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‘If She Can, Why Can’t I?’: Meet The Taboo-Smashing Women Of The ‘Dangal’ Village

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The small village of Balali in Haryana has been in news ever since wrestler Geeta Phogat won India the first gold medal in female wrestling. The recent Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, which is based on the lives of the Phogat sisters, has definitely renewed people’s interest in the village. Beyond the Phogat sisters, however, or the village’s idyllic setting, little is known about the village or the lives of the women who live there.

Its picturesque setting isn’t the only different thing about Balali though. The village has a better sex-ratio (921 per thousand) than the average sex-ratio of Haryana (879) or even Bhiwani district (886), under which the village was administered until late this year. And while everybody agrees that Geeta and Babita’s success generated a huge interest among girls in the village in sports like wrestling and kabaddi, opinion varies on exactly when the women started having a life untethered by the compulsions of running a household.

Young and teenage children pose for a picture in a playground with their coach and guardians.
According to Vikas Sangwan (in yellow jersey), the government appointed coach, the number of women who train at the nearby Aadampur stadium has grown from a dozen in the early 2000s to over 50. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

Some men in the village, smoking a hookah on a lazy afternoon, told me that they had never discriminated between their sons and daughters as far as education is concerned. After all, they say, a woman from their village was the first one to matriculate among several nearby villages, way back in the 1960s.

“At that time nobody used to educate their daughters. My father used to live outside and he got all his children educated. He was unemployed but he got all of us educated,” says Raghubir Singh, younger brother of Rajpati Sangwan who was the first woman to matriculate from the village. Sangwan’s story, however, ended there. She may have been educated, but the family married her off and her in-laws did not allow her to take a job.

‘If She Can Get Ahead, Why Can’t I?’

Five decades later, things had changed. In 2010, the year Geeta Phogat won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, Pinky, who also belongs to the village, became a lieutenant with the Indian armed forces. Her mother Santosh told me that there is no restriction on education or taking a job for women in the village. The standards for the daughters-in-law are different though, according to Santosh. “In the village, you have to do this. Daughters aren’t restricted. The daughters-in-law are,” she says when I ask her why some women in the village continue to remain veiled.

The women studying at the government-run ITI (Industrial Training Institute) College near the village, however, don’t subscribe to this view. They say that the amount of freedom a woman enjoys in the village depends on the individual household, reflective in the number of female students ITI receives each year. Geeta Rani, who teaches at the Institute told me that the number of women from Balali in her class has varied from year to year since she started teaching at the institute in 2011. “The numbers change. Sometimes there are 4 to 5 women. Last year there were none. This year there are 6. It depends on the students, what they want to do,” she says.

The Phogat sisters’ (extreme left and right) success in wrestling, considered hitherto a ‘man’s sport’, has made them inpirational figures for women in their village. Photo credit: K Asif/India Today Group/Getty Images

For some, there has definitely been a sea change in the way the women see themselves and their aspirations since the Phogat sisters shot to fame. Aarti, who studies at the college, says that more girls have now started participating in sports with an unprecedented enthusiasm.

For Mona too, another student at ITI, the wrestlers became an inspiration. She is married but has plans to continue working after she finishes her course. “Earlier I hadn’t thought of doing anything. Then I thought these girls (Geeta and Babita) are talked about everywhere in the village. Then women in the village think- if she can get ahead, why can’t I? At my school as well, all girls used to think this way, that we should get ahead,” she told me.

It’s not just the young girls of the village that the Phogat’s sister have had an effect on. The limelight the wrestling sisters have received has also made parents more forward-looking and aspirational according to Sunita, the teacher-in-charge at the village’s middle school. “Many people know of them and are trying to raise their daughters similarly. They are trying at least. And it has had an effect on children as well. They also want to be famous like Geeta and Babita,” she told me.

‘Then The Medals Came. After That This Started Happening Openly’

The village was already home to male sportspersons, but the Phogat sisters success has also meant that sports has stopped being a forbidden frontier for the village’s womenfolk, who now train at the Aadampur stadium nearly 3 kilometres away from Balali.

According to Vikas Sangwan, the government appointed coach at the stadium, Mahavir Singh Phogat and another coach Jai Singh started the trend by training women in the stadium in the early 2000s. About 10 to 12 girls came to practice at the time, he recounts. Today that number has grown to over 50 and the number of women practicing, he says, is only slightly less than the number of men who practice. He traces this change to the Phogat family. “He (Mahavir Phogat) created an interest here. Then the medals came. After that this started happening openly. Everybody takes their daughters and sons to the ground now,” he told me.

‘I Didn’t Allow Her To Wrestle Because I Do Not Have The Means’

Poverty continues to remain a dampener for many girls who want to still go all out and play, especially when it comes to a sport like wrestling. Being focussed on an individual, training for wrestling can get expensive. It hasn’t stopped them though from pursuing other sports like kabaddi.

Savita is a case in point. The ninth standard student was interested in wrestling, but has recently started training for kabaddi at the stadium. She started playing kabaddi after her teacher enrolled her for an open tournament and now regularly participates in school tournaments, even at the national level.

Anita, Savita, and Manisha (2nd, 3rd, and 4th from left respectively) have now started participating in tournaments organised by their school. They train at the stadium in Aadampur. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

“I didn’t allow her to wrestle because I do not have the means. You need money for wrestling, for the diet. I don’t have that. There are 12 players in kabaddi. Seven play and five extras are on the bench. And in wrestling, you have to use your own power,” Budh Ram, Savita’s father, told me. If he had his way (Budhram is a daily-wager), he would let Savita wrestle. But since he can’t, the family has made its peace with Savita learning Kabaddi.

Budh Ram accompanies his daughter to the playground every day, along with other men in the village whose children train in Aadampur.

Says Dharamveer, another parent who takes his daughter Manisha to the stadium like Budh Ram, “When the teacher had selected them for the team at the block level, I had taken them myself to the competition. At that time, I saw their performance and even I got interested in the sport”. “Why should we discriminate between boys and girls?” he questions, “It’s the same human life”.

As the fathers gather at Budh Ram’s house to escort the children to the stadium, Budh Ram’s wife is busy cooking, shackled in a sense to the house. There the girls going to Aadampur for their evening practice leave their escorting fathers far behind, jogging to the bus-stop outside their village. At the bus-stop, young women from the ITI College are chatting among themselves without apprehension. Six years or even a decade is hard to change a society completely, but in Balali you see glimpses of that change in a girl’s conviction or a parent’s aspiration.

After the Phogat sisters’ victory, everyone wants their children to get ahead, a homemaker from the village told me. I ask her whether anything has changed for her. “What will I do? I just do the cooking,” she laughs. But she insists that they have started thinking about the future of their children- daughters and sons alike.

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