Women wrestlers break stereotypes
Anita Sheoran is a pioneer. She is one of India’s first women wresters to taste international success, winning a gold in 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi, the year women’s wrestling was introduced at the games.
India’s mat women, at that time still a novelty, made a breakthrough that year, winning three gold medals, two silver, and a bronze. They found themselves in the limelight, and they found acceptance—from their villages, their families, and their khap panchayats—all of whom had once tried to stop them from wrestling, which was considered exclusively a man’s game.
Yet, the deeply-rooted patriarchy continued to plague women’s wrestling—“how can lambs do what lions do?” ran a popular saying meant to intimidate women who had wrestling ambitions. There were other pressures: Who will marry a woman who wrestles? How will the women wrestlers handle motherhood?
Almost a decade later, at the Senior National Wrestling Championship in Jalandhar (29 November 29 to 1 December), such questions have been relegated to the dustbin of history. The fiercely competitive women’s section at the championships features many mothers, some of them making comeback bids, and some of them hoping to earn their place in India’s 2020 Olympic squad.
Sheoran got married in 2015, and after narrowly failing to make it to the 2016 Olympics, took a break from the sport to raise a family. Last year, inspired by Sakshi Malik’s medal at the Rio Games and egged on by her husband, and after becoming a mother, Sheoran made a return to the sport.
“During pregnancy I gained a lot of weight and was over 90kg,” Sheoran said. “When my baby turned one, and had been weaned off, my husband motivated me to give wrestling a try again. Initially I was reluctant, but a couple of months later I was on the mat. I spent the first-four months of my return in shedding out the extra kilos and after that it was a smooth transition back to wrestling again.”
At the 2018 nationals, Sheoran was back at the top of her game, winning a gold in the 65kg, non-Olympic category. This year, her ambitions are greater; she has switched to 68kg, an Olympic weight class and is hoping to earn a quota for the 2020 Games. Out of seven Olympic weights, only Vinesh Phogat has booked an Olympic berth in 53kg, making this nationals a critical stage for many women wrestlers hoping to make it to Tokyo.
Punjab’s Gursharan Kaur who is a single mother raising a three-year-old girl, is making a comeback after six long years off the mat.
“It’s a wrong notion that once you are married or you have a child, the sporting career of a woman is over,” Gursharan says. “I would say being a mother makes you even stronger. Your child becomes a source of motivation for you, because for every child, his or her mother is a super woman. To try and live up to that expectation, you get an inner strength.”
Gursharan’s decision to return to wrestling was also inspired by her daughter.
“I had a difficult married life, and I have filed for a divorce,” she said. “But I wanted to be an example to my daughter, so I thought of making a comeback. Now I am hoping for a podium finish in Jalandhar and my aim is to get back into the Indian squad for the Olympic qualifiers.”
To focus on her training, she has had to leave her daughter in the care of her parents.
“Without sacrifice you cannot think of accomplishing your goals. Staying away from my daughter is my biggest sacrifice,” she said.
Most of India’s wrestlers come from rural areas of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where a married woman is still supposed stay at home. The wrestlers are fast breaking from these shackles.
Malik got married after her Rio Olympics medals and continues to be one of India’s top wrestlers. Phogat won her maiden world championship medal this year after getting married in December last year.
Another wrestler in the Indian team, Sarita Mor is married too.
“Sarita is married to international wrestler Rahul (Mann) and when we spoke to his parents about the marriage, our first and only condition was that she will continue wrestling,” said her father Ram Chander Mor. Both Mor and her husband Mann, are competing at the nationals. Malik’s husband Satyawart Kadian has already won a gold in 97kg on the opening day, and will now spend the rest of the tournament supporting Malik’s quest for a medal.