Don't fight these girls
It gives them self-confidence; it is an ideal tool for self-defence. Boxing is slowly gaining ground among women in Kolkata.
GIRLS IN THE RING: With the coach and at a sparring session.
IT is one of the unlikeliest places to find home grown Laila Alis or Hillary Swank characters a la the Oscarwinning "Million Dollar Baby". The Ekbalpur-Khidirpur area to the south of Kolkata is perceived as a backward area with its labyrinthine lanes full of slums and teeming people. Girls here get married early, and the role of a homemaker is seen as a prime duty.
But from these quarters have emerged women like Razia Shabnam, 26, the only Muslim woman boxing judge and referee in the country. Or take Sanno Baby who, with her twin sister Shakila, is at the ring practising even during the scorching May afternoons.
Trainer Asit Banerjee, secretary, South Calcutta Physical Culture Association, (SCPCA) however, finds nothing unusual. It is only an extension of women's inherent power finding expression through boxing. "We say that women are the weaker sex but if women really choose to strike back, men won't be able to stand up."
He also feels that the killer instinct, needed particularly in boxing, is not absent in women; it only lies "latent."
Banerjee admits, though, that it has been an uphill task to convince the parents of these Muslim girls to allow their daughters take up boxing. Muslim girls do have the "brawn" to take up the sport but there are many social barriers to cross.
Being a girl in a patriarchal society is one; then there is the conservative mindset. Yet, it was from such a background that Razia emerged. Why boxing?
"I often went with my brother to watch him in the ring. Then I felt that this was for me. I needed some time to convince my father and then he consented."
Women's boxing is yet to figure in the Olympics but is gaining ground. In India, it first came into focus in 2000 when SCPCA held the East India Open Women Championship in Kolkata.
The response was unexpectedly enthusiastic. The following year, at the national championship in Chennai, girls from the SCPCA won four medals. The club now has 21 girls and 68 boys.
The response from the growing number of girls showed that there was a need for women coaches. Thus, Sports Authority of India in Kolkata sent four women, including Razia, as trainees for the NIS Boxing Diploma course. Razia also took courses in refereeing.
In 2003, at an international boxing tournament in Turkey, her skill caught the authorities' eye and she was asked to referee for both women's and men's events. Since then Razia has also served as referee and judge in many events, most recently in Russia. Recently married, she says, "I am lucky that both my parents and my husband have been supportive. Otherwise it's difficult for a woman."
About women taking up boxing, Razia feels, apart from being an ideal tool for self-defence, it also helps boost self-confidence. "In boxing we've to take instant decisions within 10 seconds, whether to punch, where to hit.
This reflects outside the ring too. Boxing is ideal for women temperamentally too. In the game, we can use only the hands, remember, and we mustn't lose our temper. At home, we may have lots of tension, but we have to manage every thing coolly. A man often brings stress home from work, but a woman cannot afford to. Boxing is similar."
Dreaming of championships
"Every girl may not be a champion but they gain confidence and self-worth by training in the club," says Banerjee, adding, "I feel proud when Anwar Chowdhury, president of International Boxing Tournament (IBT) from Pakistan, compliments our endeavour and regrets that he is unable to replicate it in his own country," says Banerjee.
Young Sanno Baby and her twin Shakila dream of being champions. They are two of the six children of a single mother but "she has never prevented us from the taking up the game. She is very independent and wants us to take up a profession. She'll never marry us off early like many of our neighbourhood girls."
Both feel that boxing has given them a sense of self-confidence. In fact, Shakila says that once she even beat up a shopkeeper who tried to misbehave.
Today, many so-called set ideas of Muslim women are changing. The change is palpable in women like Razia and Sanno. They want to take up a job before settling down. But many parents and also young girls wonder if taking up amateur boxing has any prospect of employment opportunities. As Razia says, a referee-judge gets only travel and living expenses during assignments. "Women boxers have almost no job opportunities. So many of my students wonder, what's the use of punishing the body daily and many often stop after sometime."
Razia's dream is to see a girl emerge a champion, like Commonwealth flyweight gold medallist Md Ali Qamar, who is from the same area. Personally, she feels that boxing has given her a lot. "I wanted a change in the attitude towards girls in our community, that we are weaklings. There's lots to be done, but there has been a change too for the better."
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