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Your Daily Read: Wrestling The Gender Barrier

The wrestling heroines of India are fighting for freedom and feminism

From the unlikely interiors of Haryana comes an act of liberation and hope

If a woman can become prime minister and run the country, if a woman can be a sarpanch, a doctor, then why can’t she be a wrestler?

In the midst of the incessant spate of cheerless news from north India comes a spring of hope. And that it comes from the most unlikeliest of places – from a state with the worst sex ration in the country, abysmally low female literacy and deeply patriarchal attitudes – gives us even more reason to celebrate, and to hope.

Mahavir Phogat, the sarpanch of village Balali in Haryana and the head of a family of six girls, is hardly a conventional poster boy for emancipation. Neither is Chandgi Ram, a celebrated wrestler and bit-part actor of the 70s. But quietly and relentlessly, these two men have found a unique way to empower women in Haryana – by encouraging them to take up wresting. Which is why today’s Your Daily Read needs to be read, and savoured, by every Indian who has ever ranted about the problems of India.

It was the weirdest thing—girls wrestling!” Deepika says. “It was funny, scary, liberating, all at the same time. We laughed at the ‘costumes’—we had never seen girls dressed in shiny body-hugging clothes. Look at those muscles! Those thighs! As we were taking it all in, one of the girls picks up another over her hip and slams her down on the mat—BAM—and it was like a dazzling light switched on in our brain.

This is what Deepika, daughter of Chandgi Ram and head of the All India Women’s Wrestling Association, remembers of her first visit to a wresting session with her father in 1997. Deepika and her sister Sonika spent over a decade travelling from village to city to dangal (wrestling competition), fighting not just their opponents but the deep rooted hostility and violence from the audience. It was Chandgi Ram who inspired Mahavir Phogat to train his six daughters into champion wrestlers. The eldest went on to win gold at the 2010 CWG, and three of them are part of India’s contingent at the 2014 Asian Games.

The Phogat girls loved the life of the wrestler—the pain, the euphoria, the fighting and sleeping exhausted after a hard day’s training, the liberating experience of wearing shorts and T-shirts, all the fuss over their diet—“It was a great adventure,” Babita says, “And what made it special was that we knew no other girls in our village or in any nearby village who were doing this!

You go, girls!!!

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Cover image featuring Vinesh Phogat courtesy The Hindu

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  1. Stories Of Sisterhood: The Phogat Sisters - My Big Red Bag

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