Rohtak, Haryana – A stream of people are flocking to a house decked in flowers and lights. Family, friends and neighbours gather to congratulate Sakshi Malik – India’s first female wrestler to win an Olympic medal.
The 23-year-old medallist grew up in Rohtak city, 70km west of the Indian capital New Delhi.
Her successful battles on and off the wrestling mat have made her a symbol of female empowerment and a role model in her home state of Haryana, which is notorious for female foeticide.
“I had never anticipated such an overwhelming response to my victory, considering the hostile attitude they had towards me in all my training years as a woman wrestler,” Sakshi, whose grandfather, Badlu Ram, was also a wrestler, told Al Jazeera.
Awards and rewards have flowed her way and the state government has announced that it is to make her the face of its “Beti Bachao”, or save the daughters, campaign.
The Olympic bronze medallist, who painted her nails with an Indian flag and Olympic rings, said: “All’s well that ends well, I guess”.
Doors of wrestling open to women
Despite being one of the most conservative states in India, Haryana has churned out a large number of women wrestlers who have dominated at the national level in the past decade.
In 2002, when Chotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, an all-boys’ club, opened its doors to women, its former head coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya, faced opposition from the community leaders.
“People said don’t mix goats with lions,” the 61-year-old says animatedly, with visible irritation on his face.
Dahiya, who has been a wrestling coach for almost 35 years, retired from the academy two years ago. The government-run academy has produced more than 30 women wrestlers, including Sakshi, who have represented India at the international level.
Dahiya told Al Jazeera that a female athlete named Kavita persuaded him to enrol her at the all-boys’ academy back in 2002. She went on to become the first woman wrestler to represent India at an international junior tournament in Turkey.
“It was a conflict because it was an all-boys’ training academy. But since I had given her my word, I decided to take her in,” says the veteran coach, whose tall, muscular and athletic body defies his age.
Dahiya says he had trained men despite their caste, class or religious background in the past.
“I applied the same principle when it came to girls – zero discrimination,” he told Al Jazeera.
A culture of male sport
Inspired by Kavita’s success, Sakshi, then only 12, joined the government-run academy in Rohtak, where akharas – venues for a traditional form of wrestling called kushti – are a common sight.
Initially, Dahiya admitted six girls to train. But as the girls grew up and became better, they did not have women coaches to train with, so they started training with the boys.
“Fellow coaches said I was promoting immorality … but the girls and I paid no heed,” Dahiya says.
Since Sakshi’s win, at least five new girls are coming each week to join the academy.
Mandeep, Sakshi’s current coach, says he is flocked by a group of young, aspiring female athletes as he steps out to show Al Jazeera the new fans, wrestling mats and equipment that have recently arrived.
“Students come from far-off towns to train. They often have to rent houses to stay,” says Mandeep, who was Dahiya’s student and wrestled at national level. “Having more sports hostels would encourage more parents to send their girls.”
Rajbir Singh, the acting district sports officer of Rohtak, admits, however, that there is a lack of institutional mechanisms to back players in a better way. He explains that a distinct culture of sport in the northern Indian state has led to the sporting successes of recent years.
“Young children, all across the villages in the state, play outdoor sports. It is because of this that agility, speed, motor quality, flexibility, strength, endurance – all the qualities required for a good sportsperson – are developed in their childhood,” the sports officer says. “So even a small amount of backing from the government helps Haryana produce world-class players.”
The international arena
Athletes from Haryana, particularly wrestlers and boxers, have done well both at national and international levels in the past decade.
At the 2012 London Olympics, wrestlers Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt from the state won silver and bronze medals respectively. Vijender Singh became the first boxer to win a bronze medal for India at the Beijing Games.
Still, India’s sports bodies are rife with corruption and are, at best, not women-friendly.
Jagmati Sangwan, a former international volleyball player and a social activist, says that a lack of gender sensitisation makes the battle to prove oneself even harder for female athletes.
“There are no sexual harassment committees in sports academies. So women players put up with it because they want nothing to come in the way of their game, including the stigma of being a victim,” Sangwan, who comes from Rohtak, says.
Sakshi’s journey to Rio de Janeiro was not a smooth affair. She had to face the entrenched patriarchy particularly in her state, where “khap panchayats”, or village councils, often dominated by male village elders, have considerable sway over the social lives of people.
Khaps are caste and clan councils that operate as kangaroo courts that have tried to ban mobile phones for women to curb interaction with the opposite sex, regulate dress codes for women and, on many occasions, encouraged honour killings in the name of protecting the local culture.
Sakshi was able to join a male-only sport because she received the support of her parents.
Her father, Sukhbir Malik, who is a bus conductor for Delhi Transport Corporation, and her mother, Sudesh Malik, a supervisor with the Women and Child Development Ministry, worked in tandem for the realisation of Sakshi’s dream.
The middle-class family income was supplemented by the ancestral farmland which gives Sakshi an edge over other players.
“My daily diet, the running around, the access to resources did cost a lot of money and none of that could have been possible if I did not have family support.”
Sakshi says that more girls should voice their ambitions clearly to their parents because it is just not possible for girls to move ahead without their support.
As the visitors wait on the patio of Sakshi’s house, Sudesh, in her early 50s, fusses over a peculiar concern: The bouquets that have poured in since Sakshi’s triumph are rotting and she needs help to dump them.
She is the one who manoeuvred through the patriarchal backlash and the red tape of the Indian sports bureaucracy for more than a decade to fully nurture her daughter Sakshi with power and ambition.
“The people sitting outside congratulating Sakshi are the same lot who questioned me for supporting her ambition,” she says in a hushed tone. Sakshi puts her hand over Sudesh’s shoulder as she hears this.
“There were slants at my character each time they would see me interacting with a male office bearer in the sports stadium, wrestling federation or even while coach-hunting for her. They cursed my motherhood.”
Sudesh says that people had dubbed Sakshi’s body as “hypermasculine and unattractive”, saying “no one would ever marry” her daughter.
“I kept quiet and did what needed to be done. That is the skill all women acquire in Haryana,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone.
On the day of her arrival, Sakshi was congratulated by the leader of the Malik Khap, the clan council of her ancestral village, Mokhra Khas, in Rohtak.
“Sakshi’s medal is no less than the medal of an army personnel who fights in wars,” Dada Baljeet, the leader of the Mokhra Khas khap, told Al Jazeera. “From now on, we have no problem with any girls wrestling with boys.”
Sakshi’s victory may not have broken the entrenched social barriers against women, but it has definitely changed the perspective of Baljeet, who in the past wanted amendments in the Hindu marriage act to curb self-choice marriages.
“I don’t want to say much about the khaps,” says Sakshi, “except that there are so many bad calls against you by the virtue of being a woman.”
‘Let daughters play’
On the day Al Jazeera met Sakshi, she was due to be honoured at her alma mater, an all-women’s college, Maharani Kishori Jat Kanya Mahavidyalya.
As soon as Sakshi entered the campus, jubilant girls lifted her on their shoulders, carrying her to the multipurpose hall of the college.
Close to 600 girls, some sitting on the floor, and the others who had occupied the gym equipment and the boxing ring at the far end of the hall, broke into loud applause and chanted, “Long live Sakshi Malik, long live revolution!”
“If I can do it, so can you girls,” says Sakshi amid moments of euphoria and a symphony of phone camera shutters.
“I also urge the government to add the words ‘Let Daughters Play’ to their campaign ‘Save Daughters, Educate Daughters’.”
The college principal, Krishna Chaudhary, a middle-aged woman, walked up to the podium, beaming with pride.
“I often get suicide threats from the brothers of the girls who I admit into the college. They say that they prefer death over the dishonour brought by their sister’s education,” she says. “I always urge them to go ahead. After Sakshi’s victory, I am assured that my advice to the brothers is 100 percent correct.” The girls break into loud cheers and applause.
Since her win, Sakshi announced her marriage plans with fellow wrestler, Satyawart Kadian.
“The media keeps asking me if I will leave wrestling after marriage,” she says. “I ask them: Have they left their professions after they got married to their wives?”