Kabaddi Means More Than A Game For Women Wage Workers Of Rural Maharashtra

A unique sports event gives women from poor homes the chance to defy gender norms and find sisterhood in play

It was a clear and nippy November morning and Sunita*, 16, was all set for the warm up-session before the kabaddi match at the taluka sports ground. Her eyes shining with excitement and confidence, she called it her ‘Independence Day’.

For Sunita – and most of the more than 500 women gathered here in 65 teams – the state-level women’s open kabaddi tournament was much more than a game. Organised by the unique single women’s collective, the Ekal Mahila Sanghatana, it meant for Sunita a break from the daily grind of farm work in the district’s Paranda block, the oppressive poverty she and her family of five struggled with and the conservatism that did not let her travel, play or dress as she pleased.

“This is the first time I have ever worn a pair of shorts,” said the tall, smart teen who is studying in Class XI. A state-level boxer, she simply does not get the time or the support for practice in her village.

“We don’t play outside our home because people are constantly watching us and monitoring our movements – where we go, how we sit, what we wear, who we talk to. We are groped or harassed when we go out even to work or study and we are told that this is bound to happen if we don’t behave in a ‘decent’ manner,” said Sunita.

Her mother supported Sunita’s ambition but many of the women players on the field had to lie to their families to get away. Any kind of game is considered inappropriate for women, especially kabaddi. “Today I get to play, laugh, and click selfies with my friends but I can’t let my family see them,” said one of Sunita’s teammates.

We heard stories like these from many of the women gathered here from across Maharashtra – Osmanabad, Beed, Nanded, Aurangabad, Latur, Solapur, Raigad and Mumbai. Many work as farm labourers, hardly any of them played any sport after school, and few possessed sports clothes or accessories. A lot of participants who cleared block-level competitions could not make it to Tuljapur because they had to migrate for cane-cutting work elsewhere in Maharashtra, we were told.

Lokaadhar Sangh’s celebration after winning the tournament/Priyanka Tupe

As the tournament ended, women walked about the ground, flaunting their certificates with pride, happiness and a sense of achievement.

Despite limited infrastructure and state support and social attitudes, several celebrated women athletes come from rural and small-town India such as Meerabai Chanu, Mary Kom from Kavita Raut. In an interview with Behanbox, activist Jagmati Sangwan had spoken of the several gender challenges sports women, especially those from small towns and villages face in their journey.

In Sarees, Salwar Suits, Burqa

The tournament was organised entirely by the activists of the Ekal Mahila Sanghatana. It was a remarkable feat – they had printed pamphlets and banners and put them up around the taluka to gather support and crowds. From anchoring the event to preparing the ground and finding match referees to filling in scoreboards and managing the boarding for 500 women, the activists did it all. They also managed logistics like the sound system, stage, and catering.

“Activists from Ekal Mahila Sanghatana also raised the funds of Rs 5 lakh from local individuals, business owners, social activists for the tournament. They learnt event management simply through experience,” said Ram Shelake, a programme lead at CORO India, that facilitates the activities of the single women’s collective in Marathwada.

On the morning of November 21, the players had reached the sports ground at 9 am. The women’s dressing room, where we meet them, is little more than a room painted in pink with a dim yellow light bulb. But none of the women appeared to notice its ordinariness. They changed their clothes, laughing and giggling. Some were conscious about getting out of their saree or salwar kameez and into a sports outfit. For many like Sunita it was the first time they wore a pair of track pants or shorts.

Women in sarees playing Kabaddi / Priyanka Tupe

“Is this looking nice?” “Is my stomach protruding?” “Isn’t this too short to wear in public?” The questions were marked by both excitement and some anxiety.

Not every player here is lucky enough to have a pair of pants, T-shirt or shorts – the women from Karjat’s Krantijyoti Adivasi Mahila Sanghatana have had to borrow T-shirts borrowed from the young men in their community.  Sport shoes or comfortable footwear was out of the question.

Many women played in sarees, salwar kameez, jeans and T-shirts. A few were in burqas too. For many, playing while dressed in sarees, salwar-kameez-dupatta and burqas was a way of negotiating space for themselves.

Ayesha Kadari from Sastur, Osmanabad, played kabaddi in burqa as did her teammate Shabana. “It is a popular perception that women in burqas can’t play, we have played in veils and won some matches. I think change is a long term process. Today the burqa allows us to step into public spaces for a tournament, tomorrow you could see a different scenario,” she said.

Shabana first from the left and Ayesha Kadari (third) played finals without burqas/Priyanka Tupe

The very next day, Kadari and Shabana were playing the semi finals without the veil. What made you change your mind? we asked. “On the second day, we felt more comfortable, even in front of match referees who were men. It’s also about the safe and comfortable environment and the sisterhood we felt here. We knew other women from our area wouldn’t inform our families that we played without the burqa. Senior women from our families who accompanied us also supported us,” said Kadari.

Let alone play, women are not supposed to leave home without a reason.

“We can’t wear salwar kameez [and not saree] at home, people shame us. I got married when I was 16, and that changed everything. I don’t get to go out and if I want I have to seek my husband’s and mother-in-law’s permission. Many of my friends dream of wearing fashionable clothes, going for picnics with friends, or dining out but these are not fulfilled,” said Rajkanya Mandade from Rajegaon. At least 27. 6 % of women were married in rural Maharashtra and 15.7 % in urban before they turned 18, according to the National Family Health Survey – 5.

‘Only My Daughter Knows I Am Playing’

Meenakshi Jagtap from Latur is in her early 60s and who lost her husband three years ago. She was a bright, energetic student in school, good in athletics and Kho Kho and there are hundreds of medals and certificates with her name inscribed on them. But she married into a landed farming family that owns a couple of city homes and shops, and that was the end of many things.

The last time Jagtap played kabbadi was in 1986 for an inter-school competition. “I don’t leave home except for bhajan-kirtan programmes. I wanted to buy a T-shirt and pants for the game so I had to lie that I needed a new saree for the kirtan and was given Rs 650. Only my daughter knows I am here. It doesn’t look good for a widow woman in her 60s to be playing,” she said. “Now it feels like my childhood has returned. But I have now decided to convince my family to let me play.”

Jospin Marry from Mumbai’s Cheeta camp area in Mankhurd brought her team for the tournament. She runs a small sports club in Mumbai and trains players from 5 to 50 years of age in kabaddi and kho kho.

“When I heard about the tournament, I formed a team of women from my area and we started practising. All my teammates are working women. It was difficult to make time and get permission from families but we women managed. Though I train people, I am myself playing kabaddi tournaments after 20 years,” said Marry.

Hard Labour Is Practice

Sujata Sabuche, from Jalkot in Latur district, has won at least half a dozen qualifying matches with her team. Dressed in a green saree, her elegant footwork, defence and raid were a treat to watch and her energy kept her team inspired especially when it was close to losing.

“I work as a daily-wage farm labourer and that is my only ‘practice’. I have to get up at 5am, do my household chores and then go to a soybean farm to work. I work from 7 am to 6pm and then it is back to housework,” she said.

This year’s drought has affected the livelihood of women from Marathwada’s Beed, Osmanabad, Latur, Parbhani, Nanded districts, forcing them to migrate for livelihood. Many have already migrated for the cane cutting season.

“Many women who participated in the last block-level kabaddi tournament in April and May 2023 could not make it here because they had to migrate for sugarcane cutting. That’s the reason the turnout was relatively low for the state-level events. At block games, you don’t have to stay two days at the venue,” said Shelake of CORO India.

Tribal women from the Thakar community in Karjat’s Bhaktachi Wadi village participated in the tournament ahead of the paddy harvesting season, defying their families. “This is a never-ending job, when would we get a chance to go out? This time we rebelled but we got only three days to practise. We did well because our daily work is strenuous – labouring in fields, collecting forest produce, climbing trees – and that keeps us fit,” said Jija Drawada, 42, a player from the Krantijyoti team and a grandmother.

Indu Kewari has had to go from door to door in her village to convince families to send their daughters to practise. “We used to wear T-shirts and shorts during practice to get familiar with our outfits and we would take off our ornaments, including our mangalsutra, bangles, and toe-rings that are considered symbols of matrimony. Both men and women would ask us: ‘Is your husband dead? Why are you not wearing ornaments? It doesn’t look good’,” said Kewari.

Many women borrowed T-shirts and Jerseys from the young men in their community. All of them aspire to get Jerseys with their own names/ Priyanka Tupe

When the women practised kabaddi with the help of some men from their community they were taunted by other men from the village, Kewari recountred. ‘Haat pay modun ya. Tujhi soon tar bapay zali (You will come up with broken hands and legs, Your daughter in law has become a man now),’ they would say.

Challenging Norms

Chandralekha Gundre from Latur is 54 and she plays with the zest of a youngster. She was playing kabaddi after 40 years and her husband who is a retired police constable Sitaram Gundre accompanied her. He was clicking photos and videos of his wife and her teammates enthusiastically.

“I now support my wife and accompany her everywhere because I couldn’t give her enough time when I was working. I feel men shouldn’t only encourage women to go out but also help them fulfil their dreams,”  said Sitrama Gundre. Sulochana Kadam’s husband looked after their baby while she played.

Monika Joseph, 17, was in the same team as her mother who was playing kabbadi after 30 years. Our society thinks that mothers shouldn’t play and women whose children are my age should not play at all. This mindset has to change,” she said.

The tournament was managed without any support from any civic body or district level sports association, said Mahananda Chavhan, an activist of the sanghatana. “Kabaddi challenges gender norms and all kinds of taboos and it is a team sport. So it also pulls down caste, class, and religious barriers,” she pointed out.

Prior to this tournament, taluka (block) level tournaments had been organised by the sanghatana in April and May this year. In these, 850 women from Lohara, Tuljapur, Paranda, Osmanabad, Kaij, Ambajogai, Beed, Renapur, Chakur, Jalkot, Mukhed blocks from Osmanabad, Beed, Latur and Nanded districts had participated.

  • Priyanka Tupe is a multimedia journalist with Behanbox based in Mumbai.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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