Golden girls

by Annie Zaidi

You’ve been running Jo. How could you?
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

 

THERE MUST BE a word in some foreign language that encompasses the full range of my feelings as I watched the Phogat sisters grappling on the mat in their father’s gym. There was gladness in my heart but there was something more – a pinch of envy, relief, awe.

Who would have thought it possible a generation ago – young women spending the day, every day, wrestling? Who could have imagined that a gate at the entrance of Balali would welcome all visitors in the name of these girls who have brought glory to the village? That this would be possible in a state that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – including female foeticide, honour killings and rape?

There are six female wrestlers in the Phogat household: four sisters and two cousins. The oldest, Geeta, who won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, was the first Indian woman to do so. Babita and Vinesh both won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

I was sitting in the courtyard of the family home, talking to their father- coach, Mahavir Phogat, and his brothers. A hookah was being passed around between the men. Geeta and Babita’s mother, Daya Kor, is also an elected member of the village council, but the decision to put her up as a candidate had been taken by the men of the family. She sat with me for a while, but she didn’t say much. One of the uncles would answer for her whenever I asked a question.
None of that with the daughters. If they weren’t talking to me, it was because they had more important things to do.

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Geeta barely glanced at me except to nod politely and to inform me that she couldn’t talk; she had to practise.

I waited an hour, two hours, three. The sky paled and dusk came down in one fell swoop as I stood at the door to the gym, watching Geeta grapple with her youngest sister. It wasn’t until she stopped moving that I noticed the fine cheekbones, the hair pulled into a tight, short plait, and her nails, painted bright pink.

It was those nails, and the fact that the Phogats are a set of four sisters, that reminded me of my own childhood, and of Little Women. I read the novel when I was nine years old, more than a century after it was written, and the one thing I haven’t forgotten after all this time is that sentence – a girl telling her younger sister not to run. I dimly understood that it was about being ladylike and that ladies did not run. But nobody ever told me not to run. In school, we had to run whether or not we wanted to. Boys and girls had to participate in at least one sport. Shot-put, javelin, long and high jumps, races. There was a basketball court too, with two concrete pillars marking the approximate spot where the basket should be. There was, however, no basket. If the ball touched the top of the pillar we yelled basket!, and that was that.

Some of us could neither dribble nor shoot very well but that didn’t stop us from playing an aggressive game. Our coach would have to pull a couple of girls off the court and hand them a pair of nail clippers. We didn’t take ‘non-contact game’ very seriously. No doubt, some of my schoolfriends would have been better off wrestling.

Geeta Phogat’s nails, I noticed, were painted pink but clipped short. Her sister, Babita, wore henna on her hands. These were rare indulgences. There had been two weddings in the family that week – and the day I visited them, I discovered that some of the Phogat sisters had taken the afternoon off to go into town with their cousins. Not Geeta. She was hard at work, unwilling to break her regimen for a single day. She’s trying to make it into the Indian women’s wrestling team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and she knows it will take a lot of trying. Dozens of girls – international medal winners too – are also trying very, very hard.

SIX O’CLOCK ON a winter’s morning. I was kicking myself for promising to show up at the Chhotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak. The sky was still dark, and even the street dogs were too cold to bark. I was certain the officials were mistaken: the kids would not turn up on time. But at 6.30 am I peeked into the practice hall and found a group of boys running circles at the far end. Closer to the door were the girls, already sweating.

The girl leading the group exercises wore a white cap that buttoned under her chin, giving her an endearing, childlike look. Nothing childlike about her manner, though. She was shouting out instructions, driving herself as hard as the others. The senior wrestling coach who had been showing me around pointed her out: Sakshi Malik, Commonwealth silver medallist.

A few of the girls jogged past, bending to touch the coach’s feet. Another girl, without being asked, jogged off and returned with a chair for me. I sat and watched. Sit-ups. Push-ups. Leaps. Squats. Ten. Twenty. A hundred. Then came the special wrestler moves. A girl spinning atop another’s back. A girl spinning circles around herself. A girl grabbing the leg of her sparring partner, forcing her knee into a forward buck until she toppled backwards – the move takes less than a second to unfold. But they do it ten, twenty, a hundred times a day.

Sakshi’s shirt was drenched when, two hours later, she sat down in front of my chair to cool off. We were going to have to talk like this. She stretching, me scratching away in my notebook. She had no time for interviews. Her father was already outside, waiting to pick her up.

I asked what made her pick wrestling. ‘I was always sporty,’ she said. ‘I loved running. I kept telling my parents, “I want a game. Put me in a game.” They took me for athletic competitions initially. Then Mummy brought me here. I saw new things like pole [vault] and gymnastics. But the moment I saw some kids wrestling, I pointed and said: “Mummy, this! This is what I want to do.” I didn’t even know the name for “this”.’

I pushed the question at her again. Something must have drawn her to ‘this’ in particular, something that kept her at ‘this’ for eleven years. What?

Sakshi grinned. ‘Well, I had heard of one didi [a familiar term for an older girl], Geetika Jakhar. She’s one of the first Indian female wrestlers. She’s also from this state. I heard people say things like: “She has made a rickshaw out of a plane”.’ That is to say, Geetika travelled in an aeroplane like ordinary Indians travel in a rickshaw. Which is to say, she travelled abroad, and she did it on her own steam.

‘At first,’ Sakshi confessed, ‘that was all I wanted – to sit in a plane. That’s why I came to the stadium, morning and evening. I wanted to fly. Also, I wanted to look at that didi. What’s she like? What does she look like?’ I asked if she’d had a chance to find out. ‘Look,’ Sakshi crowed. ‘God gave me a chance and now I practise beside her! I do bouts with her. We have sat, eaten, travelled together.’ And yes, she too has made a rickshaw out of an aeroplane.

Sakshi’s enthusiasm for aeroplanes reminded me of a song: Baadal pe paaon hai, ya chhoota gaon hai (‘My feet are on a cloud, or have I just left my village far behind?’). It’s from a Hindi film that also happens to be about sports- women. Chak De! India (2007) focuses on hockey, India’s national game, and the discrimination the women’s team experiences. Halfway into the film, the coach is trying to persuade federation officials that the women’s team deserves to compete at the next world cup in Australia. The officials do not think the team is good enough to send abroad, so the coach holds out a challenge – his girls will play against the men’s team.

As it turns out, they don’t win. But they do offer such a tough challenge that the men’s team offers them a hockey salute. On this moment rests the girls’ fate – the endorsement and support of their male colleagues.

Our Hindi films rarely focused on sports and almost never had women players as protagonists. Chak De! India! fixed that, and, perhaps in a reflection of the changing scenario, there have been more such films in recent years, including stories based on real sportswomen. Mary Kom (2014) was a film based on a memoir written by an Olympic medallist and mother of two, who didn’t just put Indian boxers on the world map, she also changed perceptions about what women’s bodies are capable of, whether they can compete and win after marriage and motherhood.

There is a telling moment in this film too. The Indian women’s boxing team is abroad and has taken a bad beating. One of the officials is furious. He starts running them down, saying that these girls just want to come to international competitions so they can go shopping. The women, worn out and with bruised faces, stare at him in disbelief. There is no way he couldn’t know that they train as hard as men. Nor have men brought back medal- lion glory in significantly larger numbers. Yet, an official would never dare dismiss a male team with one word: shopping.

I tried asking Geeta Phogat and Sakshi Malik what they did in their spare time. Both said there is no such thing as spare time. Training, eating, sleeping, personal chores – that’s about all. They take no vacations. Childhood friends drift away because they don’t do what other youngsters do: eat junk, watch movies, wander about town, shop.

I asked Sakshi if it hurt, not being able to do all this. She said she has accepted that her life is a circumscribed one and will remain so for the next decade. ‘Geetika Jakhar is still playing after all. I too will go on as long as my body allows it.’ Perhaps she will stop when she has kids. Or perhaps not. ‘Have you heard of Mary Kom?’ she asked me. ‘She’s a mom and she’s still winning.’

Despite her claim that it is a happy sacrifice, Sakshi cannot entirely mask the ache of missing out on the smallest indulgence. She began to tell me about how she wanted to attend a family wedding recently, but couldn’t go. It would have meant a few hours’ drive, and she needed to be in bed before ten at night. She wouldn’t mind a few long drives if… Suddenly her eyes welled up.

She lifted the front of her sweatshirt to wipe her eyes, then she grinned. ‘We get to go all over the world, we represent India. And that moment when you are on the victory stand? Nothing compares to that – the feeling that the whole country is watching you!’

The whole country is watching indeed. As it watches, the country is also searching for new answers. How circumscribed should a girl’s life be? How should a girl be brought up now, given that there is a Sakshi Malik, a Geeta Phogat, a Mary Kom, a Karnam Malleswari?


KARNAM MALLESWARI WAS the first one who really made me sit up and take note. I usually skipped the sports section in the newspaper; it didn’t seem to have anything to do with girls anyway. But then, Malleswari showed up on the front page. She had won a silver medal at the Asian Games in 1998 and followed it up with a bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Our medal-hungry nation was delighted.

I was confused. Weightlifting and women? Could there be anything less ladylike?

That women are strong is self-evident. They lift huge bales of straw and loads of firewood; they balance pots of water on their heads and walk many miles; they carry the equivalent of a man’s weight and walk uphill in the Himalayan foothills. A female weightlifter should not require a great stretch of imagination. Yet, I had never seen one. Not until I saw Karnam Malleswari’s photographs.

I remember looking at her body carefully. Arms, thighs, waist. Did people ever tell her things like, she must not get a very thick muscly body or it would be hard to get married? What did boys think?

Many of us had been conditioned to think of marriage as a place where personal ambition went to die. Everything was geared towards making us marriage-ready and sexually desirable. It was common to hear mothers telling girls not to go out into the sun. They must not get tanned, because fair girls are in great demand in the marriage market. They must not break a limb. Injuries must not be mentioned to potential in-laws. Speak softly, keep your knees together, keep your hands soft.

But now here was Karnam Malleswari, already married at the time of her Olympic win! I began to see that the rules were different for sports- women. You couldn’t swim and not get tanned. You couldn’t keep your knees together and run. And if you lifted weights, you looked like a weightlifter, not a fashion model. And someone would still want to marry you.

There was revolution embedded in this simple idea – a woman could take control of her body. She could occupy it as herself, not as a potential wife to a stranger. If she succeeded through her body, her status would not be an inherited one. She would glory in her own gold, silver, bronze.

So, yes, of course we have been watching these sportswomen with great interest. Yet, the country watching a girl on the victory stand is a different ball game from the neighbourhood watching her. Especially if it is a disap- proving neighbourhood. What happens then?

 

I HAD READ about them: a bunch of teenage girls playing football in the suburb of Mumbra. It has often been described as a ‘Muslim area’, a suburb just outside Mumbai. So I got in touch with Parcham, the organisation that had put together the football team, and requested a meeting.

At the office, I was greeted with the open, confident faces of four teenage girls along with two of the Parcham founders, Sabah Khan and Aquila Khan. The players – school and college students – were quite articulate. One of the girls, Muskaan Syed, hit the nail on the head right away when she said, ‘It is not a question of how good you are as a player. If you want to play, you should be able to.’

If only it was as simple as that. The story of what the girls have had to do, just to be able to kick a ball around a field for a couple of hours on Sunday evenings, is a tragicomedy that encapsulates everything wrong with our society’s attitude to both women and sport.

It began with an organisation called Magic Bus setting up mixed teams of twenty adolescent boys and girls in Mumbai, cutting across caste and religion and gender. Masood Akhter, who works for the NGO, said football was chosen deliberately. ‘With cricket, boys have an advantage. They start very young. Football was relatively new to the city. Both boys and girls would start afresh. Also, it doesn’t cost much. You need a ball and a playground. Sometimes kids use their slippers to indicate goal posts.’

Magic Bus asked Sabah Khan, co-founder of Parcham, if she wanted to put together a team in Mumbra. She did, and the organisation began to reach out to schoolgirls. ‘At the very first meeting,’ Sabah said, ‘we had fifteen girls who wanted to play football. The problem was, they couldn’t play with boys.’ The girls’ families were unlikely to allow them to play if the team was a mixed one.

It was a quandary for Magic Bus: don’t have girls play at all, or make an exception for the Mumbra team? Finally, a condition was laid down. Parcham would be allowed to set up an all-girls team, provided they could gather at least thirty girls for training. Masood told me this was necessary to make sure that, even if a few kids dropped out, the team remained viable.

Whatever else they lacked, the Mumbra girls had enthusiasm in abundance. They spread the word, handed out pamphlets, lobbied other girls outside schools. Eventually, instead of the thirty they needed, forty girls signed up.

Getting Muslim girls to turn up was not the hardest part. Muskaan’s father, in fact, came to drop her off at the playground. He was, if anything, relieved. His little girl had been feeling low and he was glad to hear she wanted to play again. Muskaan was a sporty kid but when the family moved here, no girls would come down from their apartments. ‘I played with boys for a while but as an adolescent, it was getting harder and harder. After seventh standard [grade], I stopped playing. For a few years, I wasn’t feeling good about myself. Then I saw the Parcham pamphlet about football. I started playing, talking, and that inferior feeling just went away.’

Parcham also discovered that it was not just Muslim girls who were prevented from playing outside. ‘We asked girls across caste and community lines because we wanted to build a diverse team, but found little response,’ Sabah said.

The biggest problem, however, was space. Most of the grounds were taken over by boys playing cricket. ‘Playgrounds and parks were in bad shape too, with a lot of construction waste and litter. The girls even offered to clean up the ground if they were allowed to play but the boys were very reluctant to let them. The girls approached schools and colleges next but heard “no” from all sides.’

Finally, a women’s group came to their rescue. The Maharashta Mahila Parishad approached a temple trust on their behalf. The girls played a few times near a Shankar temple, and it was then that girls from other communi- ties also joined in. In 2013, when Magic Bus organised a tournament for teams from around Mumbai, it was Mumbra’s girls who turned out in the largest number.

This is something the girls take pride in.

They are also proud of having not backed down when one of the playgrounds turned into a battleground. The boys who played cricket there were unwilling to vacate it, even for a couple of hours. They insisted Sunday was the only day they had time to play. So the girls began to show up earlier to occupy the field. Some cricket balls came at them and caused a few injuries. They too began to kick the football hard, straight at the boys or aiming to knock down the wickets. The organisers intervened, telling the boys they could try football. A compromise was reached: the boys agreed to let the girls play football if they agreed to play cricket too. Masood still laughs about it. ‘You should have seen the way the girls practised! They had to learn cricket in order to make space for football! The good thing was, once the boys saw that the girls were serious, some of them offered to teach them.’

It would have been nice if the story ended there. Sadly, it didn’t. When the girls managed to play with the boys, someone noticed. Someone talked. Their own coach, a local man, scolded them. One of the girls, Muzna Ansari, was forbidden from playing after her brother complained to their mother that boys hung around, watching the girls play.

Muzna had to stay away for a while. But then, she heard about the Magic Bus tournament. ‘I persuaded my mother to let me go for just one day. I said it is a team of just girls and I would not be wearing shorts. So she let me go. Then our team won and my mother was pleased about that. She allowed me to start playing again.’

Muzna used to win races in school and says she would like to be a profes- sional athlete. But she doesn’t know if it is possible. Even though her brother has stopped fighting with her, even though there is a growing sense of excite- ment around football in Mumbai, with a professional league for both men and women, and the promise of significant money if one gets picked up by a team. Even so.

For one, it is hard to find coaches for girls in Mumbra. The last coach was a disaster. He kept telling the girls they were not good enough to participate in tournaments and, finally, he stopped coming. A new coach has been found with some difficulty but the girls would have to play everyday to compete professionally. Local colleges and teachers rarely encourage sport for girls. There have been instances where a college head calls up a girl’s home to say, ‘Do you know your daughter is playing football?’

The girls have not given up, although their numbers have shrunk from forty to twenty. Parcham has been working to secure space for them. Having mapped all the open and green spaces on the city’s blueprint, they approached the local member of legislative assembly and got him to agree to reserving one space exclusively for girls. Hostility with various boys’ groups has not been a pleasant experience and the girls prefer to play on their own ground.

I asked if they would like to play with boys if it wasn’t for social censure. The girls said no. Muskaan thinks boys are often more prudish. ‘As an adolescent, I played with boys but they refused to play kabaddi or kho-kho [traditional Indian games]. We would end up playing cricket or racquet games so we didn’t have to touch. Among girls, we are free to play whatever we like.’

Another player, Salma Ansari, pointed out that playing with boys carries the risk of exclusion. ‘I’ve played with boys and I feel that they sideline you, or even other boys who are not as active,’ she said. Although she is the goalie now, she says she was not very sporty until she fell in with a group of girls who were. ‘Girls take you along. They help you build stamina. They make you active.’

 

I THOUGHT FOR a long time about the word Salma used – ‘active’. If to be sporty is to be active, then to not be sporty implies passivity. Was I passive? Am I?

In my final year of school, I had had to move. I was sixteen, and the new girl in class. This school also had a basketball court; it even had an actual basket. In winter, during the hour-long lunch break, the boys would hit the court. The girls would huddle indoors, talking. Gossiping, really. I was bored. So one day, I stepped out during the break. The boys from my class were playing. I stepped on court and asked if I could join them.

I couldn’t keep the ball for more than two seconds. Still, I ran from one end of the court to the other. It felt good to run. I could laugh at how bad I was at the game.

All was well until a girl informed me, in kindness and friendship no doubt, what the other girls were saying – I had gone out to play only because I wanted to attract the boys’ attention. Thus it ended.

A few years ago, I was reading reports about a group of girls in the suburb of Nagpada, in Mumbai, who were trying to play basketball. Because they were a curiosity – Muslim girls in a Muslim neighbourhood – they were written about a lot. The coaches were supportive but cautious – the girls had to go straight home. No lingering after a game, no hanging out. The smallest bit of gossip and all dreams of a career in sport would be crushed. Perhaps they were crushed. Who knows? Five years down the line, nobody is writing about them any more.

Mine was a liberal family. If I had real athletic talent, I would have been supported. Yet, I remember the fear and shame of being judged by my own peers. In my final year of school, I put on weight. I grew quieter. I learnt to sit indoors and listen to gossip. I was, indeed, learning to be passive.

Luckily, I was sent away to a women’s college where being ‘active’ was compulsory for residential students. It may have been intended to keep us out of trouble, but it did something more – it gave us an alternative way of being. Most girls developed calloused palms, scarred knees, bruised forearms, blistered feet. Three years in a women’s college allowed me to shake off the burden of inactivity. I was not on any teams, but I was very active and my work did attract attention. This time, it didn’t feel like an accusation.

 

TO WANT TO be seen is the most natural thing for any child. Yet, girls are taught to render themselves less visible – in speech, in manner, in dress, in the ways in which they occupy space. Streets, buses, playgrounds have fewer women. Many schools and college hostels have different rules for female students, so they cannot leave the premises without permission or cannot go out at night. Media and our cultural landscape also allow women a smaller share of visibility. Even in a cricket-mad nation like ours, for instance, the average Indian is unlikely to know the names of any women cricketers. Most people don’t even know the current captain of the Indian women’s cricket team, Mithali Raj, although she has broken impressive records. Women crick- eters don’t get lucrative endorsement deals.

In such an environment, playing – being visible – is a way of asserting one’s right to equality. This is the mandate of groups like Parcham. In an effort to reclaim space, they organised a cycle rally in Mumbra. They had noticed that many boys were riding pink bicycles, so they asked around and discovered that the bikes actually belong to girls. The government has been trying to counter high dropout rates in school by giving bicycles to girls who study at least until the eighth grade. Pink bicycles, of course. But the girls weren’t using them.

Once again, girls mobilised other girls and they rode bikes across Mumbra for a day. It is nowhere near enough visibility but it is a start. As Parcham co-founder Sabah Khan put it, ‘People just need to get used to the sight of girls outdoors. Playing football, riding bikes. After a while nobody pays attention. It becomes normal.’

The great advantage of team sports is that the change quickly starts to feed back into the community. Magic Bus’s Masoor Akhter said that, through sports, the girls break out of the obedient, pliant, house-bound mould that has been cast for them. ‘Outside of the playground, most girls are discour- aged from making any decisions. But once they start playing, they develop confidence within weeks. They learn decision-making, leadership, working in teams.’

 

INDIA HAS BEEN rated as one of the worst places in the world for women for various reasons, including child marriage, poor maternal health, traffick- ing and sexual assault. One of the impacts of sexual violence is a shattering of our collective confidence. Visibility and mobility are the first casualties for girls. Sport, however, has the opposite effect; it is the quickest route back to physical confidence and mobility. Professional sport offers something more: an independent income and identity.

The last two decades have made this possibility more real than ever before. Tennis star Sania Mirza, badminton star Saina Nehwal and boxer Mary Kom are known names. They are getting brand endorsement deals. Former athletes like PT Usha have set up training academies. More and more women are bringing home international medals and the glitter of all that gold and silver is starting to rub off on the lives of ordinary kids.

Central and state governments are offering jobs to top medal winners. There are more coaches and training centers. Selectors are looking for talent in schools outside big cities. The sight of girls travelling, wearing track suits, is becoming normal. People are letting girls travel on their own. All the girls living at the Chhotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak, for instance, have the support of a family back in the village. Their families are hoping that medals will lead to a government job with a secure salary, perhaps a pension too, and, for a change, their hopes for boys and girls are the same.

Some girls, like Geeta Phogat, did not start out wanting to be champions. Geeta didn’t choose wrestling. It was her father who decided for her. Now, however, she wants the same thing he wants – she wants to keep winning. Winning has given her the world for a stage and got her name up on the village gate. Winning has put her on a cloud.

What of her personal life, I wondered. Do all her winnings translate into the right to decide whom she marries? She shrugged. ‘I can, but I don’t want to marry right now.’ She paused a moment, then laughed. ‘To be honest, Papa won’t even let me. Not yet.’

Still, her success and her strength have ensured one thing at least: her mother will stand by her decision. Daya Kor, who had let her brother-in-law answer all the questions I put to her, did look me in the eye and answer one question. The one about marriage. ‘It is my wish,’ she said, ‘that the girls should decide. There are boys out there in the world who make indepen- dent decisions nowadays. My girl is not less than any boy. Let her make her own choice.’

It is not a choice the mother had. Nor is anybody arranging a batch of fresh-baked choices on a platter and offering it up to the daughters. They’re going to have to win their choices, one medal at a time.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 53: Our Sporting Life © Copyright Griffith University & the author.