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Nikhat Zareen: ‘My mother was crying and said no one would marry me. I replied, ‘arre ammi, tension nako lo, naam hoga toh dulhon ki line lag jayegi!’

My struggles made me strong: Boxing champ Nikhat Zareen on fighting prejudice, growing up in orthodox society, IPS dreams and Hyderabad's sporting secret.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: May 23, 2022 4:38:40 pm
World champion boxer Nikhat Zareen.(Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

World champion boxer Nikhat Zareen talks about how people ridiculed her choice to become a boxer as a girl, her struggles in a conservative society and how she feels women boxers wearing hijab is a matter of choice. The session was moderated by Mihir Vasavda, Assistant Editor, The Indian Express

Mihir Vasavda: How has it been since the bout?

I haven’t slept a wink the whole night. As I was going through text messages and social media DMs (direct messages) on my phone, I didn’t even realise that it was daybreak. I was excited talking to my family and loved ones.

Mihir Vasavda: Your journey started in Turkey in 2011 when you won the junior and youth boxing championship. Now, you have won the senior world championship in the same city. How has the 11-year run been?

My journey has been a roller-coaster ride with plenty of ups and downs. Winning this gold medal makes me feel that all those challenges and struggles were totally worth it because they made me strong enough to win this world championship medal.

Nikhat Zareen won her first World Championship medal, a gold in the 52 kg category. (BFI)

Mihir Vasavda: You mention struggle. Was that one of the reasons why you got so emotional when the referee raised your hand after the bout and declared you as the winner? We haven’t seen you this emotional in the ring before…

When my hand was raised, I was the happiest person on earth. At the same time, I was also feeling emotional as it had taken a lot of hard work and struggle to finally win the world championship medal.

It was my dream all these years to win a big medal and be a champion in the elite professional world of boxing. In the youth championships, I had made it to every final but I couldn’t get a medal in the senior world championship.

During the world championship in 2016, I lost in the quarters and missed a medal. I have now won one after six years. I got an opportunity this time and all that hard work has finally paid off.

I remember asking my father why there were no girls in the ring. Could only boys deliver a punch? He said, ‘no beta, girls can also box but people think they don’t have the guts.’ That challenged me to take up boxing

Mihir Vasavda: If we go back to where it all began, in Nizamabad, how was it growing up there? What was your childhood like?

I belong to an orthodox society where people think that girls should only be at home, take care of domestic chores, get married and look after their family. But my father was an athlete and he knows the kind of life an athlete lives. He has always been there for me and supported me even when people told him, “Arre Jameel bhai, why have you trained your daughter in boxing; this is a men’s sport (mardon ka khel hai). If she gets hit, her career will get hit, who will marry her? You already have four daughters.” My father never listened to them and instead told me, “Beta, you focus on boxing and when you do well, these same people will want to take photographs with you.” He never allowed their comments to get into my head and affect me. I feel blessed to have such parents.

I started out in 2009 and in a year, I won the national championship. I was selected for the national camp. I won my first international medal at the youth championship in Turkey in 2011. Since then, my dream goal was to win an Olympic gold medal for my country. I am working hard towards that end.

Mihir Vasavda: You mentioned the support you received from your parents. You have three sisters, what is your relationship with them like and what did you all bond over?

I have two older sisters and a younger one, who is seven years junior to me. Both my elder sisters are physiotherapists and were not interested in sports. I had always been interested in sports and used to be a bit of a tomboy those days, hanging out with the boys. I had a boyish short hair too and preferred wearing T-shirt and jeans. Nobody thought I was a girl. Perhaps, I became strong because I have been, what you would call, “rough-and-tough” since childhood.

Before boxing, I was into athletics. Since there were no proper facilities and coaches, I would accompany my father to the Collector’s Ground where many competitive sports took place. I saw girls in every sport except boxing. I remember asking my father why there were no girls in the ring and if only boys could box? And he said, “no beta, girls can also box but people think they don’t have the guts to do so. That’s why they don’t send their girls to learn boxing.”

That challenged me to take up boxing as I couldn’t understand why people would think that girls weren’t strong enough to take up such a sport. So, I thought, let’s give it a try. Bachpan sey mujhe khatron ki khiladi khelne ka bahut shauk tha (I have always wanted to be a daredevil since my childhood). I didn’t quite anticipate what awaited me.

I was the lone girl practising in that stadium among boys. Initially, I used to get hit a lot but I did not give up. Maybe training in that atmosphere, surrounded by boys, helped me steel my resolve.

Before my shoulder injury, I was not that mature. After the injury, I learnt a lot. I got to know who my real friends were and who weren’t. Because, most did not even message me or ask me how I was doing. Still, I remained positive

Sriram Veera: I was watching an interview of your mother talking about an early sparring session of yours. It was with a boy and he hit you in your face. Your mother said that she started crying and saying ‘beta tumse shaadi kaun karega?’

(Nikhat laughs) Let me tell you that story. That was my first sparring session and I was pitted against a boy who was very experienced. The coach shouted “box” and he started attacking me. I wasn’t ready for his attack and got hit on my nose, which started bleeding along with my eye which got bruised as well.

I went home with bloodstains on my T-shirt. When I entered my house, I directly rushed into the bathroom and didn’t come out until I had changed everything. I then stayed in my room, hiding my eye. But then my mother called me for dinner. We eat food together, while watching serials on TV, like every other household. This is the usual ritual but that day I chose to stay in my room. My mother got worried, barged in and seeing me bruised and black, she shivered. Then she started crying and said, “Beta maine tujhe boxing mein isliye nahi dala ki tera face kharab ho jaye (I didn’t allow you to pursue boxing so that your face would get scarred).” She then said that no one would marry me. I replied, “arre ammi, tension nako lo, naam hoga toh dulhon ki line lag jayegi! (Dear mother, don’t worry, once I make a name for myself, grooms will queue up at the doorstep).”

Now she’s used to it. Whenever I get hit, she casually tells me to apply some ice and says that it will be okay. Sometimes I feel she has become my coach. My parents watch all my bouts in every competition that I participate in and they now have a good idea of what boxing is. Whenever I have a match, my mother watches me closely and post-match calls me to review my performance, pulling me up on the mistakes I made during the fight. My parents have become my coaches and say things like, “Try to avoid clinching and play from a distance because your punches look clear then.” I find it funny that there was a time when they didn’t know anything about boxing and now they give me gyaan (laughs). But it feels nice that they’ve come a long way from their old mentality and have grown a lot with me.

The gold at Strandja, beating the Olympic silver medallist in March was a start. The World Championship title at Turkey, was announcing her proper arrival. (BFI)

Sriram Veera: Heard you say once that your plan B was to join the police.

In my childhood, I dreamt of becoming an IPS officer. When you are young, most children will say that they want to be a pilot, police, doctor or teacher. These were the professions we knew about and because of that, I wanted to be in the police. Also, the uniform looked cool and when we were in school, IPS officers would visit us as chief guests during special events and programmes. I saw the respect they commanded. Whenever I looked at them, I told myself that one day I would wear a uniform like them and come as a chief guest to my school. That’s how I started dreaming about becoming an IPS officer.

Nikhat with her father Md Jameel.

Nitin Sharma: We talked about the gold medal you won as a junior boxer in 2011. You were 15 years old back then. Ten years later, you have got the senior title. What do these achievements mean to you and do you feel the senior title came a bit late?

Medal der aaya lekin durust aaya (better late than never). The medal I won in 2011 was memorable because it was my first-ever international competition where I got a standing ovation on the podium… our national anthem was being played in front of so many people. I was overwhelmed. That experience will always remain etched in my memory.

Still, I was a kid in a junior level championship. The elite level is very different. The competition is better and the pressure, higher. In the juniors, you don’t know your opponent – all you can think about is to enter the ring, beat the opponent and win the bout. But in the senior category, you know about your opponents’ styles, strengths and weakness. So, you end up having to plan your moves strategically. There is a lot more pressure on your mind at this level. And yet, I managed to win the gold medal for my country. I am really happy about that. Hopefully, I can continue to work hard like this and keep winning medals.

The humbly assessed 9/10 footwork and agility aside, Nikhat feels confident about her left and right hooks — something she maxes with her 163 cm frame. (BFI)

Nitin Sharma: In your weight category, you have had to compete with MC Mary Kom, whom you have idolised, over the past three-four years. We also saw your bid to get into trials against her for the Tokyo Olympic qualifiers. She did not want the trials and it turned into a spat. The bout eventually took place but how do you see her after that incident? Also how do you feel about the CWG trials knowing that Mary Kom is expected to take part?

She is an experienced boxer with many records in her past. So based on that it was her right, perhaps. But when two boxers enter the ring, only the one who’s technically sounder wins. Because of that, when our trials took place, she won and was selected for the Tokyo Olympic qualifiers. I congratulated her on qualifying but unfortunately, she couldn’t win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

When I lost in the trials, I decided to move on from Tokyo and focus on the Paris Olympic Games. With regard to the Commonwealth Games trials, I heard she’s going for the trials in the 48-kg category, so I don’t think we’ll face each other.

Nikhat Zareen has had to wait out her turn in the 51kg with the legendary Mary Kom ensconced there till recently. (BFI)

Sandeep Dwivedi: What is so special about Hyderabad that so many world-beating women athletes come out of the city? Is it common aggression, that is so important in sport and that you share with athletes like Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza, which propels you to such heights?

(Laughs) Sab Hyderabad ki biryani aur haleem hi hai (It’s all in Hyderabad’s biryani and haleem). I guess every athlete gets nervous. The quality of a champion is how she deals with that pressure and nervousness. Even I was nervous about the world championship. I was nervous about how I would play against my opponent, whether I would be able to make her play according to my style and dominate her or whether she would trap me in her boxing style. Such thoughts always come to mind. I won all my bouts with unanimous decisions and I am happy about it.

 

Sandeep Dwivedi: You have been good friends with the likes of Tokyo Olympics champion Neeraj Chopra apart from CWG and Asian Games champion Vinesh Phogat and athletes like Tejaswin Shankar. Tell us how did this sharing of ideas start?

We met when all of us were going through a bad phase. We were suffering from injuries and were feeling low. Vinesh had a knee injury, I had a shoulder injury, Neeraj had issues with hamstring and even Tejaswin was struggling with some wound. We were rehabilitating at the JSW Sport Centre in Bengaluru. We would eat meals and roam together always. So, it all started from there. Then we shared each other’s stories and understood how much struggle each one of us had to face. That’s how our friendship started. After the recovery, everybody got busy and now, Neeraj Chopra is an Olympic champion while Vinesh is a Commonwealth and Asian Games champion. They have made the country proud and seeing them achieve their personal highs inspired me to work hard. When they can do it on the world stage, it inspires me to push myself harder and achieve big on the world stage too. We can all meet together at the next Games.

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Mihir Vasavda: You have mentioned a lot of ups, downs and struggles in your career. Was there any moment in your life, in your career to be precise, that shaped you as a boxer or inspired you to pack a punch?

Yes, before my shoulder injury, I was not mature enough. After the injury, I learnt a lot. I got to know who my real friends were and who weren’t. Because most of them did not even message me or ask me how I was doing. But still I stayed positive and worked hard on my rehabilitation. I made my comeback in 2018 and took some time to recover before I won the gold at the Strandja Memorial in 2019. I have never looked back and have always thought of progressing ahead.

 

Mihir Vasavda: You have been a path- breaker your entire career. You come from an orthodox family and have seen all kinds of struggle. In the last two-three weeks, we have seen referees and some boxers wearing hijab during the world championships. All over the world, there is a debate about whether athletes should be allowed to wear the hijab or not. In the normal course of life, too, there is a debate about this. What’s your take?

According to me, it’s their choice. If they feel comfortable, they should wear it. If they don’t feel comfortable, they should wear whatever is normal for them. It’s absolutely their choice. So, there is no need for my comment. I like boxing in shorts and a vest and nobody is forcing me to wear a hijab or stopping me from wearing shorts and a vest. It’s everybody’s choice and we should respect that.

Mihir Vasavda: It’s known that you are a big Salman Khan fan and like watching Hindi movies. If a biopic is to be made on your life, which actor would you like to portray you?

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I haven’t given it a thought yet. When a movie is made on me, I don’t know which actress will be on top of the charts at that time. Right now, I want Alia Bhatt to portray me. Kyunki usko bhi dimple aata hai and mere ko bhi dimple aata hai (Because she has got dimples like me). I guess she can portray me.

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