Women cannot be asked ‘to wear and remove hijab’, boxing champ Nikhat Zareen says, urging ‘peace, harmony’

New Delhi: After losing the Tokyo Olympic Trials to Indian boxing legend Mary Kom three years ago, Nikhat Zareen has hit rock bottom. Not one to give up, however, the boxer from Telangana made sure to come back stronger and won a gold medal at the World Boxing Championships in Istanbul last week.

Zareen won in the flyweight category (50-52 kg), beating Thai Jitpong Jutamas.

Not only has the feat made her a celebrity across the country, but even Kom – who Zareen calls her “idol” – took to Twitter to congratulate the young boxer.

“Congratulations Nikhat on winning the gold medal. So proud of you for your historic performances and all the best for your future endeavors,” Kom wrote.

Born in the city of Nizamabad in Telangana, Zareen, 25, told ThePrint in an interview on Wednesday that she had always wanted to break gender stereotypes – the reason she started boxing. She was in the nation’s capital for a congratulatory ceremony.

However, the journey between choosing to get into boxing and winning the world championship was easy. Along the way, she struggled with patriarchy, social pressure, injury and more. And believes in “freedom of choice” when it comes to the hijab controversy that has rocked the country in recent months. The boxer is also pushing for ‘peace and harmony’ in the country.

“I was an athlete since I was 10 years old. My father was also a sportsman, so he trained me. Once he took me to a nearby stadium and I realized that all sports had female players other than boxing. I asked my father if women couldn’t box,” recalls Zareen.

She added, “He said women can do anything, but the world thinks women can’t do a tough sport like boxing. That sentence inspired me to choose boxing. And today, I am very happy that I chose boxing, because I think I was made for it. And today, even if I could inspire only one woman to come into the field of boxing, I think I have won my real medal.

Zareen, who also works as an assistant manager at Bank Of India, Mumbai, spoke about her interest in music, shayari, shopping and Salman Khan. The boxer hopes not only to meet the actor one day, but also to marry him, he agrees.

Read also: Tokyo Olympics was more under pressure than Rio but coach helped me take it ‘aaraam se’, says Sindhu

“The hijab is a personal choice”

While Zareen describes herself as a “deeply religious” person, boxing for her is “above religion”.

“I am a religious person but many times I even missed reading namaz for my workouts. I believe that if you put all your hard work into something, God will reward you. If you do good, good will come to you. More than prayers. I believe in being a good person and wanting good for others is the only way to make God happy,” Zareen said.

The Telangana boxer also believes in empowering women to make decisions.

Asked about the recent controversy in Karnataka over the banning of hijab in educational institutions, Zareen said, “No one can or should ask women to wear hijab, nor should anyone ask them to take it off. . At the same time, the hijab should not prevent women from doing anything.

Speaking about her own field, the boxer added, “Even boxing (rules) allow women to wear the hijab inside the ring. My family never asked me to wear one. But if women want and feel more comfortable in the hijab, don’t stop them.

“Faced with the negative reactions of my community”

Recalling the reaction of the ‘Orthodox Muslim community’ around her to her choice to take up boxing, Zareen said: “When I decided to pursue boxing professionally, my father supported my decision, but my mother She was very scared. She had only one concern, that boxing might hurt my face and body. But my relatives and people in the community really demotivated me.

The 25-year-old added: “They always blamed me for wearing shorts, being a Muslim woman. They had a very orthodox mindset: women should stay indoors and do household chores. But my father supported me against all odds. Initially, when I started boxing, I was very badly hurt by boys, it left me with bruises on my eyes and nose, and when I got home, my mother started to cry and said who would marry you if you damaged your face boxing. I promised her that one day I would make a big name for myself and the boys would line up outside my house to marry me. Today, my mother has become very chilly, in fact she has become my half-coach. I’m glad I was able to change my mom’s mindset, along with others.

“My Hindu friend and I pray together”

Responding to ThePrint’s question about an alleged incident of a Madhya Pradesh man being beaten on suspicion of being a Muslim – he was later found dead – Zareen said: “As an athlete, we never paid any attention to anyone’s religion because it’s sportsmanship we were taught. Country comes first for us. But when I see community incidents unfolding around me , I feel very bad.

She added: “I am a Muslim, but my best friend is a Hindu. I do the namaz and she is doing her puja together, in a room very happily. I don’t see any problem here. Indians should never fight on the lines of religion. We are one, we are equal, we must live in peace and harmony.

“Treatment of mental health problems”

While preparing for the World Championships in 2019, Zareen learned that the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) would not hold trials to choose the participants for the event and had already chosen Mary Kom to represent the country. When Kom won a bronze medal at the World Championships, she automatically became the choice to represent the country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Zareen then wrote to the then Minister of Sports, Kiren Rijiju, for a ‘trial’ and a ‘fair chance’. A furious Mary Kom was then quoted as saying, “Who is Nikhat Zareen?

Although the minister chose not to get involved in the case, a trial for the event eventually took place. Mary Kom defeated Zareen 9-1. After the match, Kom would not even participate in the usual handshake between opponents.

Speaking to ThePrint about the incident, Zareen said, “I was very upset that I lost the fight to Mary Kom. And more than that, I was overwhelmed by what followed. I hit rock bottom mentally, because I felt very alone.

She added: “Nothing could make me happy. But God also had a plan for me. I think God also knew that I shouldn’t train in that dark area, I had to get out of it and then train with it. a positive state of mind, which I couldn’t achieve after the hardships. I went home to take some time off and soon after Covid (pandemic) arrived. So coincidentally I got had to give me time and I came back stronger.

Zareen also spoke about seeking professional help to overcome her mental breakdown.

“My psychologist also helped me through these times. All you need is someone to listen to you and understand you, and luckily I had my family and close friends who were really supportive. But I would always suggest everyone talk to someone, anyone, but talk, because keeping things inside only hurts more. I will tell all young people to pause or speak when they feel upset, otherwise the spirit may push you towards harder things.

(Editing by Poulomi Banerjee)

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