Her trainer says she never takes a break, not even for a minute.
As a survivor of sexual assault and two marriages before the age of 15, a woman that goes by the name Neetu has gone on to become a world champion wrestler and is changing what it means to be a woman in India.
Neetu was first married off at the age of 13, which is a common practice in Middle Eastern countries, Central and South America, and Africa. Young girls are often part of a marriage deal with a much older man and are forced into the relationship for a variety of reasons, including money or status. Her first husband was mentally-challenged, and Neetu recalls her mother-in-law bristling whenever she refused to clean up after him when he defecated in the house that they shared with her in-laws. Her father-in-law at the time assaulted her when the house was empty.
“One day when no one was home, he took me into his bedroom and pulled off my veil,” she remembers. “He warned — ‘Don’t tell anyone.'”
Ashamed, worried, and traumatized over what happened to her, she found the courage to tell her father about the assault, despite the stigma surrounding sexual assault and the presumed guilt of the woman in every scenario rather than placing blame on the male assailant. Thankfully, her father pulled her out of the arrangement but, in order to save their reputation, made another arrangement immediately and Neetu was married and pregnant with twin boys by the age of 14.
Although the relationship started off rocky, Neetu is still with her husband and admits that if it weren’t for his support, she wouldn’t be where she is today. Her wrestling career all started when she was knocked unconscious for weeks after being hit with an iron rod during a street brawl. Though she tried to return to her normal life as a tailor after the incident, she was never the same mentally and became inspired by the wrestlers she saw on TV. She decided to learn how to wrestle and it quickly became her passion and her life.
Today, Neetu trains 8 hours every single day in order to get stronger and perfect her movements. She explains that wrestling is not just a hobby for her, and that she feels a strong urge to continue with it after everything life has dealt her.
“I love my wrestling,” she says. “Wrestling is my life. I have to do this for my children, so that they can do all the things I couldn’t do in my childhood.”
Though Neetu used to follow a vigorous schedule in order to train everyday and take care of the boys and the house, she now lives in a small room right next to her wrestling gym in order to dedicate herself fully to her job and passion. This means that she can only come home and see her family on the weekends, but her husband’s new perspective on how wrestling helps their family is what gets them through it.
“He’s given me a new life. He pulled me out of hell and brought me to heaven. I’m able to wrestle because of him. I’m away and we don’t have a usual husband-wife relationship. He’s made a huge sacrifice,” Neetu says.
Support for her career path hasn’t always been easy to gain, especially from the conservative neighbors in her small village and even from her own husband in the beginning. She used to face tons of questions, like why she didn’t wear traditional Indian garments for women and why she went to the gym everyday and put the effort into wrestling. Her husband called her “crazy” when she said she wanted to pursue wrestling. Now everything is so different. Neetu has said that even her neighbors that spoke ill of her in the beginning have come to her begging for her to train their daughters to wrestle.
What makes wrestling, and any sign of strength in a woman in India, so threatening is that through these activities the women will learn to be independent and feel empowered. This is a huge fear in such a patriarchal society and fear of failure often drives women to never follow their dreams. Even Neetu’s husband recognizes that if Neetu were to fail, their reputation would take a significant hit.
“The hard work is Neetu’s,” he says.”I’ve just encouraged her, and I’m with her all the way. Neetu is not the kind of girl to back down.” Still, Sanjay had a caveat: “If you start, you have to succeed, or we’ll get a bad name.”
Neetu makes the effort to also visit girls’ schools in order to inspire girls to follow their dreams, no matter what people say. She faced adversity as a young teenager, and yet she conquered her fears and was able to fight for what she wants in life. She currently has her eyes on Tokyo and the 2020 Olympic Games and was inspired by the last Olympic Silver Medalist because she was a 34-year-old mother. If women from all walks of life continue to persevere, word will travel and inspire others from the smallest corners of the world to dream big dreams and pursue them.
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