In sports, a boost for rural Indian women

“People thought I was crazy when I began training,” Mary said after she won her fifth consecutive championship title in September in Bridgetown, Barbados. “But I never let their criticism affect me.”

In Bhiwani district, Haryana, the villagers can’t stop talking about the success of ‘their girls’ — Gita and Babita Singh, who after the two sisters won silver and gold medals last month at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

The Games seem to have given the country a new set of heroines: Kavita Raut, athletics star; Gagandeep Kaur and Jhano Hansdah, archers; Saina Nehwal, badminton player. Women athletes won 13 of India’s 38 gold medals, and contributed 56 total gold, silver and bronze medals to the final tally of 101. It was the first time that women had won the majority of medals awarded to India at the Games.

Social background
One aspect that has caught the attention of the media is the social background of many of the top athletes. Theirs is the world of small-town India, rural India, urban middle-class India. Few of the women are from socially privileged or wealthy families.
Mary’s family in Manipur worried when she insisted several years ago that she wanted to be a boxer. Her father has said that he thought the training would cost more than they could afford.

Gita and Babita Singh owe much of their success to the efforts of their father, Mahavir Singh Phoghat, a former wrestler who trained his daughters and nieces in his own training camp. In the absence of expensive equipment, he used a blend of traditional techniques — making the girls sprint across the fields and perform old-fashioned sit-ups, while insisting that a diet of fresh buffalo milk and ghee-smeared chappatis was exactly what they needed.

Many of the stories these women tell could have been lifted from ‘Chak De India!’, a 2007 hit movie about the travails and ultimate triumph of a women’s hockey team, whose members were drawn from across the country. In the film, as in the real world, most of the women are from relatively modest backgrounds.

Sharda Ugra, a veteran sports journalist, said: “One of the reasons why women have taken to sport in low-income families is that it’s an access line to a job.” She was referring to government and corporate arrangements that often guarantee athletes, especially women, a position and financial security in the workplace.

Some of the first signs of changing attitudes have been documented by the television and film industries. If ‘Chak De India!’ followed the ups and downs of a fictional but true-to-life hockey team, the 2009 TV series ‘Palampur Express’ followed another familiar story — the dreams of a young village girl who wants to be a runner and win an Olympic medal.

Anju Dubey Pandey, director of the Gender Training Institute at the Centre for Social Research, a research organisation in New Delhi that focuses on women’s issues, cautions against interpreting the recent achievements of women athletes as a measure of the progress Indian women have made over all. Because several of the athletes are from Haryana, a traditionally patriarchal state, there’s a temptation to turn this event into a larger success story for women, she said.

Although the Haryana state government has invested in programmes intended to advance women, she said, “we have to bear in mind that it’s a gender-critical state, in terms of the sex ratio, in terms of female literacy. There are very patriarchal structures and mind-sets at work.”

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