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“Put on your gloves and get back in the ring!”

Sowmiya Ashok
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How will the ban on Indian Amateur Boxing Federation affect these vulnerable young daughters of Haryana?

Against all odds:Aspiring boxers are seen in their hostel room at the Giri Centre for Sports Activities, run by the Sports Authority of India, in Haryana’s Hisar. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan
Against all odds:Aspiring boxers are seen in their hostel room at the Giri Centre for Sports Activities, run by the Sports Authority of India, in Haryana’s Hisar. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Minutes after the news that the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) had been suspended by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) spread on Friday, women boxers from across the country frantically dialled a local cell phone in Hisar. The number belonged to their coach Anoop Kumar, chief coach of Olympic bronze medallist Mary Kom. What would the ban mean to women’s boxing, they wanted to know, only to hear their coach reply: “Put on your gloves and get back in the ring!”

The girls had received a double blow — not only had the AIBA suspended the federation that had been instrumental in fielding several of them at the international level, but the Union Sports Ministry had also de-recognised it, effectively cutting off government funding.

A day before the federation was suspended, some 20 girls and young women kicked up dust outside the Giri Centre for Sports Activities, housed inside the sprawling Haryana Agriculture University. Inside the facility, those newest to the sport shadowboxed gloveless on the far side of the ring, throwing their tiny fists in the air with an intense focus on their face, mimicking an expression so often seen on the faces of their seniors. In a few months, they will be ready to smash their gloves against one of the five punching bags on the far side of the ring and in another four months, they will be ready for a bout in the ring.

And in a matter of time, they hope to reach the level of 22-year-old Pinki Jangra, a ponytailed featherweight resting in a tracksuit days after winning the gold medal at the 13{+t}{+h}Senior Women’s National Boxing Championship held recently in Guwahati. Pinki became a pugilist after watching her two older brothers practice in this same ring. Now, not only do her achievements far surpass theirs, one of her brothers even manages her Facebook fan page.

Even as India’s national champion was on Thursday focused on 2014, when she will have the chance to improve her international standing again, Indian boxers were banned from doing this very thing — compete internationally — the very next day.

If the ban continues, the effects will trickle down to those who are arguably the country’s most vulnerable boxers — young girls and women who are practising their “straight left and right hook” punches in the ring in Haryana, a State whose negative sex ratio and highly-publicised rape cases have brought it national attention as a dangerous place to be a woman in. Yet, it is the same State that has produced some of India’s toughest and most successful female athletes, often in high-contact sports like boxing and wrestling.

These young women have sacrificed much to get to this point. They live away from their families in a hostel. Some gave up the vegetarian diets they grew up on in order to build muscle. A normal childhood is a distant dream for them — they don’t sleep late or play with friends after school.

“I don’t roam around with a boyfriend or go to the movies with friends,” says 20-year-old Sonia Lather, whose collection of medals is a testimony to her dedication.

Parents too make sacrifices, says All-India Democratic Women’s Association national vice-president Jagmati Sangwan. In the hope that their daughters’ success in the ring might bring them fame, honour and a cushy government post as a railway clerk or a police constable, parents risk the social stigma that boxing poses for their daughters, she says.

“Parents who allow these girls to train as boxers feel it is quite difficult to get their daughters married.”

These girls have also gained much. At least half the girls in the room have chopped off their hair, a clear rejection of social and beauty norms that so concern their parents, in favour of a hairstyle that is less distracting during a fight. “I can’t be bothered to care of my hair like the girls who spend hours on them,” says Sonia.

In a State which is infamous for crimes against women, the short hair serves as a disguise and makes them more “boy type”, as some of them put it. It also provides added protection from the power they pack in their fists or their ability to dodge a punch.

“I am confident I will be able to defend myself if I am ever attacked by men,” says Sonu Puniya (15), who has trained for two years.

Deeksha Mundli, a year younger, feels she has become stronger ever since she started training. “I was very weak before. Now, I have as strong as a boy.”

She is also not concerned about her muscles scaring off potential suitors. “So many women have entered the field of boxing. Why wouldn’t we find husbands? They will come running to marry us,” she laughs.

Girls who participate in sports become used to facing society as independent individuals, says Ms. Sangwan. “When they perform their activities in full public view, they become confident and emotionally stronger. Having faced these experiences on a daily basis, they are more capable of handling their affairs in a better manner,” she says — all qualities necessary in a man’s world.

The girls have worked hard to advance their overall physical and mental development. If the ban is not lifted any time soon, it is a punch below the belt for the young daughters of Haryana.

This is the first of a three-part series chronicling the lives of young Haryanvi girls who have challenged social norms in a State notorious for its skewed sex ratio against women to emerge as sports stars....


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