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Olympian woman brings back much more than bronze

India
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India at the 2016 Rio Olympics. © REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Sakshi Malik's medal is a victory against the feudal mindset, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

Indian woman wrestler, Sakshi Malik's biggest claim to fame will probably be that she brought home the much coveted bronze from Rio. But Sakshi will be remembered specially by all who have watched her home state Haryana with horror, because of the missing female babies. Her victory might end the prejudice against girls. Might finally put an end to female foeticide and infanticide.

Many Indian states show worrying trends because families favour boys. But Haryana and Punjab, our wealthier states have the highest female foeticide records. Most women here, have been pressurised or choose to abort, if the baby in their womb is a girl. Equally horrendous are the stories of baby girls being killed after birth, female infanticide, because no one can afford a girl. The ubiquitous dowry system takes a grim toll.

The situation is so serious, that Haryana men must go bride hunting to faraway, poverty stricken states like Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. Here desperately poor parents give their daughters to 'foreign' Haryanvi grooms for a bride price. Remember, that for a Bengali bride to go Haryana is much the same as a British bride moving with an unknown groom to Greece or Russia. The food, climate, customs, culture and language are all totally alien and strange.

Sakshi's village, Mokhra Khas, has a sex ratio of 822 baby girls to boys, even lower than the average of Haryana (879) according to the 2011 census. The female literacy rate here is just 64.46 per cent. Compare this to Kerala, a wealthy southern state with 100 per cent literacy, the northern numbers tell a tragic story.

Why do I harp on the negative when an Olympic medal, and a first for India at that, from a wonderful victorious woman is something to shout about, something to celebrate? Because celebrate we must. And we need the entire country to shout from the mountain tops, 'it's a girl!'

Sakshi's story should be part of school text books everywhere. At 12, she saw a picture of a professional woman wrestler holding aloft the winner's trophy. Elated, this became her dream.

Her coach Ishwar Dahiya, is even more ecstatic. He reminisces, 'When I started the women's centre in 2002 it was by mistake.' Sunita, a 14-year-old girl, came to him for admission. Sunita had very short hair. Dahiya admitted her thinking she was a boy. When he realised his mistake he didn’t want to go back on his word. The men, extremely traditional, jeered. 'Are you completely crazy. Girls wrestling with boys? Can you place goats among lions?'

Sakshi's family, especially her mother, Sudesh, were supportive despite criticism about allowing their daughter into such an unladylike sport. 'She'll never get a husband. It's vulgar and immodest for a girl to wear those clothes. To wrestle with boys.' These were common jibes. Sudesh walked her daughter to the stadium for crack-of-dawn practice, cheered her through wins and losses, made fruit and nut smoothies to keep up her strength and energy. She encouraged Sakshi to dream ambitious dreams.

In feudal Haryana, Sakshi's success will pave the way for other girls to scale new heights. The Khap panchayat or traditional council head, the official district patriarch, came sheepishly to offer the family congratulations. That's another first. Khaps are feared for their often fatal pronouncements on honour killings if young folk dare to disobey the unwritten rules of caste and custom, especially with regard to frowned-upon inter-caste or other forbidden marriages. They have even been known to issue diktats against women who wear jeans or cross any behaviour boundaries proscribed by the all male councils.

The celebrations have indeed begun. Reports pour in, of families spurred by the TV coverage of India's women, both Sakshi's bronze and badminton player Sindhu's silver, to encourage more girls to take sports far more seriously than has ever been the case before.

For Sakshi who only wanted to fly in an aeroplane, as a little girl, it's been one long successful ride. From Haryana's Rohtak to Rio. She's come a very long way. India's women will salute her, not just now, but throughout history as the woman who opened doors for them. And hopefully, put the lid on the feudal mindset. That's an absolutely stupendous victory.

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