With the entry of women in amateur boxing, the sport has taken on a whole new meaning in the predominantly Muslim areas around the Kolkata dockyards.
Boxing, with all its physical and violent dimensions, is considered a man's sport. Internationally, those like Laila Ali (daughter of Mohammed Ali) have done their bit to break the glass ceiling, but it's no more than a crack yet. But, deep in the heart of the Muslim-dominated boondocks of Kolkata - areas like Ekbalpore, Metiabruz, Khidderpore and Garden Reach - more significant cracks are appearing. A tribe of women, self-confessedly uneducated and largely "backward" in an urban sense, are shedding their burkhas (veils) and coming out in hordes to take up the sport.
Shahnaz Haider, Mehrunnisa, Farida Sultana, Razia Shabnam and Yasmin Haider - even a couple of years ago, they had to don their burkhas the minute they stepped out of their homes. They were forced to drop out of school on reaching puberty. Needless to say, they were not permitted to appear in front of male visitors. Life from then on was a long wait until a suitable groom was found. And this, in twentieth-century Calcutta!
The first round of burkha-shedding started in the mid-1990s. It was rather straightforward, if Razia Shabnam (23), a success story, is to be believed. "There were a lot of boys from our area who went to the local boxing clubs. When we passed those clubs, we would see them boxing, and a lot of us grew quite interested in the sport and wanted to try our hand at it. And that's how we started."
Razia started boxing relatively late in the day - when she was 20. Coming from a family that wasn't as perturbed by the idea as many others were, Razia fancied herself as a boxer and wanted to get into competitive boxing. But it wasn't to be. She discovered that she just didn't have the ability to go far enough. A meeting with Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation (BABF) chief Asit Banerjee convinced her to have a go at being a boxing official, and that's what she is now. After the National Institute of Sports gave her the required certificate a few months ago, Razia became the first Indian female boxing referee. She has been officiating in international tournaments, including men's fights.
Surely it wasn't as simple as that? Selling this rather radical idea to parents couldn't have been so easy for all the girls. Neighbors must have made it difficult for the girls and their parents; the transition couldn't have been so smooth.
"It wasn't," says Yasmin, one of the few who, even today, leaves her home in a burkha to go to the South Calcutta Physical Culture Association - the number one centre for women boxers. "I argued with my father for well over a year before he finally gave his consent. Of course, he had his conditions, like my wearing a burkha and not mingling with the boys at the Centre. But he allowed me to go. Also, the fact that Razia was doing well and making a career out of the game made it easier."
According to Banerjee, a large part of the reason for parents giving their daughters the go-ahead now is the lure of decent employment. Says Banerjee, "Organizations like the Railways, which employ a massive chunk of the male boxers from these areas, still don't have jobs for women boxers. As of now, there isn't anything. But we have been in touch with the authorities there and recruitment should start soon."
Says Farida (18), "I came into boxing because I enjoyed the sport. My brother used to box. I would watch him boxing and wanted to do it myself. The officials here have told us that there will soon be job openings for women boxers in organizations like Indian Railways. That's what I am waiting for, because I come from a very poor background. I have been allowed to box because of the possibility of a job."
Razia provides an update of women boxers from her locality: "At the moment, around 25-30 women come for practice everyday. There are a few more, but they can't come daily. I have spoken to a lot of parents, and I think once the job market for women boxers opens up, a lot more girls will start
coming. For me, it was because I wanted to do something new. My brother was a boxer, and it wasn't difficult for me to box even if no job opportunities came up. But for most, that's the driving concern."
Primarily due to the efforts of the BABF and the recent success of Bengal boxers like Mohammad Ali Qamar, the sport is spreading to schools, including girls' schools. Also, significantly, boys' schools are accepting people like Razia as coaches. The somewhat elite La Martiniere School for boys has been the only school to have boxing classes for students for a long time, and has a good record in the sport. But at least 13 schools, primarily in the Muslim areas, have recently included boxing in their curriculum, and girls form an equal chunk of the students who opt for the sport.
"The BABF's primary intention," says Banerjee, "is to focus on women's boxing rather than men's boxing, which is at a good level anyway and is going to progress fine as long as the machinery continues to run. But we want to change the system, and want to bring in girls, especially Muslim
girls because they seem to be better equipped than a lot of others and are more excited by the idea of breaking out. We have organized clubs with high walls to ensure privacy for the girls. There are all sorts of facilities to help them improve."
For the girls from Ekbalpore, the job's only just begun. According to them, the number one priority is to "create an atmosphere in our localities where girls will be allowed to box without being harassed about it by their parents and neighbors". By the looks of it, and the momentum that sheer numbers create, it'll soon be a different world for the Girls From Ekbalpore.