After winning her bronze medal at the London Olympics, Saina Nehwal’s homecoming attracted the sort of fervor usually reserved for India’s tournament-winning cricket teams. Hundreds of fans turned up at the airport despite it being late in the night. In all the excitement, the 22-year-old badminton player got hit in the face by a flower bouquet before standing atop an open-top bus to wave to the throngs below. The euphoria about her medal – one of six India took home from London – was such that her win on August 5 even stole the thunder from India winning a cricket series against Sri Lanka four games to one the same day.
The first Indian shuttler to win a medal in the Olympics, Saina says her success should be an inspiration in a country not known as being the ideal place for girls to grow up. “In India I feel the girls are a little shy. They don’t come out and play a lot of sports,” Nehwal told TIME in an interview this week. “But I hope that my success will change that and more and more girls will come forward to play. I can already see the change in my academy [where I trained]. A lot more girls are coming in and they all want to play like me.”
Nehwal, along with a whole host of women athletes including the London bronze medal winner boxer Mary Kom, represents a breed of new, aggressive and ambitious athletes who are forcing many in India’s traditionally stodgy middle class to think differently about women and sports. Behind Nehwal’s success lies the hard work of her parents who took out loans and borrowed money from friends just so Nehwal could fulfill her dreams. Their effort is part of a growing breed of middle-class parents in India who are breaking free from the notion of a traditional future for their daughters and going to lengths to help them pursue their goals. In a country where as many as 50 million girls and women are “missing” — the result of female feticide and high mortality of girl children — and where even now 300 women die every day due to childbirth and pregnancy related causes, role models like Nehwal have the potential bring about a long-lasting change.
“Young girls are coming from the back of beyond to academies in Hyderabad with the square goal of becoming another Saina Nehwal,” says T. S. Sudhir, Saina’s biographer. “Most parents who come to the academies have dreams in their eyes – they want their daughters to become Saina Nehwal. Role models are necessary to change people’s thinking.”
The success of Nehwal and her peers is intrinsically linked with India’s liberalization in the 90s, when sports other than cricket started gaining prominence and the rise of a newly robust media ensured the successes were well documented and publicized for all to see. Liberalization also exposed the Indian middle classes to the world and spurred their kids’ ambitions. But even so, progress was slow. Even in 1997, when Razia Shabnam, now a 31-year-old boxing coach and international referee, first took up boxing, her decision scandalized her neighbors. Parents forbid their girls to talk to her and Shabnam had to hide behind a veil to walk to the boxing club where she would change into boxing gear. Slowly, as other women like boxer Mary Kom also began to win, things began to change for the athletes. Shabnam opted to coach rather than play competitively. She is also one of India’s three women international boxing referees. “Today,” Shabnam says, “parents come enquiring about opportunities.”
Many credit that shift directly to Sania Mirza, an Indian tennis star never far from the frontpages. In 2005, Mirza was the first Indian woman to win a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title, the AP Tourism Hyderabad Open. She followed it up with two mixed doubles grand slam wins in the 2009 Australian Open and the 2012 French Open. “Sania was young, attractive, playing hard, winning matches against big players and reached the Top 30 in the world,” say Shamya Dasgupta, a sports journalist and author of Bhiwani Junction, a book on Indian boxing. “To a nation shorn of sporting heroes, she was the real deal, for a while.”
Mirza’s athletic success, despite being sporadic, led her to become a brand ambassador of Indian women’s empowerment. Observers say her success not only brought the spotlight on other women athletes, but prompted the Indian middle classes to dream of a different future for their girls. By the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian women athletes won 37 medals, up from zero just ten years before. The number of Indian female athletes who competed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (six) nearly quadrupled to 23 in 2012. It might seem like a small leap in 20 years, but in terms of a social shift, it’s a significant step forward. “Sports is a great weapon for empowerment,” Sudhir says. “And at the moment it is happening silently. The effects will be more in your face, more visible a decade from now on.”
And this silent social shift is becoming visible in the least likely places. Haryana, a northern Indian state is home to the nation’s worst male-to-female ratio and infamous for its legacy of female feticide and honor killings. But it now produces many of the nation’s most well-known female athletes. These include Krishna Poonia, a champion discus thrower and gold medalist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and Geeta Phogat, the first Indian woman wrestler at the Olympics. Haryana’s state government has introduced various incentive schemes and promises of employment to medal-winning athletes. It also recently made it compulsory for school children to play at least one sport. These measures, analysts say, have affected the state of women in Haryana as a whole. Last year, Haryana reported a rise in the sex ratio to 877 females per 1000 males – its best in the last 110 years. “Haryana’s attitude to women is changing and that is reflected in the rise of its women athletes,” says Ritu Jagnal, a Haryana-based social activist. “It will still take time — social shifts cannot happen overnight – but it is happening.”