The Girls Who Beat Boys (in Wrestling)

I am always interested to read about females who go against stereotype and are successful.  Today, I came across the story of two sisters who will, for the first time ever, represent India in the Olympics in wrestling.   Things are changing.  How cool is that?


Here is an article on the young ladies from the London Telegraph:

London 2012 Olympics: Phogat sisters are wrestling superstars in northern India

In the remote villages of north-west India, it is not cricket that stirs the passions, but wrestling.

(By , in Haryana) Indian wrestling has changed little since the Greeks introduced their own version to the ancient Olympics, almost 3,000 years ago. Even today, it represents sport at its most primal.

The bouts are held on a patch of churned-up mud, and have the rhythm and solemnity of a religious ritual. First the apprentices loosen the soil with a shovel and level it out with their feet. Then the fighters arrive. Clad only in loincloths, they grab handfuls of earth and smear it over their bodies, to make their limbs slippery and difficult to grasp.

Now the grappling starts. Each fighter clutches the other and tries to knock him off balance. You win a bout by pinning the back of your opponents’ shoulders to the ground. Shouts and exhortations drift in from the crowd, who often gather 10 deep, using bullock-carts and rickshaws as impromptu stands.

The sport’s roots run so deep that you will find Hindu epics telling of Krishna’s great wrestling bouts with the evil king Kamsa. But underneath the surface, radical changes are under way. The women have arrived.

At last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, a pair of female wrestlers from Haryana claimed medals. Geeta Phogat, who is now 22, won gold; her sister Babita, 20, took silver.

These young women were born in the village of Balali, home to a community of 2,000. They started wrestling when Geeta was 10, and by the time she was 12, they were travelling to neighbouring villages to “get all dirty with boys”, as The Times of India indelicately phrased it. More often than not, they won.

“We became quite famous in our district,” Geeta said. “People came especially to watch us. And I used to love it when we heard them saying, ‘There go the girls who beat boys’.”

The rise of the Phogat sisters is all the more remarkable when you consider the repressive gender politics of northern India. Statistically, Haryana is one of the country’s more affluent states, because of its proximity to Delhi. Yet it is also home to some of the country’s most primitive communities. Female infanticide is so common that, on average, there are just 86 women for every 100 men. In most villages, arranged marriages are the only marriages and women who step outside the system often pay with their lives.

Against this backdrop, Mahavir Singh Phogat, himself a former wrestler, chose to grapple with social convention. Chance played a hand here, for if Singh’s wife Daya had delivered him a son, he would surely have followed the established pattern of village life. He would have left the women to clean the house and milk the cattle in those precious cool hours after dawn, while he went down to the village gym – the akhara – with his boy.

But Mahavir had no son. So he created an akhara in his own house, digging a mud mat where he could train his daughters in the signature moves of kushti – the Hindi word for wrestling. He taught them the bridge, pin and takedown, carrying a stick to underline his authority.

“He was strict when we were training,” said Geeta. “Even when I was doing press-ups on the bricks, he used to get angry with me, saying he wanted me to do more hard work.

“Now Babita and I both have Commonwealth medals, but my father is not yet satisfied. He wants to see us win the Olympics in London. There are three other girls all younger than us in my family – one sister and two cousins – and my father says he can coach them until they reach the same level as us.”

If Mahavir remains stern in the face of his daughters’ success, then the surrounding district of Bhiwani is more easily impressed. When the Phogats returned home from Delhi, they were welcomed by a crowd of 20,000 well-wishers and a fortnight of celebrations.

“We were feted,” said Geeta, “It went on for 10 or 15 days, and people were inviting us to schools, so we could talk to the kids. We told them you can start anything as long as you work hard. Everyone should be allowed to participate in sport, because it helps you to become more confident. That is important for women in India, because we are not always treated as equals.”

There speaks the voice of experience. Today, the Phogat sisters are the toast of Balali, even to the point where their mother was elected as the village head. But their reception was not always so warm.

“Our grandmother used to say that girls should not wrestle,” recalled Geeta. “Some people didn’t even think we should be allowed out of the house. They would say it is a man’s game. They would say that when you wrestle your ears break and a girl should look beautiful so that she can get married.

“But since we won at the Commonwealths, views have changed. Now they say they would like their daughters to be like us. We are proud to be role models.”

And what of husbands? Already relatively old for single women in India, the Phogats say most of their classmates have been paired off. Yet neither shows much inclination to settle down.

“We do want to get married,” said Babita, “but not until we finish wrestling. Fortunately, everyone in our family understands.”

From backwoods to the big city

Three years ago, the Phogat sisters left Balali for the brighter lights of Patiala, a city of two million that stands 100 miles further north in the Punjab. The attraction was the national sports campus, which hosts India’s boxing, fencing and weightlifting teams, as well as a dozen wrestlers.

It is a very different life to the one the sisters once knew. They wrestle on cushioned mats rather than churned mud. They have cars, a black runabout for Babita and a grander silver saloon for Geeta. They study at the local university and receive generous funding from the Mittal Champions Trust, a sporting initiative bankrolled by the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and run by his son-in-law, Amit Bhatia.

This is a good time to be a trailblazer. India is developing faster than at any time since independence. Stories of female emancipation and class rebellion are everywhere, from the Booker Prize-winning novel White Tiger – which follows the fortunes of a low-caste millionaire – to the parliament of West Bengal, where the firebrand politician Mamata Bannerjee is chief minister.

“Wrestling is changing for the better,” says Sushila Devi, whose son Yogeshwar Dutt is the most decorated wrestler in Haryana. “We see girls training at the akhara now. They will get a good career if they reach the national standard.”

In Haryana, honorary police ranks are bestowed on high-achieving athletes. Geeta has been offered an inspector’s post, while Yogeshwar is already a detective superintendent. And anyone who doubts the benefits of a life in sport should stop in Yogeshwar’s village of Bhainswal, between Delhi and Patiala. The most famous sportsman in the state, he lives with his mother in a two-storey mansion that towers over the hovels of his neighbours. The front wall is decorated with the Olympic rings.

The Phogat sisters can look at Yogeshwar’s grand citadel and see where they might end up. And even if they stumble next summer, other Indian women are likely to swell their country’s feeble tally of 20 Olympic medals. At last year’s Commonwealth Games, over half of India’s 101 medals went to women.

“It is said in India that if your family is hostile, women can end up dead,” explains Prof Ruth Vanita, an authority on gender politics in Haryana. “But if your family backs you, there is nowhere a girl cannot go.”

And that includes the podium in Stratford’s Olympic Park.


Free Bicycles Help Keep Indian Girls in School

I came across this story in Yahoo! News today.  It certainly sums up a huge problem for girls throughout India, and particularly in places like Bihar, and more specifically Forbesgunge and Babuan.  It’s a good thing the government has stepped up and made this happen.  The girls I met in KGBV and Babuan face this very issue.  They will get an education up to grade 9, but schools for grade 10 through 12 are located far from their villages.  And without taking (and passing) grade 12 exams, these girls have no hope of college education.  Amazing the power a single bike can have.  I hope the girls I met get some bikes.

Here’s the full Yahoo! article:

RAMPUR SINGHARA, India (By INDRAJIT SINGH and NIRMALA GEORGE | Associated Press AP) — The daily trip to high school was expensive, long and eventually, too much for Indian teenagerNahid Farzana, who decided she was going to drop out. Then, the state government gave her a bicycle.

Two years later, she is about to graduate from high school and wants to be a teacher.

The eastern state of Bihar has been so successful at keeping teenage girls in school, the bike giveaways have spread to neighboring states. Now the Indian government wants to expand it across the country in hopes it might help improve female literacy.

Before starting the program in 2007, officials in Bihar, one ofIndia’s poorest and least developed states, despaired over how to educate the state’s females, whose literacy rate of 53 percent is more than 20 points below that of its males.

“We found that the high school dropout rate soared when girls reached the ninth grade. This was primarily because there are fewer high schools and girls had to travel longer distances to get to school,” said Anjani Kumar Singh, Bihar’s principal secretary overseeing education.

Poor families could not spare the money for transport, or were reluctant to let girls travel so far away, fearing for their safety.

The program was an instant success, with the number of girls registered in the ninth grade in Bihar’s state schools more than tripling in four years, from 175,000 to 600,000.

“The results are remarkable. The school dropout rate for girls has plunged,” says Singh.

In her crisply starched blue tunic uniform and white scarf, Farzana appears a carefree teenager, proud to have made it into the tenth grade. But she almost did not make it.

Her daily bus fare of 15 rupees (22 cents) to the new high school 6 kilometers (4 miles) from their home in Rampur Singhara village was an additional burden her father, a car mechanic, could not afford.

“I wouldn’t have been able to keep Farzana in school for long,” said Mohammed Shiraz Ahmad, her father.

A teacher told them about the free bicycles, and Farzana applied for the 2,500 rupee ($50) grant to buy the bike.

“The bicycle has changed everything,” Ahmad said.

In remote villages, along dusty potholed lanes surrounded by sheaves of waving wheat, gaggles of school girls can be seen jauntily cycling to school.

The program has also raised the status of girls, who are often seen as a burden in son-obsessed India, where parents have to pay such hefty dowries to marry off their daughters that the family is often indebted for decades.

Now, girls are bringing an asset to the family, Singh said.

Mohammed Jalaluddin, who runs a tea stall in Rampur Singhara, says his daughter’s bike is used by the entire family.

Nizhat Parveen, his 16-year-old daughter, drops her brother at his school on the way to hers. When she returns, the family uses the bicycle for chores, from shopping for groceries to making food deliveries from the tea shop.

Bihar is also giving free school uniforms to girls to keep them in school. The bike grant money is put into a joint bank account in the names of the student and her parents, and school administrators monitor whether the girls buy bicycles and use them, or if the bike is sold and the girl ends up leaving school, Singh said. But mostly, the program operates on the honor system.

While corruption and fraudulent use of state money is rife in India, the Bihar government reports misuse of the bicycle funds is 1 percent.

The results from Bihar were so encouraging that the program has been adopted by the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Rajasthan, another state with low female literacy rates, has launched a free bicycle program for girls in secondary and high school.

The federal government is exploring a plan to give bicycles to Muslim girls as their dropout rate is worse than that of other communities.

The bicycle program “has worked very well,” says Syeda Hameed, a member of India’s powerful Planning Commission body.  Hameed said the body is also looking at other factors that affect school attendance by girls in the higher classes, such as the lack of toilets in schools.

In poor families, older girls also leave school to take care of younger siblings while parents work. “This is a persistent problem which tends to push up dropout rates and is a matter of concern,” Hameed said.

But with the bicycle program gaining in popularity, authorities are tightening conditions, demanding students have 75 percent attendance to “earn” their uniforms and the bicycle.

For high school student Parveen, her proudest possession, the free bicycle, has allowed her to dream of even greater things.

“Even college doesn’t seem far away now,” she says.


Girls Like to Hit: Photos From Save Our Sisters Classes

Though I had to travel an hour (and sometimes longer depending on the tuk-tuk driver) to get to Save Our Sisters, the young ladies I trained there, and their supportive staff, were totally worth the trip.  Here are some photos from some of the classes (note: per SOS request, faces of the girls are not shown, which is really unfortunate because the girls smiled – a lot – and were beautiful doing so.  You are just going to have to take my word for it).


Learning palm strike (Mumbai, 2012).


Knee strike.  The young woman with the huge smile is Nilofar Tole, one of the girls’ Livelihood Coordinators.  (Mumbai, 2012).


Learning hammerfist (Mumbai, 2012).


Hitting focus mits – the girls’ favorite thing to do (Mumbai, 2012).


More knee strikes (with a smiling Savita, another of SOS’ dedicated staff). (Mubai, 2012).


End of class (Mumbai, 2012).


The Trip is Over but the Journey Continues

I have been back in the States for a week now.  My mind is still processing the trip and all I experienced on it.  I am conflicted and uplifted, sad and happy.  Overall, this trip was the hardest thing I have ever done.  It taxed me mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  My personal belief is that I can not grow without a challenge, and by that measure, I have grown a lot through this trip.  Now, what am I going to do with that?

As I look back over the course of the month and the 150 girls I had the pleasure of meeting, I am validated in the vision that has guided me and the efforts of Green Tara Project to date.  Feedback from staff at the organizations was overwhelmingly positive for the result the training was having.  I heard many comments about how the young women and girls who had been trained, even after just one session, experienced an increase in energy and self confidence.  I’ll never forget showing up to my second class with Save Our Sisters and being told that the ladies were practicing the techniques in the bus all the way home…and would I mind telling them not use the techniques on each other.  LOL!  I remember being 5 minutes late to Shishu Bharti, and Lalita Ji telling me the girls had been panicked that I wasn’t coming.  I got one of the highest compliments from Lalita when she told me that she had never seen the girls happier than during and after my classes – high praise when the girls get lessons in music and dancing.  These and other comments will keep me going.

I have learned a lot about what worked in the sessions and what didn’t.  For instance, in regards to the cognitive skill building part, the concepts can be too complex to communicate through demonstration.  I was lucky to have some translation available to me for some of the classes, but I need to make this a priority for next time as these skills are greatly needed.

Shishu Bharti, Project Crayons, and Save Our Sisters all have asked for ongoing self defense programs, and this is what I turn my attention to now.  I am working on concepts that involve my return to India, as well as the development of online support for these and future organizations.

I thank all of my readers for being a part of my journey here, for your words of encouragement and your financial and morale support.  YOU have made my efforts and the results possible.

Where The Girls Come From

For those of you who may be curious to know what kind of circumstances could possibly lead to a girl being sold by her family, or abducted and trafficked without recourse, here are a few I witnessed in Mumbai:

Mother and daughter living in a traffic median (Mumbai, 2012).


Makeshift sidewalk housing (Mumbai, 2012).

Makeshift housing (Mumbai, 2012).

With pictures like these, it is, unfortunately, not difficult to imagine the life of people who have come to live in these conditions.  So let’s try.  I invite you, for a few moments, to put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine yourself a young woman of perhaps 17 years of age, married for three years to a man who has come to Mumbai from a rural area to make a better living for his family.  Disease overtakes your husband and he dies, leaving you with a small child, no education, no money, no family.  You might also only speak a language from your rural tribal area, and so are further isolated linguistically, unable to communicate with many of the people who surround you.  You pick through garbage heaps for food or anything to sell.  Needing a place to live, you seek an unoccupied space in your area – no small feat when the sidewalks are already crowded with families already in similar circumstances.  What’s left besides the sidewalk?  A traffic median, or open ground under the stairs at the train station, perhaps.

It is barely imaginable, and incredibly uncomfortable to even think about.

But then, miraculously, come these islands of girls at Project Crayons and Save Our Sisters and Kranti, girls whose circumstances, with the incredible help and dedication of Mrs. Josephs, and Robin Chaurasiyas, and other program managers and house mothers, are being interrupted and re-made.   And I have hope that things can change, and indeed are changing.  Food for thought.



Getting Ready


It is that time again.  All this stuff must fit into three bags…




Mumbai Total

Some class sign in sheets (Mumbai, 2012).

Total number of girls trained for Save Our Sisters:  22

Total number of girls trained for Project Crayons: 35

Total number of girls trained in Mumbai:  57

Note:  Kranti girls are not included in the final count NOT because the girls weren’t great, but because I was not great.  Circumstances kept me from getting there more than twice.  I hope I will be able to have a chance at uninterrupted classes for them on my next trip to Mumbai.



Look Close

So I took this photo on the way to Save Our Sisters yesterday.  You can’t tell it, but the tuk-tuk is right up against the truck in front.  I like the shot, especially if you make it full screen, which is when things appear that I didn’t even know were there when I snapped it.

At any rate, you get an idea what most of my views were while driving to my classes.



Last Class – Project Crayons

Here are some snaps from my last class yesterday.  Though I gave out certificates and wristbands, I think the girls liked the little chocolate candies they got the best.  But, enough words:

Starting karate class with proper musubi-dachi (Project Crayons, 2012).

Lovely age-ukes (Project Crayons, 2012).

Note:  It was amazing to me that when I started them on stepping forward upper blocks at the far wall, the girls would have good space between them.  But inevitably, as they crossed the floor, they would clump together, and even more so when they saw the camera, the little hams. ; )


Chocolate smile (she had just received her certificate and chocolate) (Project Crayons, 2012).


Holding the fort (Project Crayons, 2012).

Note:  This is a partial picture of Group 1, the 6 – 8 year olds, after receiving their certificates.  They are in this pile (and out of focus) because they were trying to keep the door closed on the very curious and intrusive Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4 girls who kept coming in to see what was going on.


Group 2 graduates (Project Crayons, 2012).


Group 3 graduates…and Mrs. Joseph (in sari, far right, who also received a certificate) (Project Crayons, 2012).


And a sad note that my camera battery died before getting a shot of the Group 4 graduates.