New Delhi: After losing the Tokyo Olympics trials against Indian boxing legend Mary Kom three years ago, Nikhat Zareen hit rock bottom. Not one to give up, however, the boxer from Telangana ensured she came back stronger, and went on to win a gold medal at the World Boxing Championships in Istanbul last week.
Zareen won in the flyweight category (50-52kg), defeating Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas.
Not only has the feat made her a celebrity across the country, but even Kom — whom Zareen refers to as her ‘idol’ — took to Twitter to congratulate the younger boxer.
“Congratulations Nikhat for winning Gold medal. So proud of you on your historic performances and all the best for your future endeavors,” wrote Kom.
Born in Telangana’s Nizamabad city, 25-year-old Zareen told ThePrint in an interview Wednesday that she had always wanted to break gender stereotypes — the reason for her taking up boxing. She was in the national capital for a felicitation ceremony.
The journey from choosing to take up boxing to winning the world championship, has not been an easy one, however. On the way, she has battled 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 the past few months. The boxer also pushes for “peace and harmony” in the country.
“I was an athlete since the age of 10. My father was also a sports person, so he used to coach me. Once he took me to a nearby stadium and I realised that all the sports had women players other than boxing. I asked my father if women can’t box,” recalled Zareen.
She added: “He said women can do anything, but the world thinks that women can not play a tough sport like boxing. That sentence inspired me to choose boxing. And today I am very happy that I chose to box, because I think I was meant to do this. And today, even if I have been able to inspire a single woman to come in the field of boxing, I think I have won my actual medal.”
Zareen, who also works as assistant manager at the Bank Of India, Mumbai, spoke of her interest in music, shayari, shopping and Salman Khan. The boxer not only hopes to meet the actor one day, but also marry him, he he agrees.
‘Hijab a personal choice’
While Zareen describes herself as a “deeply religious” person, boxing for her is “above religion”.
“I am a religious person but a lot of times I have even missed reading namaz for my training sessions. I believe that if you are putting in all your hard work for something, God will reward you. If you do good, good will come back to you. More than prayers. I believe in being a good person and wanting the good for others, that is the only way to make God happy,” said Zareen.
The Telangana boxer also believes in giving agency to women to make their decisions.
Asked about the recent controversy in Karnataka over the hijab ban in educational institutions, Zareen said, “No one can or should ask women to wear hijab, no one should ask them to remove it either. At the same time hijab should not stop women from doing anything.”
Talking about her own field, the boxer added, “Even boxing (rules) allows women to wear hijab inside the ring. I was never asked to wear one by my family. But if women want and if they feel more comfortable in hijab, they should not be stopped.”
‘Faced backlash from my community’
Recalling the reaction of the “orthodox Muslim community” around her to her choice of taking up boxing, Zareen said, “When I decided to pursue boxing professionally, my father supported my decision, but my mother was very scared. She had only one concern, that boxing could injury to my face and body. But my relatives and people in the community really demotivated me.”
The 25-year-old added: “They always used to criticise me for wearing shorts, being a Muslim woman. They had a very orthodox mindset — that women should stay indoors and do household chores. But my father stood with me against all odds. Initially when I started boxing, I was hurt very badly by some boys, it left bruises on my eyes and nose, and when I reached home, my mother started crying and said who will marry you if you damage your face in boxing. I promised her that one day I will make a big name for myself, and that boys will queue outside my house to marry me. Today, my mother has become very chilled, in fact she has become my half-coach. I am happy that I could change my mother’s mindset, along with others.”
‘My Hindu friend and I pray together’
Replying to ThePrint’s question on an alleged incident of a man in Madhya Pradesh being beaten up on the suspicion of being a Muslim — he was later found to be dead — Zareen said, “As an athlete, we have never paid heed to the religion of any person because that’s the sportsman spirit we have been taught. Country comes first for us. But when I see communal incidents taking place 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 does her puja together, in one room very happily. I do not see any problem here. Indians should never fight on the lines of religion. We are one, we are equal, we should live with peace and harmony.”
‘Dealt with mental health issues’
While preparing for the World Championships in 2019, Zareen got to know that the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) would not be holding trials to choose participants for the event, and had already chosen Mary Kom to represent the country. When Kom won a bronze at the World Championships, she automatically became the choice to represent the country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Though the minister chose not to involve himself in the matter, a trial for the event was finally held. Mary Kom defeated Zareen 9-1. After the match, Kom reportedly did not even participate in the customary handshake between adversaries.
Talking to ThePrint about the incident, Zareen said, “I was very upset about losing the bout against Mary Kom. And more than that I was upset with what followed. I hit rock bottom mentally, because I felt very lonely.”
She added: “Nothing could make me happy. But God also had a plan for me. I think God also knew that I should not train myself in that dark zone, I should come out of it and then train myself with a positive mindset, which I could not achieve after the trials. I went home to take some time off and soon after that Covid (pandemic) happened. So coincidentally I got to give myself time and came back stronger.”
Zareen also spoke about seeking professional help to overcome her mental crisis.
“My psychologist also helped me get through those times. All you need is for someone to hear you out and understand you, and fortunately enough I had my family and close friends who really had my back. But I would always suggest everybody to talk to someone, anyone, but talk, because keeping things inside only does more harm. I will tell all the youngsters to take a break or talk when they feel upset, otherwise the mind can push you towards harsher things.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)