Guwahati, Assam: On 13 July, the Das residence in Kandhulimari-3 village in Nagaon district was buzzing with tales of Hima. Her parents, relatives and friends couldn’t stop gushing about the gold medalist’s childhood antics and her dream of playing football much to the elation of attentive journalists.
“She once burned a beehive hanging from the tree in our backyard with her bare hands. Another time, a Tonga was passing by our village and the rider was exhausted. She just jumped and took over the reins,” her uncle Bijoy said, his eyes gleaming with pride. His wife, casually remarks, “You won’t ever catch her doing household work. Despite my prodding, no one seemed to have an apparent issue with how she was unlike most girls in her village. Her friends, all boys, did not shy away from sharing that they would be left behind biting her dust in the football field."
The 18-year-old athlete shot to social media stardom after getting India the first gold medal in women’s 400-meter race at the World Under-20 Championship in Tampere, Finland. Overnight, quite literally, she became ‘India’s daughter’ as did many other athletes and sportswomen from the North East before her.
For a country that is yet to win medals or even qualify in many sporting categories, athletes and sportswomen from the North East region are rising up to the challenge.
The nation is on a high now from Hima’s success and Dipa Karmakar’s first gold at an international championship in Turkey. Karmakar is a rare exception in this regard since she won many hearts and minds even before she clinched a medal. For a country that is yet to win medals or even qualify in many sporting categories, athletes and sportswomen from the North East region are rising up to the challenge. In the absence of infrastructure or private sponsorships, how have women from this region opened India’s medal accounts in competitions like boxing and gymnastics?
‘Women occupy public spaces’
In her autobiography, Unbreakable, MC Mary Kom wrote about her tedious routine during her earlier days of training as a boxer. At the crack of dawn, she would wake up for a run, help out in the household chores, work in the rice field with her parents, head to the boxing academy in Imphal (a considerable distance from her village) only to return home in time for dinner and more household chores.
Kom, and the likes of Sanjita and Mirabai Chanu, would travel to Imphal for training unaccompanied on buses or even on bicycles. Manipur is as deeply a patriarchal society as any across East Asia, with the double whammy of insurgency-related violence and curfews. Yet, women exclusively run markets, work in fields, forests or offices and to a large extent, freely mingle with the opposite sex.
Former Indian Football team captain, Baichung Bhutia, says women in the North East have the advantage of exercising control in the community and possess the requisite mental and physical strength and endurance. "A girl born in the North East has comparatively much more freedom than in other states. Parents do not discourage them from pursuing the same goals as boys," Bhutia told SheThePeople.TV.
"A girl born in the North East has comparatively much more freedom than in other states. Parents do not discourage them from pursuing the same goals as boys." -Baichung Bhutia
Contrast this to young women athletes in Haryana, who have to combat sexism, early marriage and a highly skewed sex ratio apart from poor infrastructure to become potential hopefuls to compete in internationally. Keep in mind that the marvel in the story of the Phogat sisters is not so much their rural background (they were in no way impoverished) but pursuing a sport seen exclusively reserved for men and transgressing gender stereotypes.
‘Sports as a means to a government job’
In most of the states in the North East region, which has seen nil to negligent industrial growth or economic boom, government jobs are still put at a pedestal. Competitive exams for limited posts in the state, police or paramilitary forces is not everyone’s cup of tea nor can all afford to pay the bribe, reportedly said to be deeply entrenched in the recruitment system.
Of course, winning a medal in the Olympics is a matter of national pride and athletic ambition, but the job security and social regard are definite perks. Most, like Kom and Olympic weightlifter Kunjarani Devi, also come back to their states to coach young athletes and set up better amenities for training and physical fitness.
Given that a career in sports and athletics is riddled with uncertainties, the job becomes a much-needed cushion. However, government posts in police or railways or other important titles like ‘Sports Ambassador’ that Hima has already been awarded with in Assam, only come with laurels. Many women athletes, like Manipuri weightlifter Sanjita Chanu or Assamese archer Gahela Boro, are said to have received minimal support while battling injuries in the midst of their career.
Many women athletes, like Manipuri weightlifter Sanjita Chanu or Assamese archer Gahela Boro, are said to have received minimal support while battling injuries in the midst of their career.
‘Our tribe is increasing’
Far more than any visible industry – whether fashion, aviation, talent shows, Bollywood or the media – the sports arena is where we’re grabbing the maximum eyeballs. We have Arunadha Devi Thokchom, Sushila Chanu and Ruatfeli in the Indian Hockey Team, three Manipuri weightlifters in the national camp prepping for Asian games next month, including gold medalist Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, seven women from Manipur in the Indian football team and Phoebe Dale Nongrum in the Formula LGB 04 race team.
Visible representation in a field with a direct impact on a country’s global standing has a rippling influence on women who come from religious and ethnic minority groups, otherwise invisibilised by mainstream media. Keep aside the controversy when Priyanka Chopra played Mary Kom, Kom has been well featured across glamour, popular culture and media.
With the increase in private investment in sports and Assam pegged as the sports hub of India, this could be our ticket to social affluence and influence as it has been for African-Americans in the States. It’s just as important for this region to be also represented by the movers and shakers in the country.
With the increase in private investment in sports and Assam pegged as the sports hub of India, this could be our ticket to social affluence and influence as it has been for African-Americans in the States.
At the same time, it’s important to not be content with representation but push the bar for more opportunities and avenues to build athletes and teams for international competitions. Reportedly, the Indian women’s football team is still not in the best form for the upcoming Asian Games, largely because they haven’t played enough friendly matches outside South Asia or even domestic tournaments.
With the increase in district and state level leagues, tournaments and championships like Khelo India, we’re optimistically looking at more competitive play and an expanding fan base. And with young women dominating the field, you can be rest assured, the future (and the market) is female.
Makepeace Sitlhou is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, reporting on the North East region. Her work has appeared in several national dailies and international publications. Views expressed are the author's own.