Welcome to Feminism Around the World, a weekly feature here at TMS where we focus on women’s lives and feminist concerns… around the world. TMS is a US-based website, but we think it’s important to connect with women all over the globe to applaud successes, report injustices, and amplify the conversation around solutions to gender-based inequality. We’ve written about women in other countries before, but we’d now like to make it a more consistent priority. Because “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” – Teresa
INDIA: 14-Year-Old Muslim Fareeha Tafim is India’s Wushu Warrior Girl
The above video clip is a trailer for a longer documentary piece about 14-year-old Fareeha Tafim, a Muslim girl from Hyderabad, Telangana in India. While Hindus comprise the majority of people in Hyderabad, Muslims are a large minority, and Fareeha attends a Muslim school. That school began giving female students lessons in wushu, which is both an exhibition and a full-contact sport derived from traditional Chinese martial arts that has become increasingly popular in India. Why teach it to schoolgirls? Because of the epidemic of violence against women and girls.
It’s inspiring to know that a school is standing behind its girls in this way and is giving them tools with which to defend themselves. However, I wonder if the same school is also doing something with the boys to educate them on how to treat girls and women properly, and with respect. Still, wushu provides the girls a unique outlet in an area where girls aren’t expected to do much beyond get married and have children.
Fareeha is the best at wushu in her school, and she and a classmate are selected to compete in the National Wushu Championships in faraway Assam. Her mother doesn’t want to let her go.
Filmmaker Jayisha Patel created a 25-minute documentary about Fareeha for Al Jazeera called India’s Wushu Warrior Girl, which you can watch in its entirety below:
Fareeha’s story is illuminating and inspiring, not just because we get to watch a teenage girl kick some major ass, but because the story goes a long way toward clearing up many possible misconceptions that Westerners have about Indian girls, Muslim girls, and girls who are both.
For example, this Muslim school is teaching their girls to stand up for themselves and teaching them a skill with which to do it. What’s more, Fareeha’s male principal encourages her to get her mother to let her compete; that things are different now than they were before, and that the teachings of Islam would not prevent her from participating. Fareeha’s father is another male figure in her corner.
Having grown up poor and illiterate himself, he wants Fareeha to have better. In a touching conversation between them (and it’s clear that he’s the parent to whom she is closest), he tells her that he wants her to go, and that he will do what he can to convince her mother to let her, saying that she only listens if he gets “stern.”
Fareeha’s mother is a fascinating element of this story. One would think that a mother would want her daughter to have all the freedoms that she never received herself, but perhaps it’s because she never had them that she can’t imagine allowing them to her daughter. She’s also devoutly Muslim, and cites things like “possibly showing her face” in front of hundreds of people, and her interpretation of Muslim teachings that talk about women being in the home as reasons Fareeha can’t go.
And, of course, she cites the fact that it’s not safe out there for a girl alone, despite the fact that Fareeha knows martial arts, because there is so much violence against women. Fareeha’s older brother backs up their mother, and they both chastise her for seeking attention for this skill that she was only allowed to learn for self-defense. Interestingly, her brother says that, by wanting to go, she’s “ruined the family name.” Yet, when her mother talks about what their neighbors are talking about, they’re basically all asking her why she’s not letting Fareeha compete!
So, her stubbornness about letting her daughter attend clearly has nothing to do with Islam if other Muslims who would think themselves just as devout are questioning her decision. It’s interesting to see where that line is where gender roles end and faith begins. It was also illuminating to see Fareeha struggle with this. She clearly values her religion, but she also values her autonomy.
Fareeha eventually does compete! Her father makes good on convincing her mother that she should go, and watching Fareeha and her friend travel by train to Assam for the competition is downright giddy as they enjoy their first trip away from home alone. Once in Assam, the girls are the only two Muslim girls competing, and we watch as they interact with their Hindu competition. One of the coolest moments in the mini-doc is when Fareeha’s friend and a Hindu girl sit casually talking about the differences in their religions.
India’s history is rife with Hindu-Muslim violence, and yet when these girls talk, there’s no malice or prejudice in the conversation, merely curiosity, and I couldn’t help but think that it’s little girls talking like this that are going to save the world.
This is the story of a girl who discovered a passion and broke the cycle in her family of women being underestimated and not allowed to achieve. It teaches us that religion and feminism don’t have to be mutually exclusive, that men can be true allies, and that we don’t need to assume that women in non-Western countries need our help when fighting sexism. They can do plenty on their own.
NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE
ENGLAND: “RFU hands out 48 women’s contracts and targets retaining 2017 World Cup” (The Guardian, 10/5/16)
CANADA: “Canada’s first female prime minister labels Trump a ‘sexual predator‘” (The Guardian, 10/12/16)
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