Set behind burqa, having thin access to education and technology, often bogged down by domestic chores, and plagued by malnutrition, Muslim women are thought to be among the most under privileged sections of our country. It is therefore nothing short of a shocking surprise when one of them wins a medal in the male-dominated sport of boxing!
For Shakila (19), a buxom girl from Ekbalpur, one of the clumsy, over-populated Muslim localities in Kolkata, boxing has been a life-changing experience. "Earlier our folks would not take us seriously," she says, but adds that all that changed when "I started winning medals in the national and international boxing championships. After all, I have made my country proud." She won a gold medal in an amateur boxing championship held in Turkey in 2006, and keeps participating in various national and state level boxing bouts. "Now they know that girls like us are not weaker than the boys", she adds. Shannu (19), her twin sister is also a boxer.
Each time they win a medal, the sisters are flooded with adulation; they have become the youth icons of a big fan following in their locality, and their friends in school. Their leap from obscurity to a popular identity has given many local girls the courage to pursue the 'heroic' game, boxing.
But this transformation was not an easy one; Shakila and Shannu had to work their way through considerable opposition at home to reach where they are today. The pugilist sisters - youngest among the six children in the family - recall how their otherwise open-minded father, when alive, would flinch even at the mention of boxing. "He thought girls are to be married and should stay at home," says Shannu. And "that was the final verdict for us," chimes in her sister.
S. K Singh, the twin boxers father was a Hindu by birth who converted to Islam when he married Banno Begum. He was a devout man. A sub-inspector with the Kolkata Police, he was thorough about the goings-on of the outside world but when it came to bringing up his girls, his views were downright conservative. No matter how much the girls cried for his permission, he remained uncompromising. Once he was so incensed with their non-stop nagging that he locked them inside a room and banned food for a day.
Had it not been for Begum, the large, broad-shouldered mother, the girls would not be boxing today. Daughter of a wrestler father, years ago, when Begum herself was a young girl she had wanted to be a boxer, - a dream that never saw the light of the day amid the stubborn conservative ways of her home. Now, she was not ready to accept the same fate for her daughters.
Shakila and Shannu's dedication and unfaltering hard work has given them recognition among those in boxing's inner circle. Impressed by their feats, boxing associations around West Bengal have been readily recognising their talent. However, the perks attached with other sports - like money, government jobs or endorsements by the private sponsors - look elusive.
"These girls come from extremely disadvantaged Muslim families. Training, travel and a boxer's diet requires quite a bit of money which is difficult for them to arrange," explains Asit Banerjee, the Secretary of SCPCA. "Even spending 20 rupees per day for traveling to and from the training centre is expensive for them," he adds. Similar tones of helplessness echo in words of Begum, "everyone is mad about cricket; no one really cares about boxing." Begum finds it increasingly difficult to convince her sons that it is worth investing on the girls. The desperation is reinstated as one of her sons gingerly admits, "we are a big family and it is tough for us to support two sportswomen."
It is a big family indeed. The twin sisters share two rooms with ten other family members - their mother, four siblings, one of the brothers' wife and their two kids. The narrow gully leading to their house overflows with sewage whenever it rains for even ten minutes. The entrance is a small passage which suddenly tapers down to a slim corridor where the cooking is done. Facing the cooking space, stands a musty, yet bright violet coloured wall of a 12x15 feet room. At one corner of the wall, a pair of boxing gloves is hanging alongside a series of religious pictures.
The next room is treated as a store cum prayer house where the inhabitants perform their daily Namaz on a narrow patch of floor in the midst of the claustrophobia of utensils, and sacks of grains. One cannot but wonder at the amount of grit it takes to balance this sort of a background of want and dreams of a glorious future.
The sound of utensils fills the air as Shannu hurries to cook meat - a must-have in their diet. The painstaking practice sessions which involve running, sparring, weightlifting and punching the boxing sacs wear them out, so the girls need a rich intake of protein at least six times a week. They are fortunate at somehow being provided with the prescribed diet by their family; there are other boxers who do not even get a square meal. Though, many of these women boxers show promise their exasperation with lack of funding is such that most consider quitting.
"It is high time that the government steps in and does something for them, otherwise their talent will die down," emphasises Banerjee. "If without any sponsorship and worthwhile support these girls can win international competitions, who knows if we may get a Laila Ali from them?" In reality, Laila Ali is the magic name that inspires many women pugilists in the city. "These girls have the killer instinct and the stamina to fight back - and that is why they can still come up as boxers notwithstanding their disadvantaged conditions," he adds, as his eyes shine bright with enthusiasm. "I want to make Ekbalpur the Cuba of India, a place internationally known for boxing."
But it has been an uphill task for Banerjee, a Hindu, to realise this dream in Muslim-populated Ekbalpur. In the beginning, he was viewed with suspicion, and even called "a Hindu conspirator" and "kaffir" by the local religious leaders. However, he has gradually been able to win hearts in this community, especially after some of his students started winning medals.
It is easy to see now that he has turned a difficult corner - let alone young men, now there is an increasing number of women joining the sport, thanks to Banerjee's efforts. A band of women packing powerful punches at the dangerously swaying boxing sacs - inside the gymnasium of the Sports Authority of India sends a powerful message about this transformation: a change is finally coming over our society's unfriendly attitude towards women in sports, even if very slowly.
The odds are still too high for many for these girls. Lack of money, social acceptance and support from their homes is enough to break down most young women's determinations, yet some of them continue boxing, because they cannot do without it. "Make me starve for a day, I can manage, but stop my game and that will kill me," Shakila says, while playing with one of her nephews. At the crux of such passion lies a sense of liberation and recognition that they do not get from anything else. For them it is a signifier of power in daily life. "Eve teasers in the locality know that they cannot mess with us", jokes Shannu, betraying a healthy pride.