In India, a woman becoming a professional wrestler is rare enough.
But three Olympian wrestlers all from the same area of Haryana — widely considered India’s most patriarchal state — and two of them related? That’s unheard of.
“Where we’re from, women are practically second-class citizens,” says 21-year-old Vinesh Phogat.
“It’s so difficult being a woman, forget about being a female wrestler.”
Never before have three Indian female wrestlers qualified for the Olympics.
As Phogat, 23-year-old Sakshi Malik and 26-year-old Babita Kumar Phogat train, they ooze confidence.
The way they walk, talk, and of course, wrestle, is packed with power, determination and ambition. Characteristics that are unheard of among village women in Haryana.
“Our first battle was clothes — to be able to wear what we want,” says Vinesh.
“Even if we wore a t-shirt and sweatpants people would say to our parents: how can you let them wear that? Then we fought to stay out after 5 p.m. so we could train. Neighbors would say ‘what kind of girl stays out after sunset’.”
The criticism was unrelenting. And, in small towns and villages, what people say matters.
“The final battle was to be allowed to wrestle,” says Vinesh. “People would say wrestling is not a woman’s sport, if you break your limbs, who will marry you?”
‘When a daughter is born people are sad’
Most women in rural Haryana are seen covered head-to-toe, balancing ubiquitous terracotta urns full of water on their heads, their education and ambition often cut short by child marriage.
That’s of the ones that make it to childhood. According to the Navjyoti India Foundation, some 37,000 pregnancies that would result in girls are aborted every year, one of the highest rates in the world, because daughters are seen as a burden.
The WEF ranks India 143rd of 145 for its female-to-male sex ratio, and Haryana has one of the worst ratios in the country.
“Most people in Haryana are still very biased against women,” Mahavir Singh Phogat explains.
“When a daughter is born people are actually sad here. Parents give sons better food and educate them, while daughters are just raised to do all the house work.”
Mahavir is Vinesh’s uncle and Babita’s father. A former wrestler himself, Mahavir converted a traditional wrestling mudpit in his home village of Balali into a modern gym, and trained all four of his daughters and two nieces to become professional wrestlers.
Three of them have qualified for the Olympics.
‘Our village changed’
“There was a lot of pushback,” Mahavir says. “Everyone said I was bringing shame to our village by training my girls, but I thought, if a woman can be Prime Minister of a country, why can’t she be a wrestler?”
2012 was a turning point. That’s when his eldest daughter, Geeta, became the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics. Balali village was suddenly in the spotlight and locals realized the prestige daughters could bring to their families and entire village if given the opportunity.
“Suddenly everyone in the village wanted their daughter to become a wrestler,” Mahavir recalls.
As you enter Balali, a sign now reads “Welcome to the village of the Phogat Sisters.” It may still be a sleepy, dusty hamlet of some 2,000 people, but something truly radical is happening here.
Even after sunset, girls and women now venture out in their workout gear and sneakers, their hair cut short, and head to Mahavir’s gym. Some of the girls are as young as 3 or 4-years-old. Everyone says they’re inspired by the Phogats.
The story has left such a mark that one of India’s most famous Bollywood stars Aamir Khan is even producing a movie about the Phogat sisters with himself as Mahavir Singh Phogat.
“Because of my girls, not only has our village changed, the entire state of Haryana is slowly changing,” the real Mahavir says.
Fifteen-years-ago, he built the first and only wrestling gym for women. Now he says in Haryana alone, there are more than 50.