Srinagar, March 27 (IANS) When the hijab-clad Sabiya Kirmani won a gold in the first international championship in thang ta, a Manipuri martial art, she scored a victory not only for herself but also for other young women in Kashmir, which has lived under the shadow of terror for over two decades.
The 22-year-old, a post-graduate student of commerce in Kashmir University, has spent most of her life learning the martial art, which she calls her 'first love', with or without the permission of her parents.
Combat sports is a trend significantly picking up among young Kashmiri women. They are learning taekwondo, kung fu, judo and thang ta.
Kirmani, for instance, has been practising thang ta to 'defend herself from physical threats and also because I am passionate about sports since an early age'.
'Winning the gold after sweating it out for hours in daily practice, sometimes alone in my room behind closed doors or with my friends (at the only indoor sports stadium in Kashmir Valley), was of course a dream come true,' Kirmani said.
'It was a victory for all Kashmiri women and a message to the world that Kashmir is more than what you read in the media,' Kirmani told IANS, showing off the gold medal she won in Manipur.
The first international thang ta championship was held in Manipur March 11-14 in which, besides host India, over 250 players from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Nepal, Britain and Sri Lanka participated.
India won the overall championship while Malaysia got the runners-up trophy. The Indian team had 30 members - boys as well as girls - from Jammu and Kashmir who got 25 medals between them, including eight gold, nine silver and eight bronze. Six of the eight gold medallists from the state were girls.
Hailing the performance of the state's team, Kirmani's coach Ejaaz Bhat also admits that it is tough for Kashmiri women to get into sports but then 'the trend is changing and changing fast'.
'Look, our girls have done us proud. It is a big achievement to win so many medals in an international event,' said Bhat, who is president of the Jammu and Kashmir Thang Ta Association.
Usually girls in the conservative Muslim society of Kashmir are not allowed by their parents to go into sports. But they are breaking the shackles now, coming out of the closet in the valley where an unending separatist war has been raging since 1989.
Amina Mehraj, another gold medallist from the tournament, believes Kashmir has lots of 'talented young female sportsperons' who need 'encouragement and good training' to be groomed for international events.
'We don't have a good sports culture for girls. Otherwise we can do wonders. Infrastructure is lacking, encouragement is lacking,' Mehraj said.
In Kirmani's case, graduating from a point when she had to sneak off from her home for practice to the time when her parents allowed her to go for tours outside Kashmir has not been an easy journey.
'There are only a few girls who take part in sports in Kashmir. Even I was discouraged by my family and friends who told me it's not good for a girl to follow sports,' Kirmani said.
'Convincing my family was of course a tough job. I have got their support lately, but then you know gender has to do something with success in a male-dominated society. I fought everything, within and outside. Insha Allah I will continue doing so,' she said.
Ask her about the hijab, the cloth covering her head that she never forgets to wear even when she is in the fighting rink, and Kirmani feels a little embarrassed, a little angry.
'What is wrong with you or for that matter with my hijab? It is a part of my dress and I am proud of it. It doesn't make any 'statement',' she said.
(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)