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How Indian female athletes are breaking down barriers

In line with International Women's Day, Deputy Sport Editor, Lucy Wilde, reflects on the rising stardom of Indian female athletes in sport

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Image Credit: Boxing AIBA, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aibaboxing/22922085384

The start of this week, Monday 8 March, marked International Women’s Day, and this years campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge.

Through this, the International Women’s Day movement aims to encourage us all to challenge the gender bias and inequality which permeates all aspects of our society today, despite progressive efforts to bring about change.

Within this, the verb ‘to choose’ seems to prompt a sense of individual and collective responsibility to act, and to be active. Almost as a call to arms, the hashtag challenges us to consciously seek out and celebrate women’s achievements, and to create a more inclusive world by doing so.

While female athletes are increasingly breaking down boundaries and defying expectations of their abilities, the up and coming generation of Indian female athletes in particular, presents an exciting prospect of what is to come for women in sport.

Vinesh Phogat is one of this year's Indian Sportswoman of the Year nominees. She grew up in the North Indian state of Haryana, an area that has one of the most imbalanced gender ratios in India. Now 26 years old, she was the first Indian woman to win gold in wrestling, at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games.

The culture of Haryana has strongly defined – albeit separate – expectations for men and women that could have prevented Phogat from ever fulfilling these achievements. While training at home she was told to cover her legs; her mother was shamed by local women for allowing her daughter to take up wrestling, and her family were met with disapproval for failing to conform to traditional beliefs concerning the role of women in society.

Essentially, Phogat threatened to challenge the ideology that holds females in a lesser regard than men.

Yet her ability to overcome these societal expectations and patriarchy, alongside poverty and family struggles, undoubtedly acts as an inspiring story for young aspiring Indian female athletes.

Similarly, boxer Mary Kom is a six-time world champion and Commonwealth gold medallist. She became world champion after three children, and now a mother of four, she has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Her international success also poignantly challenges the entrenched traditionalist views of many Indians today with regards to female capabilities.

Without India’s female athletes at the Rio Olympics in 2016, India would have secured no medals for the first time since 1992. This evidently marks the rise of Indian sportswomen as triumphant against long-standing gender stereotypes.

The BBC Indian Sportswoman of the Year will have been announced after this article has been published. But regardless of which female (out of the five nominees) is presented with the prestigious award, it seems fair to say that all nominees are worthy of congratulations for their collective refusal to give up in the face of adversity.

Female athletes such as Phogat chose to challenge gender stereotypes and her culture’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman in a male dominated society. It seems that we could learn a lot from examples like this, about the power of perseverance, and the strength of character required to strive for the chance to change gender perceptions.

So, to quote directly from the International Women’s Day website: “From challenge comes change, so let's all choose to challenge.”

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