Muslim schoolgirl Fareeha dreams of becoming a martial arts champion.
Her school started teaching the Chinese martial art, wushu, because of growing concerns about violence against women in India.
Now, after qualifying for an Indian national tournament, Fareeha has her goal firmly in sight.
But her mother decides she can’t go. While OK with Fareeha learning combat for self-defence, she’s strongly against her 14-year-old daughter showing off her moves in public.
Witness follows Fareeha as she challenges her family’s traditional values to fight not only for the title, but for her independence.
By Jayisha Patel
When I first met Fareeha, I was struck by her vivacious personality. Covered head to toe in a dupatta and accompanying hijab, she was anxiously awaiting her turn to fight her opponent in her wushu self-defense class at school. As soon as it was her turn, she flung her glasses across the floor as she positioned herself to box against her opponent. In that moment, nothing else seemed to matter to her, not least her appearance. She just wanted to win the fight.
It is that sprit and her ability to challenge stereotypes that drew me to her story. Fareeha comes from a conservative Muslim community in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad where traditional gender roles still exist, with women mainly being in the home. Her Muslim faith-based school, nestled in the midst of this traditional community, subscribes to progressive attitudes towards women. The teachers at the school would make it a point to inspire their female pupils during their morning assembly and let them know that their education and career were just as important as those of their male counterparts. The school also introduced wushu solely to their female pupils so as to increase their confidence and also so that they could learn to defend themselves against the violence towards women in the country.
Having spent time in the community, I could definitely sense that there was a fear for girls’ safety. On occasions I heard Fareeha’s neighbours talk about cases of violence within the community and there were regular television reports about cases of sexual harassment across the country. This created a situation in which families within the community would not allow their daughters to venture out alone, in part to safeguard them against any potential violence. This also curtails their freedom and independence, however, and to an extent accentuates the stereotypical gender roles within the community. Thus, places such as Fareeha’s school really stood out for me, as they were not only trying to find a solution to the rising violence against women, but also doing it in a way so as to maintain their pupils’ freedom.
Perhaps the most interesting part of following Fareeha’s journey was the inspiring male figures in her life. Her head teacher, Sajid Sir, is a staunch advocate for women’s rights and it was his idea to introduce wushu to the school ten years ago. Likewise, Fareeha’s father is perhaps her greatest supporter. While the rest of her family, including her mother, did not feel that such an art form was suitable for girls like Fareeha, it was her father who helped fight for her to continue doing the sport. It was heartwarming to see their close relationship and the sacrifices he had made to allow his daughter to follow her dreams, in spite of opposition from his own family and, at times, from the wider community.
Although the film centres on Fareeha’s fight to attend and attempt to win the national championships, at the heart of it lies a coming of age tale of a young women trying to challenge conservative traditions to gain her independence and her own identity.