As Geeta Phogat completes her sprint at a sprawling sports campus in Punjab State, one of her coaches nods approvingly at her stopwatch, another rushes to check her pulse, and a third ushers her toward the gym for a bout of wrestling.
Such attention and encouragement is routine for a top athlete, but it is unusual for women from Phogat’s village in the northern Indian state of Haryana.
It is rare for a girl to have a life outside her home.
“In my village, girls have limited opportunities,” says 23-year-old Phogat, the first female Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. “If they get admission in a college, only a few households would allow them to go for further studies.”
When Phogat and her wrestler-sisters began training, they were ridiculed by the community.
“They said nobody will marry us because we would have disfigured ears,” says Phogat, pointing to her cauliflower ears, a common condition among wrestlers in which the outer ear is swollen.
Twelve years later, Phogat is a local celebrity. Ask for the house where Phogat lives and people several kilometers away can direct you to it.
Tanned and lithe, Phogat stood with her legs apart and her muscular arms folded across her chest, as she spoke to reporters at her gym. It was a confident posture, unlike that of many of the women from her village who were too shy to speak to journalists.
Her home state of Haryana is notorious for its gender bias and sex-selective abortion. A girl child is considered so undesirable, and they are so frequently aborted, that a census last year found there were only 877 women for every 1,000 men. The national sex ratio is 940.
Girls are often viewed as a financial burden because of the marriage dowry given by the bride’s family to the groom — a social custom widely practiced despite being illegal in India.
“In my village earlier, when families found they were going to have a girl child, they used to get an abortion,” says Phogat’s younger sister, Ritu, who is also a wrestler.
An adolescent girl in Haryana is typically expected to do household chores and is often married by the age of 15, says Anjali Makhija, who works for the Institute of Rural Research and Development.
Most women are expected to do chores such as bathing livestock, milking cows or working in the fields. Education is not a priority.
Hardly any of Phogat’s childhood friends went to college or have a job. She had an unconventional upbringing as her father decided to coach her in kushti, traditional Indian wrestling, which is usually fought on a mud surface.
“If I was not a wrestler, or if my father was not a good coach, I would have been married by now,” she says.
Instead, Phogat and her sisters were brought up as boys with her father disapproving of long hair or feminine clothes.
“We used to wear a track suit and T-shirt while training,” says Phogat, who has grown her hair longer now and has a ponytail. “But that did not go down well with the villagers, because women are usually supposed to wear salwar kameez [a long shirt paired with loose pajamas].”
While kushti is popular in Haryana, a state known for producing quality wrestlers, it is considered a man’s sport with no training infrastructure for women. The Phogat sisters had mud bouts with boys to hone their skills.
“We were known as the sisters who beat all the boys,” Phogat says.