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Geeta and Babita Phogat: the sisters trying to change the way Indian society treats its women

By Nina Steele 

The 2012 gang rape and subsequent death of student Jyoti Singh put the spotlight on the ingrained prejudice against women in India. She was considered fair game, because, according to her attackers, as an unmarried woman, she should not have been out at night with a male friend.

I watched a documentary of the incident on Netflix, including interviews with the rapists, and in spite of the gravity of their crime, they were totally unrepentant. The man considered to be the leader of the group, kept insisting that she brought it upon herself. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, the lawyer representing the men agreed with that argument, and went as far as to say that had she been his daughter, he would have killed her himself for bringing shame on her family.

That gives you an idea of the place of women in Indian society. They are meant to conform to the usual norms, by getting married, having children and playing second fiddle to their husbands. Anything other than that can land them in serious trouble.

Which is why the story of the Phogat sisters is so inspiring. Their father, a strong headed man, decided to stand up to his culture by giving his daughters the chance to be something other than wives and mothers. A former amateur wrestler, he trained them to become wrestlers themselves, with great success. Both sisters have gone on to respectively win a gold medal at the Commonwealth games. Predictably, people in their village disapproved of the girls’ upbringing and they had to put up with a lot of abuse.

Today, the two sisters have become household names, after their story was made into a film. The success of the film has inevitably reopened the debate about the role of women in Indian society. Even though the sisters hope that their success will bring about change, they are also realistic enough to accept that the bias against women is so deep in India that the country still has a very long way to go. Of this, Geeta, one of the sisters said: “Things are not going to change until Indian women, and their parents, stop being afraid of what society will say”, she goes on to say: “this is the single biggest obstacle. The fear of what people will say and how this will shame their parents means that women are paralysed. My father, once he has decided on something, doesn’t care about what anyone else thinks. All the men in our family swore at him for training us. His parents said he was mad. But he didn’t listen.”

By standing up to his culture, Mahavir Singh Phogat, their father, has shown the whole of India what women can achieve outside the parameters of their traditional roles. Let’s hope that more parents decide to follow in his footsteps.

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