Female Indian wrestler fighting stereotypes as well as opponents
“Every girl should confess her passion to her family and show what really matters to them.”
Ritu Phogat (above, second left) speaks eloquently about the challenges she and her three sisters faced in India as they pursued their dream to become elite wrestlers.
Despite their father being former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, the siblings met with rejection, derision and misogyny in a society where sportswomen battle to gain acceptance and support.
Such are the daunting barriers they face that Phogat’s father had all but given up hope that the family name would continue in wrestling.
But three of them – Geeta, Babita and Ritu – have done him proud on the international stage, as have his nieces Vinesh and Priynka, who he also trains.
Geeta was India’s first female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics and won Commonwealth gold in the 55kg freestyle category.
Babita, Ritu and Vinesh are also all Commonwealth champions and looking forward to more medal success at next year’s Games in Australia.
Perhaps more importantly, they are all trailblazers for Indian women discouraged by their society’s traditional gender stereotypes from achieving their sporting potential.
Ritu, 23, told me: “As an international player, I love supporting female sportswomen, I always encourage them to work hard and prove everyone wrong.
“We Indians are more emotional and connected to our culture, so we care too much about what society thinks of us.”
Such is the inspirational nature of the Phogats’ story that last year it received the Bollywood treatment in the feature film Dangal, directed by Nitesh Tiwari.
In the film, Mahavir (played by Aamir Khan) makes Ritu’s elder two sisters take up wrestling, much to their initial embarrassment.
But they soon realise how much it means to their father to see them competing and growing in confidence, and they – and their younger sister – embrace the sport with great success.
“The movie shows how my life exactly was, we faced many problems but we overcame them together,” said Ritu, who this month competes at the U23 World Championships in Poland.
Ritu has since gone on to become the most expensive female wrestler in India’s Pro Wrestling League auction, joining the Jaipur Ninjas for 360,000 rupees.
It’s a far cry from her younger years, when the family were mocked by their fellow villagers, disowned by their own extended family and the sisters laughed at by schoolmates.
However, Ritu claimed Indian women aiming for careers in sport still face hostility because “Society matters, [the opinions of] others matter”.
She added: “It won’t get better for the new generation, in fact it will be harder and much more competitive.”
But the fact that she is one of eight Indian woman heading to Poland for the U23 Worlds tells its own story.
Things are changing in Indian society, albeit very slowly in some respects. But each time another young girl chooses to pursue her ambitions in sport, pioneers such as Geeta, Sabita Ritu and their cousins have won a wider victory.
Photo courtesy of Ritu Phogat; you can follow Ritu on Twitter @PhogatRitu