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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 00:13 GMT
Boxing future for Muslim women

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Calcutta

At the crack of dawn every day, a wiry girl leaves her cramped home in Calcutta's squalid Kidderpore area and jogs to the lush gardens of the city's stately Imperial Library.

Razia Shabnam
Razia Shabnam: Trailblazer for Calcutta's young women
For the next hour, Razia Shabnam goes through her paces, as early morning walkers gape at her.

"She's the woman boxer. Be careful of her!" quips one passer-by.

Razia Shabnam, 23, is more than a female pugilist.

Braving stiff resistance from relatives and neighbours in the desperately poor Muslim ghettos of Calcutta where women have traditionally lived a cloistered life, Shabnam made it to the big ring.

Now she is India's first Muslim woman boxer-turned-coach and international referee.

More importantly, she is like the Pied Piper to poor Muslim girls who are making their journey to the boxing ring and making a statement.

Battling the odds

There are over 150 women boxers in India today, but the majority of those hailing from Calcutta are Muslim girls who have come out of the shadows.

Inspiring them to take up what, for Calcutta, is a rather unusual sport, is Laila Ali, the boxer-daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

ALAM ARA
Alam Ara
I don't believe girls should stay at home and cook. I want to be like Laila Ali
They also revere Mohammed Ali Qamar, a local ghetto boy who clinched a gold medal in the light flyweight boxing at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester last year.

"Women taking up boxing here is like a jihad [struggle] against established community conventions," says Rahat Hussain, Razia's social worker father.

Mr Hussain, who used to be a wrestler, is not far off the mark.

Over half of Muslim women in urban India are illiterate and less than 1% of them are graduates.

Even government reports concede that Muslim women are among the "poorest, educationally disenfranchised, economically vulnerable, politically marginalised group" in India.

Not surprisingly, it wasn't easy to get Muslim girls to take up boxing. Shabnam and three other women were the first to come out of their homes and make the difficult trip to the coaching ring five years ago.

'Sense of identity'

Ashit Banerjee, a boxing enthusiast who runs a club in the city and brings out the only boxing magazine in India, remembers that in the early days the girls would leave home in burqas and slip into shorts and boxing gear once they had reached the ring.

Razia Shabnam training on the library steps
Shabnam is a regular sight on the library steps
He says he has been accused of misguiding the girls.

"Parents were aghast. Relatives chided the girls. Some Urdu papers even called me an infidel."

"Today things have changed and the girls are coming in droves."

But it is still not easy going - Shabnam, who was the first girl in her neighbourhood to go to college and become a graduate - still has no steady job.

She makes do with a paltry 600 rupees ($13) a month, which she earns teaching poor students.

The other girls box on, hoping one day they will shine enough to win medals and get a job.

There is little money in boxing in India, and there still are no places for women boxers in government offices, which hire sportspeople.

"Still they come to the ring, because boxing gives them a strong sense of identity. They are no longer faceless girls spending all their lives at home," says Ashit Banerjee.

Tough life

Their struggle is far removed from the world of their icon Laila Ali, who endorses cars and hair products, turns up on television shows and is a pin-up model of sorts.

The boys are scared of us. If somebody messes around with us, we give it back to them
Shakila, 15
Calcutta's girl-boxers train in a wood-based ring in an unkempt, mosquito-infested park where the homeless sleep rough, and young men shoot heroin.

The girls live in cramped, single-room, homes with common toilets in large families - and need to find a neighbour's empty room in which to change.

Their diets are embarrassingly frugal: some baked bread, lentil soup and occasionally chicken leftovers from the nearby market.

Still, they are very fired up and box three hours a day, six days a week.

Eighteen-year-old Alam Ara is one girl who was inspired by Shabnam's example.

Her father hawks homemade food on a grimy Kidderpore pavement and keeps aside a part of his paltry earnings to buy his daughter her cheap gear.

Ara went to school, learnt computers and then took up boxing.

"I don't believe girls should stay at home and cook. I want to be like Laila Ali," says Ara, who has a picture of her heroine tucked under her pillow.

'Only thing I love'

Twin sisters Shanoo and Shakila Baby, 15, are also seeking a career in the ring.

Their policeman father died a few years ago. Encouraged by their mother who says she used to slip out of home when she was young to play football with the boys, the twins took up boxing.

Two girls sparring
The girls says boxing wins them respect
"The boys are scared of us. If somebody messes around with us, we give it back to them," says Shakila, who thrashed a man who tried to snatch her handbag at a fair two years ago.

Bright-eyed Sazda Parveen, 17, the daughter of a carpet factory worker, has already sparred in seven tournaments and is noted for the speed of her punches.

"My relatives said I would be disfigured if I boxed, I would no longer be a girl. Now it's the only thing I love," says Parveen.

It is difficult to say how long these girls will continue to flock to the ring in the absence of any incentive. Their only perks are the tournaments when they travel out of the city and are paid a small daily allowance and given modest lodging.

But Shabnam says she and the girls won't give up hope so easily.

"I do get frustrated. After all this I don't have a regular source of income. People ask me: Why are you doing this? For what?

"I tell them boxing has given me some recognition. I am happy for that."




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