At the turn of the century, one of the biggest perceptible shifts in gender imbalances in the country was brewing in Balali, a non-descript village in Haryana, a deeply conservative state till then infamous for female infanticide. The man who ushered in this revolution was Mahavir Singh Phogat, a burly former grappler, who chose to train his daughters and his niece in the art of wrestling.Today, his niece Vinesh Phogat is one of India’s biggest medal hopes going into the Tokyo Olympics 2020. The achievements of his daughters Geeta and Babita inspired a blockbuster biopic that popularised a slogan that strikes at the heart of gender bias: Mhari chhoriya chhoron se kam hai ke? (Are my daughters any less than sons?) mouthed by Aamir Khan while essaying Mahavir’s character. The elder sister, Geeta Phogat, after becoming the first Indian wrestler to qualify for an Olympics and striking gold at the Commonwealth Games, 2010, was conferred with an Arjuna Award. Her younger sibling Babita was crowned Commonwealth gold medal winner twice, at Glasgow, 2014 and Gold Coast, 2018. Now Babita has been fielded as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Dadri in the state assembly elections to be held this month.Today, the Phogat family is the star of Haryana’s sports universe and Mahavir has been made sarpanch of his village but he had to fight deep-set patriarchy to reach here. “In 2000, when I saw Karnam Malleswari win a medal in the Olympics, I first thought of training the girls in my family. But at that time I faced resistance from the village elders and even my own relatives. They said I was bringing a bad name to the family by letting them play a sport not meant for women, but I thought, if a woman can become Prime Minister of India, why can’t she become a wrestler?” says Phogat. “Before the 2010 Commonwealth victories of my daughters there were few women wrestlers in the country. Today, there are at least 50 akharas in Haryana that exclusively train women wrestlers. I am proud to say my family has already given three Olympian wrestlers to the country.”advertisementVinesh Phogat says the village elders jeered at them when they went to practise in the akhara and the women in the family began to worry if they would get married. “Cutting your hair or wearing shorts to become a wrestler was looked down upon. But success is the biggest revenge. Today, the same neighbours who were reluctant to accept us want their daughters to emulate the Phogat sisters and bring glory to the village.”More than the sporting glory, says Vinesh, she is happy they have played a part in changing mindsets in rural Haryana. “Instead of undergoing sex-selective abortions, the birth of a girl child is now celebrated. The government and the panchayat go out of their way to encourage girls to venture outdoors and play sport.”This may just be the beginning. In case Vinesh brings home an Olympic medal, a thousand new all-girl akharas may bloom in the country.