Wrestling singlet under a burqa: The story of Odisha's undisputed champion Tahera Khatun
Coming from a Muslim family in a state where wrestling is not popular, Tahera knew that the path would be full of obstacles, but her perseverance and determination have kept her going.
Odisha grappler Tahera Khatun was told to embrace the burqa and shun the wrestling singlet but she made the tough choice of upholding her "dharma" as well as pursuing her passion simultaneously.
Coming from a Muslim family in a state where wrestling is not popular, Tahera knew that the path was going to be full of obstacles, but her perseverance and determination have kept her going.
Undefeated in her state thus far, the 28-year-old Tahera has struggled to make a mark at the national level. She neither has strong sparring partners at her club in Cuttack to become a better wrestler nor has rich dietary support to become strong. But she does not regret the lack of success at the big stage since stepping onto the mat is a source of happiness for her.
"I am wedded to wrestling," Tahera told PTI with a spark in her eyes. "If I get married, I will be told to leave wrestling since it is difficult for Muslim girls to continue in such a contact sport after marriage, and I am not willing to do it. Three of my batch-mates got married and now they can't play because of family pressure, I don't want something like that happening to me. I already faced difficulties since taking up this sport. The relatives and neighbours were never appreciative of me playing this game. They just wanted me to stay inside the house but my mother, Sohra Bibi, supported me," explained Tahera, who lost her father, S K Ahmed, when she was only 10.
Whatever little support Tahera gets, it is from her brothers (one is auto driver and the other a painter) and coach Rajkishore Sahu. "Wrestling gives me happiness. So what if I don't do well at the Nationals, at least I am getting to compete. Merely getting on to the mat fills me with happiness," she said.
Tahera recently competed at the National championship in Gonda in Uttar Pradesh but made a first-round exit in the 65kg category. She used to play table tennis to overcome depression caused by her father's death before wrestling coach Rihana convinced her to make a switch. Rihana trained her for a month and took her to 'Khurda Pehla' for a district championship, where she emerged champion and the love of sport struck her.
"People tell me 'wrestling has not given you anything'. There are no facilities, no job. But my mother told me that I must pursue it if I like it," said Tahera. While Tahera wants to pursue her passion she did not wish to disappoint her community and find a way to keep the people happy.
"When I enter Cuttack, I wear 'burqa'. I need to save both, my sporting career as well as my religion. When I come out to play I wear whatever is required but I don't disrespect my elders. 'Dharam bhi chahiye, karam bhi'. In 2018, I lost my mother. Till she was alive, I had to think about her. I did not want her to listen to taunts but now I don't care, I live my life my way now. I will definitely wear burqa once I am done with my career. Now things are changing. Lot of people wished me all the best before I left for Nationals."
However, the other struggle continues for her. The little support she gets from her coach and brothers is not enough. She knows her career is as good as over, but she wants to initiate her nieces into the sport and for that to happen, she needs financial stability.
"I wish I had got a job. At least a home guard job. I manage my expenses by giving Yoga home tuition and help people who require physiotherapy. I learnt it by myself by attending training camps and talking to wrestlers. For how long my brothers would support me, I need a job. All I earn is 4-5 thousand a month."
Tahera cannot afford to take protein or dry fruits. All she can afford is rice and vegetable as of now. Because of the lack of rich diet, she now has low level of calcium and hemoglobin. Her body is giving the signal that she can't continue in the sport but she is all about grit. She competed at the Nationals with high blood pressure and against the advice of the doctor. Her coach Rajkishore Sahu also shared the plight of her ward.
"No one has offered Tahera even a glass of water, leave aside providing support and facilities. The wrestlers in the state of Odisha are a deprived lot," said Sahu, who retired from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) six years ago.