“Does the Quran say that a girl can’t do karate?”
The scene is set - a wooden slab is positioned and set ablaze. In one fell swoop a young girl chops through the fire, a flame lingering on her hand as she pulls away. 14-year-old Fareeha Tafim is a national level champion in the Chinese martial art, Wushu. Hailed ‘India’s Wushu Warrior Girl’ in Jayeeta Patel’s documentary for Al Jazeera’s documentary film platform, Witness, of the same name, we get to witness Fareeha’s journey to the national championship hosted in Assam, and her battle against not just her opponent, but religious, cultural and societal traditions prevalent in a patriarchal, orthodox society.
The Wushu classes were setup in her religion-oriented school in Hyderabad to instill confidence and self preservation through a form of self defense training given to the female students. Fareeha thrives in the class and rises as a star fighter who gains the support of her peers and teachers. As she pushes ahead through tournaments and state championships, reaching the national level, her final battle comes in the form of her mother and brother’s condemning of her participation.
“The whole neighbourhood is talking. They’re asking ‘why would you let your daughter go?’” comments Fareeha’s mother; her brother adds,”Our name is spoilt. The name of the family is disgraced... People start to make comments about a girl’s character.”
We see support for Fareeha in the form of her coaches, teachers, male principal, and her father, who had a tough life growing up and wishes for his children to take up all opportunities that come their way, to be independent and thrive. It’s surprising to see such support from her father, while her mother is the one who is seemingly holding her back, but while he ‘convinces’ his wife to let Fareeha travel all the way to Assam, it’s done in a stern manner; a manner in which his word is the final word, not to be contended nor discussed any further, so the point of patriarchal domination does still arise.
There is a constant clash of traditions and aspirations when it comes to this film, and although we see Fareeha win towards her competition it dawns on you that this is only one small battle in a sequences of many that are yet to come. While we are applauding her win from our seats, but as her friend Summaiya says to another competitor in Assam, “In our community, mothers don’t go out and work. Whatever you want to do, you have to do before marriage. After that, we’re not allowed to do anything.” There are strict rules in place, which is exactly what the young girl asks Summaiya in return, to which she concludes, “It’s strict but you get used to it.”
Fareeha and Summaiya are too be celebrated for their accomplishments but their predicament is indicative of a larger malaise of gender inequality in Indian society. Unfortunately, women have a long way to go - each step is a fight, and here we can definitely take a cue from Fareeha’s slick Wushu moves.