s matches. He battled it,” she says, visibly proud. This is why Shabnam feels the struggle for freedom also needs helping hands.
She now coaches girls, both Hindus and Muslims, from the city’s red-light area who live at a care centre run by an NGO.
“The bleak prospect of a professional career out of boxing hasn’t dampened their spirit. Boxing gives them the confidence to break barriers and teaches self-preservation,” she said.
Shabnam does not teach them boxing alone but also how to land knockout punches on the face of a society that aims to suppress women.