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Shabnam Shaikh is India’s first doctorate in wrestling studies

Dr. Shabnam Shabbir Sheikh

Chaya Kaveri

Shabnam Shabbir Shaikh of Aambijalgaon, Maharashtra trashes stereotypes of Indian women. Having picked wrestling as her field she broke all the shackles that a girl child faces as she is raised in a small village.

Hailing from the village Aambijalgaon, Karjat, of the district Ahmednagar Shabnam was born in Jammu where her father Shabbir Sarabhai Shaikh was posted in the Indian army. She is the third child of her parents and she grew up seeing her mother Rizwana Begum looking after the house and the family. However, Shabnam’s father always wanted his daughter to be brave, become self-reliant, and break social stereotypes.

Due to her father’s frequent posting across the country, Shabnam did her schooling mostly at the Army schools in Ambala, Udhampur, Srinagar, and Ahmedabad. After her father’s retirement, the family settled in their native village where Shabnam joined the local school.

She joined the 11th class in ‘Dada Patil College’, Karjat in the science stream. However, the bus service to Karjat was irregular and sluggish so and yet she somehow managed to study and also go for coaching of wrestling.

Coach Shabnam with her team

A great votary of women’s education Shabbir Shaikh encouraged his wife Rizwana Begum to complete her MSc degree after their marriage.

Shabnam completed her Bachelor of Physical Education (BPE) from Aurangabad (Sambhajinagar). She also got a diploma certificate in Coaching from the National Institute of Patiala, Punjab, and later did her Master’s from ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University and then registered for her PhD studies.

Shabnam’s wrestling career began at the age of seven. Her father was her first coach.” Shabnam says, “’My father is my first guru.”

Shabnam comes from a family of wrestlers: her grandfather Sadarbhai Shaikh and great-grandfather were well-known wrestlers in the area. Their ancestral house has a wrestling arena where she watched male members of her family practice wrestling. Other men from the area also used the arena for practice.

Shabnam had to face the scorn and disapproval of her extended family and relatives when she started practicing wrestling. People even asked her family why she was allowed to wear shorts.

Shabnam at the convocation of University

Shabnam started with Kabaddi, a game that requires a lot of alacrity and stamina.

Initially, she did not get to enter the arena where her brothers wrestle, she took to Kabbadi. “I used to think that if I wrestle and win that will be my victory. Even if I lose, it will also be my failure. Will happen… I expressed my desire to wrestle to my father. He responded positively.”

Shabnam’s father had a precondition for training her as a wrestler. It was that for the first two years, Shabnam would only practice. She started receiving training from her father and two elder brothers.

Every morning at 4 o’clock she was sent to pick lemons from their farm located about 10 km away. She learned the nuances of wrestling and took part in her first competition in Ludhiana (Punjab). She was the first runners up and from this started her winning streak.

Shabnam says, “Once in my village, my father came to know about a competition in Delhi. I was just 10 years old at that time. He gave me a paper with the address written on it and a train ticket and wished me good luck for the journey.”

At that time questions would come to her mind, ‘Why don’t my parents come with me?’ But my father always used to tell me that some battles in life have to be fought alone,” she says going down memory lane.

Shabnam Shaikh with her trophy

Shabnam won the title of ‘Women Maharashtra Kesari’ held in 2010. She has won the gold medal in ‘Shirdi Kesari’ for three consecutive years since 2009, the gold medal in ‘Latur’ in 2011, gold medal in the ‘Maharashtra State Kustigir Parishad’ competition for six consecutive years.

She has also participated in four inter-university competitions, 10 national competitions, and more than 15 state-level competitions. In the national level ‘Great Bharatkumari Wrestling Competition’, Shabnam is the first winner not only from the Muslim community but also from Maharashtra.

Shabnam says her father taught her that one doesn’t need an outer veil. “Always keep the veil that differentiates between good and bad people in front of your eyes!” he told her.

 Shabnam says, “People used to question my parents’ ways. A girl should not play sports like wrestling. Teach her to fast (during Ramazan) and pray. Don’t you want boys to play wrestling? Hundreds of questions were asked But my parents did not let the pressure of society affect me.

“my father never changed his opinion under the pressure of society. He never let these things affect my game. I always got the support of my parents and my elder brothers.”

Shabnam’s mother Rizwana Begum says, “I have not two, but three ‘sons’! My brothers did not give me a share of our parents’ property. But, I will not let this injustice happen to my daughter. I will give her everything she deserves. Shabnam has brought glory to us. As a mother, I will always be proud of her.”

Shabnam’s thesis for her Ph.D. degree is ‘Comparative study of emotional maturity of rural and urban women wrestlers in Maharashtra’. She toured the entire state for research.

Today Shabnam will soon become the first woman in India to do a doctorate in sports studies. While doing her Ph.D. in ‘Wrestling’, there were often deliberate attempts to embarrass Shabnam and thwart the completion of her research.

In the year 2017, Shabnam was selected as the junior coach of ‘The Wrestling Women’s Association’ of India; she imparted wrestling training to Anushka Sharma and Salman Khan for the film ‘Sultan’. Shabnam has represented India in Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

She currently works as a ‘Senior Trainer’ in the ‘Wrestling Women’s Association’ of India. India has never had success in the ‘World Women’s Wrestling Championship’ till now. However, in the ‘Under-20 World Championship’ of 2023 India won seven medals in ‘Women’s Wrestling’. Out of these, three are gold medals.

Shabnam Shaikh after her victory in a foreign location

Dr. Shabnam Shaikh is today known as the ‘International Wrestling Coach.

Shabnam says, “I was selected as the coach of ‘Maharashtra Team’ for the national tournament held in Gujarat last year. Twenty-four hours ago, my name was canceled! I was not given any idea about this.

In many places, even though I deserve it, I am not given a chance. Probably, because I live with self-respect! I always think that when someone asks me, “How did you get all this?’ I should proudly tell him, ‘I have earned it through my hard work.’

Shabnam says, “Wrestling gave me identity. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is wrestling a curse or a blessing for me?’ Initially, relatives and other people of the society hated seeing me wrestle.

“Later, when I started winning competitions, people would post the news of my success on their ‘status’ on various social media platforms and write the caption, ‘Congratulations and best wishes to our sister or relative.’

After reading the news of my winning, I became everyone’s relative at that time! But, they speak against me on behind my back! However, now they hesitate to speak against me openly!”

Shabnam says, “Most of the time I am rejected for marriage. I play wrestling. The suitors who come to see as a potential candidate for marriage, see my trophies and see ‘Doctor’ written next to my name. When they go home their answer is, ‘We don’t want such an educated girl.'”   

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Shabnam continues to work hard to ensure that other girls do not face what she has. Her advice to the youth: “No matter what happens, do not get tired. Do not give up the fight.” Her dream is to build a wrestling center for girls.

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