Indian women from Haryana wrestling their way out of patriarchy
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The story of wrestling in one state in northern India highlights how sport can be used to address gender inequality and the unbalanced sex ratio which is a disturbing reality in some parts of the country.

From the parliament building – the temple of democracy – in New Delhi, India, the village of Balali in Haryana is about 140 kms away. This physical distance can be covered in less than two hours. The issue that crops up is the distance in mindset.

The ideology of the village is stuck in an India which existed about 100 years ago. An India where men and women are not equal; an India where a woman’s battle starts in the womb itself, where she fights to be born only to live a life of constant struggle and denial. Her birth is not celebrated, her nurture comes as an afterthought, her education is not a priority and love for her is not a choice.

It is not surprising then that Haryana has an appalling sex ratio. In fact, it is the worst in India standing at 879 women for every 1,000 men and a child ratio at 834 girls for every 1,000 boys (as per the 2011 census).

For its part, the government has launched multiple initiatives to counter this blatant gender discrimination, from making fetus sex determination tests illegal to launching welfare schemes for women such as The Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana Conditional Maternity Benefit plan. These initiatives have had some impact, but this impact pales significantly in comparison to the impact that the women of the Phogat family have had in Balali.

Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former state-level wrestler, introduced his daughters Geeta and Babita to the sport of wrestling. The community was up in opposition because Phogat’s move challenged the established patriarchal order. Most people called him mad and a few wanted him out of the village. Braving hostile circumstances, Mahavir was determined to turn his daughters into champions.

The daughters repaid their father’s faith and started winning medals. These wins had an effect that went beyond just the sports field. Girls in the village started believing that they could play a greater role in life than the one that was prescribed: they too wanted an individual identity and did not want to spend the rest of their lives known as someone’s daughter, wife or mother. Slowly mindsets started changing.

Now Geeta and Babita are local celebrities. Even people living around the village can give you directions to their house. They inspired a generation of Haryanavi women. In the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, five (out of the seven) members of the women’s wrestling team were from Haryana – Geetika Jakhar, Babita Phogat, Vinesh Phogat (Geeta and Babita’s cousin), Lalita and Sakshi Malik.

This is the power of sports, it can create change in a way that no government scheme can. Just before going to the 2012 Olympic games, in an interview with Reuters, Geeta’s statements captured this change beautifully. “Those who used to ask my father to be ashamed of himself for training us in wrestling now say they wish they had daughters like me. My grandmother had desired a male child. Now she says if she has a hundred daughters like me, she won't have any regrets.”

Slowly but surely, through wrestling women in Haryana are finding a means to emancipation.

Rashi Kakkar is a business graduate from SRCC, New Delhi, India and a Young India Fellow who spent most of her teenage years either on a tennis court, swimming pool or football/cricket field. Currently she is trying to understand the social and economic aspects around sports. She tweets at @rashi_kakkar.




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