India's Muslim girls box their way out poverty

KOLKATA, INDIA -- As the sun dips below the horizon, roll call begins at a boxing club in southeast Kolkata.
Standing tall, soldier-style in three lines, are 47 students -- some as young as 8 years old, a few as old as 23 -- who hold their positions in front of an outdoor boxing ring at the Khidderpore School of Physical Culture, a community sports center.
Some girls in Kolkata, India, are casting off traditional gender roles and lacing up boxing gloves. As WSJ's Poh Si Teng reports, they're punching for gold and to secure a better life.
Several are clad in identical athletic shorts and tanks; others wear faded T-shirts and knee-length shorts. As they stand in formation, they look past the yellow ropes of the ring, past the grill that fences the complex, past the open dirt field and crumbling construction at a park, where the neighborhood kids are laughing, screaming and playing cricket and catch.
They look past the squalor. As a trainer eyeballs the lines, an assistant calls the students by their assigned numbers.
"Number 20," yells the assistant. "Present, sir," responds a soft voice from the second line.
The trainer, Sheikh Nasimuddin Ahmed, calls number 20, a 16-year-old girl named Sughra Fatma, to the front. Grabbing her ear firmly with a twist, the 31-year-old man berates her for snickering during roll call, and reiterates the importance of discipline. As punishment, Ms. Fatma must do a dozen squats. Everyone watches.
Here, Ms. Fatma is one of the boys. She looks like them: Her hair is cropped short; she's lithe, has calves of steel and walks as if she's bouncing on springs. In the ring, she even spars with them. And if she makes a mistake, she's punished like them.
Outside the club, however, Ms. Fatma's life is different. About 13 million people live in the predominantly Hindu city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. Roughly a fifth of them are Muslim, according to the latest census in 2001. In Khidderpore, a mostly Muslim neighborhood near the Hooghly river where Ms. Fatma lives, many homes are mere shacks that each house seven to 10 family members. It isn't the poorest part of town, but it's decidedly poor.
Ms. Fatma's father works as a crane operator in the port area, but his health is failing and there isn't much work these days anyway. Her mother tutors sometimes to earn a little extra pocket money. After boxing workouts that last from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Sunday, Ms. Fatma heads home where she freshens up, finishes leftover school work and then helps her sisters cook dinner -- a few pieces of beef in a curry and some bread -- at their family home, a tiny place that houses her parents, a brother and three sisters. After dinner she sleeps with her sisters on the floor; her parents and brother share an old wooden bed.
As it is for many of the kids at the boxing club, life is hard. For girls -- unlike boys who have a few more options -- it's practically scripted: They stay home, help their mothers, and get married so they aren't a burden to their families anymore.
Girls like Ms. Fatma, who dream of a better life with more options and opportunity, join the Khidderpore boxing club because it offers a potential way out.
Boxing is one of several avenues that have opened up to poor Muslim women across a modernizing India, including careers with nonprofit organizations and in teaching. It reflects the changing role of women within their own communities, particularly in the past decade, says Sabiha Hussain, an associate professor who studies women's issues at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. "They find (boxing) as a way of coming out from conservativeness. They have very limited role -- poor Muslim women -- in the public sphere. So these women, these boxers, they find a way to come out and this is an outlet for them to fight poverty," Ms. Hussain says.
Sports in general, she says, are a good way for Muslim girls to achieve fame and break away from gender stereotypes. In sports, "they are captured by the media. If they are in a simple thing -- small business -- they are not visible. It's a question about visibility. Everybody knows Sania Mirza," the world-class Indian tennis player who is Muslim, Ms. Hussain adds.
Here at the Khidderpore community center, young Muslim women are liberated by the boxing ring, though few have yet achieved national standing. "In sports, boys and girls are equal. Everybody is the same," says Ms. Fatma, who trains at the boxing club with her twin, Zainab, and her younger sister Bushra, 14. Sometimes there are as many as 14 other girls who work out with the Fatma sisters. An older Fatma sister, Ainal, now 23, used to train with them but quit two years ago following her marriage.
Girls who compete and do well consistently at the national level might be able to parlay their success into a college education or a spot on a sports team -- and a job -- with the Indian railway or police force. That means a subsidized canteen, boxing trainers and facilities -- and a pension.
But to join the boxing club, the girls have to overcome many obstacles, including lack of money and a hidebound Muslim community.
"We are uplifting women," says D. Chandralal, national chief coach for youth women boxers, who has been coaching females since 2001. But, he adds, for girls to get to a competitive level, they need encouragement and financial support from their communities. "They have to break all the barriers."
Just getting dressed for afternoon practices takes a bit of derring-do. Most of the girls are modest dressers: a salwar kameez, a traditional Indian outfit of a loose-fitting tunic over pants, to school; at home, track pants and a shirt. "The first time Sir (the coach) said I would have to wear shorts, I felt ashamed because I had never worn anything like that," says Ms. Fatma.
When Ms. Fatma and her sisters picked up the sport two years ago, some of the neighbors looked down on what they were doing, and made the girls' father aware of their disapproval. But Ms. Fatma says, "My father would tell them, 'I have allowed them to box because there is a life in boxing and I want them to become somebody.'"
"I think it's very good that the girls are interested in boxing," says Mohammed Kashif Raza, a 15-year-old boy who trains at the Khidderpore boxing club. "They come from Muslim families and are not rich. They're poor. Their future is in sports only."
In Khidderpore, Muslims are more traditional than conservative. A handful of women wear a burqa, the head-to-toe loose outer garment that has only a small opening for the eyes. Many older women wear a hijab, a head cover. But teenagers and young girls typically wear a salwar kameez with no head scarf. They go to school; a few go on to university. And some women own small businesses, perhaps doing sewing, or work as maids or as managers of grocery stores.
Even so, gender roles remain strictly defined. Young girls slog through domestic chores, cook and clean for several family members and work odd jobs, such as operating private phone booths and helping customers at grocery stores, to supplement the household income, all while studying in school. By their teens, they're usually married off -- considered an essential achievement because then they will have someone to take care of them -- to men who are sometimes much older, in unions arranged by their parents.
Razia Shabnam knows the score. A decade or so ago, the 31-year-old Khidderpore native quietly swapped her salwar kameez for a pair of boxing shorts and gloves. Neighbors were afraid that their daughters would follow suit. "When I used to go to the club, people would come to me in the road and try to stop me from boxing," she says. They made snide comments to pressure her father to keep her away from the game of punches, blows and knockouts, deemed fit only for men. But her father ignored them and gave Ms. Shabnam his blessing. After a short two-year stint as an amateur national boxer from 1997 to 1999, she became India's first woman international boxing referee and judge.
"The problem is people think that it's an injurious game, especially for girls," says Ms. Shabnam. If they break their noses and mar their faces, "they can't get married." Ms. Shabnam, now married to a Muslim man who is supportive of her coaching career, is famous in the neighborhood as a boxing queen and has inspired many poor Muslim girls in the area who hope to get more control over their destinies and also gain respect from the community.
The head coach of the Khidderpore boxing club, Sheikh Mehrajuddin Ahmed, 42, the brother of Ms. Fatma's trainer, introduced the boxing program for women at Khidderpore in 1998. He has coached 36 girls in the past 11 years, and has seen them overcome stigma and break traditional stereotypes. In the past decade, nine girls from the Khidderpore club have gone on to compete in national championships, and one has competed at an international championship. They've brought home gold, silver and bronze medals.
"A lot of Muslim households object to girls leaving the house to practice. But if the girl succeeds in becoming a good boxer and gets a good job, then all these problems disappear" and the girls will be financially independent, says Coach Ahmed, who is also secretary of the Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation.
No one at his club has succeeded in such feats -- so far. Even Ms. Shabnam, the amateur national boxer who became an international referee, has yet to parlay her success into a coaching job that actually pays. To cover her day-to-day expenses, Ms. Shabnam teaches physical-fitness classes at home, which earns her about 4,000 rupees, or $80, a month, roughly the same as a domestic helper or a driver makes in Kolkata.
Then there's Mary Kom. When she was 18, Ms. Kom, who is Christian, started boxing at a local community center in her home state of Manipur in northeastern India. Two years later, in 2002, she won her first of four gold medals at the the International Boxing Association's World Women's Championships. These days, Ms. Kom, now 26, who is an inspector for the Manipur police but trains full-time for boxing tournaments, has set her sights on the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam at the end of the year.
"It is very difficult (for women) to get a job" in boxing, says Ms. Kom, who is set to receive the highest honor for athletes in India, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. "But if you win official tournaments -- Olympic tournaments, world championships, gold, silver or bronze -- (government agencies like the police or the railway) will approach you" for a job and to be on their sports teams.
At that level of competition, there's money, too. For Ms. Kom's last medal, in 2008, she received a cash award of about $20,500 from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. If a boxer wins a gold medal at the Olympics, the ministry gives him or her about $100,000. Medals won at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, or World Cup Championships come with a cash prize from the ministry of between $6,200 and $20,500.
Girls like Simmi Parveen, 12, dream of being the next Mary Kom. "This is an addiction for me. I will achieve something," says Ms. Parveen, the youngest girl at the Khidderpore club. "When I'm somebody I wouldn't have to go and look for a partner. Suitors will come themselves to talk to my brother and father for my hand. That's why I want to stand on my own feet and do something."
Ms. Parveen is lucky. Her family is supportive of her boxing. Now that many of her older siblings have started to work, the family's quality of life has improved in recent years. Her eldest brother, Mohammad Qutubuddin Khan, 30, who takes care of the household, graduated from college. "I got a lot of inspiration from Aligarh Muslim University, where I found girls pursuing their education. So I feel that there should be no discrimination between my sisters and brother. They are all equal. Let them pursue their education and what they want to be," says Mr. Khan.
But not all the girls have a brother like Mr. Khan, who can afford to buy the basic supplies needed for practice: proper running shoes, workout clothes and protective mouthpieces.
At the Khidderpore School of Physical Culture, apart from the five-year-old outdoor boxing ring (completed after a one-time club member, Mohammed Ali Qamar, became the first Indian national to clinch a boxing gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2002), everything looks like it's falling apart. There isn't enough equipment to go around. The club has 12 boxing gloves for 150 boys and girls.
It costs about 40 U.S. cents for students under 17 and about 60 cents for those 18 and over to join the boxing club. Some students come without proper shoes, and after two hours of nonstop running, bag and pad punching, and sparring, they head home. Dinner is often a few pieces of baked bread and a bowl of dal, a lentil stew. If they're lucky, they get small chunks of meat or a glass of milk.
Boxing, in the end, offers no guarantee of riches. Ms. Shabnam has spent the past 12 years of her life boxing, coaching, refereeing or judging -- and yet, she says, "I'm sad that I did so many things but still I depend on my husband."
Still, the girls at the Khidderpore boxing club are hopeful it will improve their lot. In the ring, Ms. Fatma hunkers close to a young man about a head taller. He paces forward and throws a couple of punches toward her left cheek. She manages to swerve to the side, swinging her right arm to his face and left fist toward his chest. They dance on stage, throwing definitive swipes, each trying to outlast the other.
It's a game of agility, strength and stamina. Time will tell how long Ms. Fatma, and girls like her, will continue to fight on without more financial support from the local community.
"I've dreamt of competing at the national and international levels and even at the Olympics. But for this, one needs (equipment and better facilities), which I lack," says Ms. Fatma. "Sometimes I wonder whether or not my dreams will come true."
The sky is almost pitch black now -- it's nearing 7 p.m. -- and home beckons. But the girls at the Khidderpore school take no notice. They're busy bouncing, sliding on the illuminated pearly white ring outside the Khidderpore sports center. They listen attentively to their coach, Mr. Ahmed. He instructs them to circle him and to forcefully pound the punching pads attached to his palms.
Wham. Wham. Wham. One by one, they do so without hesitation.
—Poh Si Teng is a writer based in New Delhi.