We kick off our Stories of Sisterhood series with the Phogat sisters, six women wrestlers who are busting the gender barrier.
Those of you who follow us on Facebook and Instagram will know that the MBRB girls are celebrating Raksha Bandhan by exploring the bond between sisters Why are we doing this? Find out here). All through August, we will bring you stories about sisters – many of them regular women like you and me; some of them famous, such as the Ranaut and the Phogat sisters. Write to us if you have a story, poem or picture to share about your sister/s, tag us on FB or Insta with sisterly inspiration, and help spread the word by sharing our Stories of Sisterhood.
We talked about how the Phogat sisters were wrestling the gender barrier long before they became advertising icons and media darlings. But for those of you who have just emerged from your rock, here’s a brief run down.
Mahavir Bhogat is the sarpanch of village Balali in Haryana. His decision to train his daughters in a male dominated contact sport like wrestling – in a state where women are expected to keep their heads covered at all times – has also turned him into a poster boy for women emancipation.
There are six Phogat sisters who are breaking down the doors of dangals across the country: Geeta, Babita, Ritu, Vinesh, Priyanka and Sangita, in order of age. Vinesh and Priyanka are the daughters of Mahavir’s slain brother, and were adopted by Mahavir after their father’s death. Geeta, Babita and Vinesh have each won Gold for India at the Commonwealth Games (Geeta in 2010, Babita and Vinesh in 2014). In 2012, Geeta became the first woman wrestler to represent India in the Olympics. Meanwhile, the three younger siblings have been on a medal winning spree at junior wrestling events, such as the Asian Wrestling Championships for Cadets (under 15).
The Phogat household is not made up of daughters alone – they also have a younger brother. It is telling that while the boys in Mahavir Phogat’s extended family have been unable to withstand his strict training regime, the girls have flourished. Not surprisingly, the media narrative around the sisters has largely focused on the role that their father played in moulding them into champion wrestlers. What gets overlooked, or perhaps even deliberately ignored, is the importance of opportunity and the value of sisterhood in this remarkable real life saga.
Talking about how the success of Geeta and Babita helped change perceptions in their village, Vinesh had this to say:
There was pressure on us before Geeta won the CWG gold. Village elders and even my grandmother used to say that no family will want their daughters-in-law to play such a sport. But now, we’re heroes.
The buzz around the Phogat sisters amplified when Aamir Khan signed up to play Mahavir Phogat in the upcoming Dangal. A Google search for the movie will tell you all about Aamir Khan’s regimen to beef up for his character and his catchup with the Phogat family, but very little about the real heroines of the story. The four Phogat sisters (Geeta, Babita, Ritu and Sangita) will be played by Fatima Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar.
Why Dangal? The wrestling world is made up of akharas (training grounds) and dangals (wrestling competitions). Both have been pucca male bastions. Until now. The remarkable success of the Phogat sisters is inspiring more and more women in Haryana to demolish yet another glass ceiling.
Not The First Ones
The Phogat sisters are not the first bunch of sisters-wrestlers in India. That credit goes to Deepika and Sonika, daughters of legendary wrestler and coach Chandgi Ram. It was Chandgi Ram’s drive to get his daughters into wrestling that inspired Mahavir Phogat to fill up his akhara with girls. Read more here and watch the two eldest sisters on AK’s Satyamev Jayate.
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Cover Image : Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, the two eldest Phogat sisters, appear in the October 2014 edition of Satyamev Jayate. Image courtesy Telly Reviews