Deccan Chronicle

Book excerpt: Why India's sporting history has so few female Muslim names

Columnist | DC Correspondent

Published on: November 4, 2023 | Updated on: November 4, 2023

Two more Indians are inches away from the milestone, albeit eleven years after Al-Khadeer

If this book is a window into the history of women's citizenship in the Indian republic, as I see it, why is the Muslim woman absent from the roster?  By Arrangement

If this book is a window into the history of women's citizenship in the Indian republic, as I see it, why is the Muslim woman absent from the roster? By Arrangement

You have probably sensed the absence, haven’t you? There is Mary D’Souza, an east Indian Catholic from Mumbai. Kamaljit Sandhu, a Punjabi Sikh from Chandigarh. Pilavullakandi Thekkeraparambil Usha, a Malayalam-speaking Hindu from Calicut in Kerala. Santhi Soundarajan, the daughter of a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, a dalit who grew up in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu. Pinki Pramanik, a Bengali-speaking Hindu from Purulia, among the most backward districts of West Bengal. Dutee Chand, an Odia-speaking Hindu from Chaka Gopalpur, a village of weavers in the Jajpur district of Odisha. Lalita Babar, the daughter of a community of landless Hindu agricultural labourers in the Satara district of Maharashtra.

Durga Kumbharvad, from a village near the Maharashtra–Telangana border; her father’s side is a Telugu-speaking fishing community and her those from her mother’s family are Marathi landless labourers. (Almost every student of the Sunrise Project in the Sagroli village of eastern Maharashtra is from a similar background — lower-caste Hindus who work in manual labour and own little or no land.) The late Ila Mitra, an upper-caste Bengali communist who worked in West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Where is the Muslim woman?

If this book is a window into the history of women’s citizenship in the Indian republic, as I see it, why is the Muslim woman absent from the roster?

One explanation is straightforward — there are no Muslims among the elite women athletes in India from the 1940s to this moment in the decades that I looked at. Indeed, there is still no promising Muslim woman in the ranks of elite national athletes, a surprising thing considering a handful of Muslim women from India have emerged to compete at the highest international level in other sports. Among them is Sania Mirza, who made the national headlines in the mid-2000s with a series of impressive performances on the ATP Tour. On the strength of this she played in the early rounds of a number of Grand Slam singles competitions. In January 2006, she became the first Indian woman to be seeded for the singles competition at the Australian Open, or, indeed, any Grand Slam tournament. She is a doubles superstar, winning six Grand Slam titles and spending ninety-one weeks (a little less than two years) ranked as the number-one women’s doubles player in the world.

Then there is the right-arm off-break bowler Nooshin Al Khadeer, who debuted for India in January 2002 in a one-day international against England in Hyderabad. She was a consistent presence in the Indian cricket team until 2007, and played her last match for the country, a one-day against Australia, at the Wankhede cricket stadium in Mumbai in 2012. She picked up her hundredth ODI wicket in this match, the third Indian woman to reach the milestone and one of only twenty-three women in the world, as of June 2023. Two more Indians are inches away from the milestone, albeit eleven years after Al-Khadeer. In 2005, she was part of the Indian team that reached the finals of the one-day World Cup in South Africa, where the Indian women lost to Australia to finish as runners-up. Interestingly, in the Hindi biopic on Mithali Raj, the legendary captain of the Indian women’s team, Nooshin is portrayed as Raj’s best friend, who introduces her to the game but never plays for India because her family is conservative. In reality, it was Nooshin’s father who asked her to try for the Karnataka women’s team selection in 1997.

In 2022, Nikhat Zareen became the world boxing champion in the flyweight category (51 kg), the fifth Indian woman boxer to hold the world championship after Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny R.L. and Lekha K.C. In 2019 Nikhat came to national attention for intrepidly reaching out to the Union sports minister Kiren Rijiju via Twitter, requesting a match against six-time world boxing flyweight champion Mary Kom, who had been selected for the Tokyo Olympics that were held in 2021. Mary Kom won that match 9-1, and was headlined "ïll-tempered" by The Times of India, but one thing was clear—Nikhat had what it takes to challenge a living legend, face a resounding defeat and move on from it.

Sania, Nooshin and Nikhat. Three successful Muslim sportswomen in seventy-five years of independent India.

The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 suggests the most likely reason for this small number—the ghettoisation of Muslims in India due to historical and political reasons, their own sense of insecurity and the attitude of "neglect" that government and municipal authorities had towards these ghettos. ‘Water, sanitation, electricity, schools, public health facilities, banking facilities, anganwadis, ration shops, roads and transport facilities are all in short supply in these areas. In the context of increasing ghettoization, the absence of these services impacts Muslim women the most, because they are reluctant to venture beyond the confines of "safe" neighbourhoods to access these facilities from elsewhere,’ the report noted. Muslims had conspicuously poor indicators of higher education, formal-sector employment, particularly government and large private sector jobs, access to bank credit, standard of living, consumption and poverty. The Sachar Committee was tasked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government with studying the relatively backward status of Muslims compared to other communities across national, state and district levels.

The perceived orthodoxy of Islam towards women in particular, a notion strengthened by news from Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, is assumed to be the principal reason for the relative absence of Muslim women in the public sphere in India.

Excerpted from The Day I Became a Runner by Sohini Chattopadhyay with permission from HarperCollins India

The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India through the Lens of Sport

By Sohini Chattopadhyay

HarperCollins India

pp. 351; Rs 599

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