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The resilient women who love playing rough! Meet the members of the Indian Women’s Rugby Team who are breaking stereotypes every day.
When I say ‘Rugby,’ does your mind conjure up images of burly men running around with an egg-shaped ball, while they escape being tackled? This mindset of Rugby being a male-dominated sport is what the strong-willed and passionate sportswomen of Rugby are out to change.
Let’s get to know the motivations and challenges of some of the 26 members of the India Women’s Rugby XV’s team led by Vahbiz Bharucha who are participating in their inaugural international 15-a-side tournament early this month. This tri-nation Asia Women’s Championship against Singapore and Philippines is being held in Singapore.
The history of Rugby dates back to 1872. But, even with recognition from the Govt. of India and able support from Rugby India, its sole governing body, the contact sport is still considered an amateur sport in India. Owing to lack of popularity, Rugby has only one sponsor – Societe Generale. No salaries for the players and no dedicated Rugby stadiums are significant challenges for the sport. An encouraging sign is that the game has been introduced at the school and university levels.
I got in touch with the captain of the team, Vahbiz Bharucha and the coach Nasser Hussain, along with other team members to know more about the sport. Let us catch a glimpse of what it means to be a woman playing contact sport in India.
Image Credit: Sushant Kulshrestha
Vahbiz (plays at Centre position) says that this is the first reaction she mostly gets on revealing her passion. The idea that women can play a sport, let alone a physically demanding contact sport requiring high levels of fitness and stamina at the international level, is hard to imagine for most.
The sportswomen are also objectified for wearing shorts. Often, the few spectators they get, are those who want to watch them and not the game.
”People need to take up sports for all the benefits it has to offer. And Rugby has given a lot of exposure to many in the team,” says Vahbiz.
She is referring to upcoming star players such as Sumitra Nayak (plays at the position of scrum half).The ‘Rugby Rani’ as she is fondly called, hails from a small poor village in the Jajpur District in Odisha. This confident girl led her team to victory in her maiden international under-13 tournament in England. She was attracted to the ‘maar peet’ game and believes strongly that ‘hum kisi se kam nahin’ (we are not lesser than anyone).
Coach, Nasser Hussain, who was the former Captain of the Men’s National Ruby team, highlights the dedication of the girls. “They are eager to learn. They always ask a lot of questions that I am happy to answer. They make up for the lack of infrastructure with their unquestionable commitment. A lot of them make several sacrifices every day. Quite often they get very upset when they lose. At the time of selection for this tournament, a lot of them had tears in their eyes- Those who didn’t make it as well as those who did”, he says.
According to Vahbiz, many women fall out of the game in the most crucial ages of 16 – 30 for reasons such as education, marriage and motherhood.
But players like SangeetaBera (35)and Subhalaxmi Barik (28), (both play in the position of ‘flanker’), have turned the tide by returning to the Indian Squad after a gap of two to three years.
Since the players don’t get salaries, it becomes very tough for a lot of the women in the team who belong to rural and tribal backgrounds. A lot of them are studying while the rest have to juggle work and manage their home along with their passion.
Swapna Oraon, (plays in the ‘Winger’ position) belonging to the Saraswatipur village in rural West Bengal is known for her ‘electrifying pace’. The daughter of a daily wage earner says that without the help from Rugby India, her community members and the local Church she would not have been able to pursue the sport. The ever-smiling Meerarani Hembram, (Fly Half) also had to face several challenges owing to her tribal background and tough childhood.
With a bachelor’s degree in physiotherapy from Pune, Vahbiz says,”I encourage all the younger girls to complete their education. It is imperative to support yourself after you stop playing.”
A common underlying factor is that all these women credit their success to a strong family support. Subhalaxmi also underwent training along with her brother Shakti Barik.
The team has done reasonably well in the international 7-a-side games in the past and is confident. Its strength is its diversity with players displaying strength, agility and speed. The big positive is that the other two competing teams are also on the same footing with neither team having played the 15-a-side format at the international level. One piece of advice Vahbiz has for her juniors is, “Be prepared for anything.”
“Only winning consistently will turn things around for the sport, “says Vahbiz. Her dream is to represent India in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. She also wishes to give back to the game as a Coach at the grassroots level once she retires.
Image Credit: Aditya Narvekar
“I used to look up to my seniors in the handball team growing up; and the Williams sisters always inspired me. Today, I am inspired by Saina Nehwal and Priyanka Chopra because of their determination and focus. I guess there are more women role models today than there were earlier. We are all breaking stereotypes at the same time,”says Vahbiz with a laugh.
While these women tackle the ball, they are also grappling with the clutches of patriarchy. My money is on them emerging victorious on both counts. Keep a look out for this young team of women, who are paving the way for so many to follow their dreams.
“Kyun nahin karpayenge? Maine karke dikhaya na!”(Why can’t you also do it? Haven’t I shown you how?) says Sumitra Nayak, the nominee of the International Children’s Peace Prize 2017.
Here’s wishing these women best of luck!
Watch live-streaming of the matches from 2nd June – 8th June 2018 on Rugby India, Singapore Rugby and The Asia Rugby Facebook pages: @Rugby India @Singaporerugby, @Asia Rugby.
Author’s Note: I thank Anand Godiwala from Rugby India for all his assistance in helping me writing this article.
Header Image Credit: Aditya Narvekar
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