We have seen several feminist female figures in India’s rich history and heritage. Starting from the goddesses, to whom many of us find ourselves pleading for a saving, to the women activists, scholars and freedom fighters such as Maitreye Devi, Khara, Gargi Devi, Lopamudra Devi, Uda Devi, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Kittur Rani Chennamma, Sucheta Kriplani, Pritilata Weddedar, Matangini Hazra, so many women have meaningfully contributed to India’s development. While history, written from a patriarchal point of view, would mostly omit these names, the sector of sports, also continually associated with male sports icons, also have significant contributions by female sports icons. Such that, the brilliant array of female sports icons have gone on to inspire several people, most definitely womxn, to take to sports more seriously and also generating discourse around womxn in sports.
Let us see some of them listed below, in no particular order:
1. PT Usha
Perhaps there is no athlete or sports icon who has enjoyed the level of fame that PT Usha has. Known as the golden girl, PT Usha was born in Kerala and later coached by O.M.Nambiar, and has been called as the ‘Queen of Indian track and field’. She represented India in International fields like Asian games, Olympic games and world championships many times, making her motherland proud. She was once quoted in an interview talking about how she successfully broke her own record in tracks and field. She struggled in her early years due to lack of facilities but never gave up, leading to her selection by the authorities to represent India.
2. Dipa Karmakar
Another sports icon is Dipa Karmakar. Born in Agartala, Dipa Karmakar, the renowned gymnast of India, topped the pinnacle of success by representing India at a global level. She is one of the five notable women gymnasts to try Produnova, one of the most difficult vault in gymnastics. She represented her country in 2014 Commonwealth games, Asian Gymnastics championship, World artistic gymnastic championship, and Olympics 2016. Conferred with titles like Padma Shri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, she is the most promising gymnast India boasts till date, excelling in vault, pole, balance beams and uneven bars. She is coached by Bireshwar Nandi.
3. Mithali Raj
Mithali Raj is yet another sports icon who has demonstrated an incredible batting spirit on the cricket field and has been regarded as the all-time favourite female Indian cricketer of India. Born in a Tamilian family in Jodhpur, Mithali started playing the game when she was just ten. Picked by a notable coach after seeing her skills, Mithali was coached and selected for participation in women’s one-day international matches, and Women’s Twenty20 Asia cup where she set her mark with astounding skills, which will be remembered in the history of cricket. Being a right-handed batsperson, Mithali became the first Indian woman to complete 20 years in International cricket. Recipient of several awards and creating a record-breaking pathway, Mithali will no doubt be remembered as one of the best women cricketers and sports icons in India.
4. Sania Mirza
Born in Hyderabad, Sania Mirza is the all-time superstar tennis player winning six Grand Slam titles in her career. Mirza is recognised as among the highest paid tennis players in India. Participating in various meets like Afro-Asian games, Commonwealth games, Asian Games, French open, Wimbledon, Australian open, US open, and many more, Sania continued to win accolades until she retired from singles in 2013. Married to the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, this sports icon was conferred with titles like Arjuna award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, Padma Shri, was listed in BBC’s 100 inspiring women, and many more.
5. Mary Kom
Born in Manipur in 1983, Mary Kom struggled to achieve star status in Indian sports. Mary Kom is the only woman to become world amateur boxing champion six times and never left any stones unturned. The life and struggles of this sports icon inspired the makers of Bollywood to create a biography, thus further inspiring millions. She stepped into ASBC Asian Confederation Women’s boxing championship, Commonwealth games, Women’s World Boxing Championship, and also Summer Olympics. She is one of the ten boxing athlete ambassadors for Tokyo Olympics. Mary Kom has formed a boxing school in her town, thereby inspiring every young girl to be potential boxers. She is a mother of twins and an incumbent member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.
6. PV Sindhu
PV Sindhu, the 25-year-old badminton player, was born in Hyderabad to parents who are national-level volley ball players. After finishing her college education, Sindhu actively participated and won several titles in badminton tournaments namely Asian championship, World championship, All England Open, India Open Grand Prix gold, Commonwealth games to name a few. She rose to the pinnacle of success and represented her nation in the Olympic games in 2016, winning a silver medal. She took charge as the deputy collector in the Krishna district in the land revenue department of the Andhra Pradesh Government. She was named as BBC Indian sportswoman of the year in March, 2020 and was elected as the ambassador of BWF committee’s campaign, ‘I Am Badminton’ to promote clean and fair play in sports. This sports icon was bestowed with Arjuna award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Padma Shri and Padma Bhusan award.
7. Anju Bobby George
Born in 1977 in Kerala in a Syrian Orthodox family, Anju Bobby George was a promising athlete right from her school days, and won events like long jump and high jump. Starting from Heptathlon, and other junior Asian championships, Anju won titles in Commonwealth games in 2002, Asian games in 2002 and 2006, Asian championships in 2005 and South Asian Games in 2006. She is the proud recipient of Arjuna Award in 2002-2003, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 2003-2004, and finally Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in 2004. This sports icon’s ranking from 6 to 61 in world athlete championship was a result of sheer hard work and perseverance.
8. Saakshi Malik
Born in 1992 in Haryana, Sakshi Malik is a freestyle wrestler, who represented India in the 2016 Summer Olympics and won bronze in the 58 kgs wrestling category. She won titles at the 2014 Common Wealth games in Glasgow, and 2015 Asian Wrestling championship in Doha. Saakshi was inspired to pursue wrestling by her grandfather and thereby coached by Ishwar Dahiya. In 2010, this sports icon participated in the Junior World Championship, winning bronze medal in the 58 kgs category. Sakshi represents ‘Colors Delhi Sultans’ and also campaigns for #EveryWomanStrong.
9. Hima Das
Hima Das, rather nicknamed as ‘Dhing Express’ belongs to Assam, and holds the national record of completing 400 metres in 50.7 seconds in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. She is the first Indian athlete to win gold medal in IAAF World U20 championships in track event. Born as the youngest daughter to her farmer father, Hima Das proved to be great at fast running from the childhood. She played football with boys at her village but later shifted to sprinting. Her school teacher advised her to change scope to sprint running. This sports icon was conferred Arjuna award by the President of India in 2018. Coming from humble conditions and the general lack of opportunities did not stop Hima Das from making India proud.
10. Dutee Chand
The sprinter Dutee chand was born in 1996 and followed the dreams of her sister Saraswati Chand to be a national level athlete. She participated in the 2016 Summer Olympic games followed by Jakarta Asian games in 2018. In 2019, she became the first Indian sprinter winning gold at the World Universiade completing 100 metres race within 11.32 seconds. She belongs to the LGBTQ+ community and openly spoken about her sexuality in 2019. She was surrounded by controversy when it was found that her testosterone levels were higher compared to a normal female, due to a clinical condition called hyperandrogenism and was dropped from the 2014 Olympic Games. Fellow athletes came to the support of this sports icon and she took part in 2017 Asian championship, thereby making India proud.
11. Karnam Malleshwari
Karnam Malleshwari was the first Indian woman to win a medal in Sydney Olympics 2000. She won titles at the World championship in 1994, Asian weightlifting championship in 1995, and a whopping 29 international medals, including 11 gold. Karnam belonged to a conservative background where girls never thought of giving weightlifting a chance in their lives. This veteran sports icon recounted in an interview that it came as a shock to everyone to see a girl winning an Olympics medal.
12. Bula Chowdhury
Bula Chowdhury was born in West Bengal in 1970 and swam against time and poverty to become the swimming champion thereby making her country proud. From her childhood, Bula exhibited extraordinary talent in swimming and was picked by her coach who trained her for brighter future. Gradually Bula made her way winning titles in national, international and ultimately as an English Channel swimmer in 1989. Recipient of Arjuna Award, Padmashri Award, and also Tenzing Norgay lifetime adventure sports award, Bula outgrew poverty on her way to become successful. In 2006, this sports icon forayed into politics and became an MLA.
13. Babita Phogat
Babita Phogat, the wrestling champion who made India proud winning titles in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Common Wealth Games, has won the hearts of many. She was continuously motivated and mentored by her father Mahavir Phogat. The celebrated Aamir Khan movie ‘Dangal’ is inspired by her life and struggles. The success of this sports icon inspired several girls to take to the wrestling arena, a domain rather populated by male wrestlers.
Sweta Chakraborty is the author of ‘The Magical Tiffin Box‘ and her books are on sale in various platforms. She is a blogger, a travel freak, a passionate cook and often voices her thoughts on women’s issues in reputed sites online. Do read her articles and express your concern; she would love to hear from the readers.
This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to the list are welcome in the comments section.