Nikhat Zareen started harbouring dreams of becoming a professional boxer back in 2009, when she was 13 years old. Naturally, this came as a surprise to her friends and family. Her father was a sports teacher, mentoring the local boys in Nizamabad, Telangana. “I was hit hard when my father told me that boxing is not a sport for girls,” Nikhat says. “He told me that girls don’t have the guts to go for boxing. And since I have always been a stubborn girl, this made me even more interested in the sport.”
Having turned 22 this year, Nikhat is now much closer to living the dream. She is among India’s most promising women boxers, with a long list of plaudits to her name, including top honours at the Junior World Championship in 2011, held in Turkey, and, more recently, a silver medal at the 2014 Youth World Boxing Championships in Bulgaria. These days she is busy preparing to qualify for the Commonwealth Games, to be held later this year in Australia.
It all sounds like the perfect tale of athletic growth—a promising prodigy slowly transforming into an accomplished professional. But Nikhat’s present situation belies the rough reality of her life’s journey as a boxer. “I remember being hit by a competitor during one of my practice sessions in the early days of my boxing career,” she says. “It left a dark bruise around my eye. I came back to my house hiding it from my mom as I knew she would freak out. And she did. She actually started crying. She said the bruise will leave a mark on my face and that no one will marry me. My comeback was, ‘Don’t worry mom, once I become a famous boxer, there will be a huge line of boys who would be willing to marry me…”
When the history of women’s boxing is written in India, there will be plenty of stories there resembling the trajectory of Nikhat’s life. More and more girls, especially from small-town and rural settings, are emerging on the national sporting scene as pro boxers. And almost all of them have had to battle against a typical set of experiences—involving dissuasion, ridicule and other patriarchal roadblocks that are integral to the world of sports in India.
Consider the example of 24-year-old Heena Tokas, a Delhi-based boxer who has played, and performed well, in the nationals. “I started boxing at the age of 12, with my cousin sister,” she tells Guardian 20. “We started off together, and coming from a conservative jaat family, my cousin had to leave boxing because of her board exams. That was a major thing for me because she was as good as I was, and leaving boxing just for studies did not feel justified. On the other hand, my family was a bit liberal in this regard, and told me that if I could balance both I could go ahead with it.”
When she is not sweating it out in the boxing ring, Heena spends her time in scholarly pursuits, as a sociology student at the Delhi School of Economics. She says, “I never planned on leaving studies at all. I believe that if you try, you can always take time out for important things. I like to write as well and wish to start a blog some day. Even today, I study between the training sessions, and that is how you prioritise things in your life.”
Heena finds it easy to reconcile her academic aspirations with her passion for sports. “Not everyone wants to be Mary Kom,” she says. “I want to be a teacher and at the same time I can never leave boxing. I want to teach young kids about life, and volunteer for some social cause if I ever get the chance. As for boxing, I am not greedy about the medals, but I really love the sport and want to learn it further.”
Both Heena and Nikhat Zareen are participating in an ongoing boxing camp for women in Delhi, organised by the Boxing Federation of India. The “National Boxing Coaching Camp for Elite Women”, as the forum is called, is hosting 57 of India’s best women boxers, with a view to preparing them for the Commonwealth Games, as well as for the coming editions of Asian Games and the Olympics.
At this camp, the boxers are trained by top coaches from India and overseas, so that they can do well on the international level. Talking about the camp, Heena says, “We have a busy schedule here. We have three training sessions a day. The first one starts at seven in the morning, the next one at 11, and then at five in the evening. This sounds hectic but I love being here. And training with these people, who are really committed to boxing, is fun for me. I have kind of left my family for this. And now, in a way, this has become my family. We all stay together all the time, train together. So yes, you eventually find something that keeps you going.”
One of the coaches at the camp is Raffaele Bergamasco, who is from Italy. Despite his difficulties with the English language, Bergamasco has been trying his level best to convey all his top tips to these boxers, and to make them understand the nitty-gritty of a fight. “I have coached men and women in Italy and it has been easy for me,” he tells Guardian 20. “Here I find that the girls are a bit conservative and I do not know much of English or Hindi. So it sometimes becomes difficult for me to connect with them. But I am working on my communication skills. Another thing is that here, the girls are quite strong physically, but I think there is a general lack of technique. I usually am all about tricks and techniques and that is what I am teaching them. So step by step these campers are learning the techniques as well.”
In all, there are some 16 coaches at the camp, out of which only three are women. Renu, one of the women coaches here, comes from Rewari in Haryana, which has become one of India’s richest talent pools for women boxers. “I started boxing during my college days,” Renu says. “The boxing coach at my college told me that since I had a good height, I should give boxing a shot. I was quite resistant to it as I was expected to stay back after college for boxing classes. My college was actually 25km from my home. Then I tried thinking of it as a fun activity. I went on and eventually developed an interest. I started taking classes twice a day. I would go to college early in the morning for training, and then would attend to my studies, and then again return to the training sessions in the evening. I won medals at the state level, which made my parents believe that I actually had some potential.”
Renu, too, comes from a fairly conservative background. Though her parents were supportive of her boxing career, they kept it hidden from most of their relatives. “I remember, while I was gone for my first state-level match, my parents told everyone that I was at some relative’s place for a vacation,” Renu says.
India’s biggest star in women’s boxing is doubtless Mary Kom, who has done a lot to inspire young girls across the country to take up the boxing gloves, and has done more to break stereotypes than anyone else in this field. Kom was also present at the Delhi camp, and took some time out for a chat with Guardian 20.
“I think that after the film, Mary Kom, and my book, Unbreakable, people have become more aware of this sport,” Kom says. “Not just in India but even internationally, people have got interested in this field. After five years of the film, women boxers in India have increased, and parents are generally more aware.”
Kom has inspired thousands, and provided a template for other aspiring women boxers, because she has succeeded against all odds through sheer commitment and perseverance. “I have faced challenges at every step of my life and still do,” she says. “I come from a poor background and people from such a background are always facing difficulties. If you come from a financially weak background, it is really difficult to emerge from that society. Luckily, I am from the Northeast, where men and women are treated equally unlike in other places, so that was a huge advantage for me. When I was at my first national women’s boxing match, I talked to some girls who told me about their stories, how there are places where girls especially have to struggle a lot to get out of their homes to make it till here. That is when I realised how lucky I have been.”
Not every girl is as lucky as Mary Kom. If more women boxers from India are to emerge on the international stage, then we need a better support infrastructure, and a better representation of women in boxing federations. “I think there should be more female representation when it comes to the boxing faculty,” says Heena Tokas. “I am not saying that men are not good enough, but it is always good to have your own type representing you. I think that if I am playing a women’s national and my coaches, even the referees are women, then it will be a proper women’s nationals.”
Another problem is that most girls who take up pro boxing, train for some years, play the nationals, and then drop out under pressure from their families. The national coach Renu talks about this issue. “I think there are two types of people. One, who play just to learn it. They play for 8-10 years and eventually go back to some normal job. Second, who have a passion for boxing, these people actually stick to it and become trainers and coaches in the long run. Mostly, women drop out because their families are not supportive enough. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have experienced and skilled female coaches in boxing. It’s all being wasted at homes! This calls for a society-wide effort, so that women can actually come out and become boxers and coaches, instead of wasting their skill.”