Women boxers are having an impact on India. Light-flyweight Mary Kom won a world boxing championship in 2003, and now she is an example for many Indian girls, especially after the release of the Bollywood film, “Mary Kom” (2014).
In 2011, there were around 200 female boxers in India, and Muslim communities of West Bengal contributed about 55 percent of the total. In 1998, Asit Banerjee, president of the South Calcutta Physical Cultural Association, campaigned for women’s participation in the sport at a meeting of the Indian Boxing Federation.
Training academies around Kolkata set out to boosts girls’ morale, and self-confidence, as well as to help them stay fit and learn self-defense. With a rape occurring every 20 minutes in a country with a population of 1.2 billion, women suffer violence in many segments of Indian society.
However, for some young women, boxing is not only a means of self-defense, but a way of life. Photojournalist Alice Sassu began documenting Simmi, Karamjit, Aditi, and sisters Ajmira and Kashmira while they train as boxers at the Kidderpore School of Physical Culture, a club in a Muslim area in Kolkata.
Simmi, 19, started boxing at the age of 13, and has since participated in state and national level competitions. Her dream is to box in international championships.
“I want to make my parents, my club and my country proud of what I am doing, so that people believe that even the Muslim community is an advanced one, and that they would not demean us any more,” Simmi said. “I want to get a job and make my own identity.”
Karamjit began boxing a year ago and medaled in competitions in no time. Boxing was her passion from her childhood, following in the footsteps of her friend Simmi. Aditi also started boxing a year ago. “There is no game only for boys or only for girls,” she said.
Ajmira and Kashmira live in a small Muslim village located 32 km from Kolkata, in Sealdah. Everyday they take a two-hour trip each way by train and bus to Ekbalpore to train at the club; a minor hurdle for these dedicated athletes.
“In the future I want to become a boxing coach,” Ajmira said. “I have faced many financial problems to reach a high level. I want to train students so that they don’t face such problems; so that they get all the help and facilities they want.”
Ekbalpore, near Kolkata’s docks, is a Muslim-dominated neighborhood dotted with dingy slums and gambling. Unemployment is high. The coaches of the KSOPC Boxing Club, Merajuddin Ahmed, popularly known as “Cheena Bhai,” and his brother Nasim Ahmed try to help the youth in their neighborhood without any kind of sponsorship. The main problem here is poverty: Many families can’t even afford the bus fare or the good diet necessary for a boxer. Girls share boxing gloves at the club, as they are expensive, and lament the fact that there are no sponsors for women.
Nasim Ahmed said, “right now, we need moral support and strength to give them [the athletes] better equipment and food. Some students are from very poor financial backgrounds.
“Their parents work as taxi drivers, servants, etc. We can’t advance like this. It is necessary for us that people should come forward and help us and our club. Only then will we be able to produce gold medalists like Ali Kuwar and international boxers like Mustafa Kamal.”