Kashmiri Powerlifter Arifa Bilal Launches Women’s Gym

Arifa Bilal, 24, earned the nickname ‘Iron Woman’ after winning two gold medals at the 4th National Powerlifting Benchpress and Deadlift Championship held in Assand, Haryana two years ago .

She triumphed despite much criticism for choosing powerlifting as a sport in a patriarchal society like Kashmir. “Everyone asked me, don’t do this, it’s a man’s game. My family and I were mocked. With this, I refuted my critics and made Kashmiris proud,” Bilal said.

In Kashmir, crimes against women committed by men have increased dramatically over the past two years. In this context, Bilal took matters into his own hands and built a gym training center called “Doctor Gym” for women.

She also broke the national record two years ago in Assand, lifting 130 kilos in the women’s under 55kg category of the competition.

Hailing from Kujjar in the Ganderbal region of central Kashmir, Bilal is a student at Government Degree College Ganderbal and attended Girls Higher Secondary Ganderbal for her middle school education.

With her victories, she also earned a spot in the international powerlifting competition to be held in Dubai in April 2022.

“Every day we receive disturbing news. Women are harassed, burned by their in-laws, thrown with acid, etc. The police can arrest the culprits and punish them. But here women must be prepared to beat. My gym offers them workouts,” Arifa told The Citizen.

She says opening a fitness center is not an easy task for Kashmiri women. “I was heavily criticized by all segments of society, but my family members stood by me.”

In an environment where powerlifting is generally associated with men, she says: “More and more women are speaking out in this patriarchal environment where criticism is at its height, because I became the first female weightlifter by winning a gold medal. ‘gold.”

Coming from a family that didn’t have a lot of money, she never stopped pursuing her ambitions and refused to let them go.

Besides having a black belt in sqay martial arts, Arifa, the fourth of her five siblings, has won numerous gold medals in various state and national championships in different sports including powerlifting, squash , volleyball and cricket.

Doctor Gym in the Behama Ganderbal chowk where she offers self defense training and gym classes has become a hub for women in Ganderbal.

As many as 365 rape crimes were reported to J&K in 2020, according to crime statistics provided by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, an increase of 19% from 2019. These were reported in almost every district in the Union Territory.

Side by side, attendance at the Arifa Bilal gym continues to grow. “Three years ago when I started training women in my gym, only a few young girls came to the gym. The society in Kashmir kept the gym only for men here. It was me who broke that idea “, she explains. .

Even when she was on the verge of giving up due to criticism and financial difficulties at home, her father, who is a laborer by profession, stayed by Arifa’s side on her journey.

She expresses her gratitude to her parents and other family members for their support in her efforts. The fact that girls are no longer seen as a burden in Indian homes fills her with pride and joy. In addition to advocating for women’s rights, her mother, Habla Bano, says girls can do whatever they want. She asks that we let girls grow into strong, independent women.

Rubi Jan, 24, whose name has been changed at her request, is a student of Bilal and says when she won those gold medals in powerlifting, it generated hope among women in Kashmir.

“Now more and more women are showing up on the court. The gym keeps us physically fit, and women are vulnerable in all societies. Sexual harassment, physical abuse, incidents like eye teasing are continually increasing. Once you’re physically bold and fit, you can teach sobering lessons to those who sexually harass women,” Rubi says.

Although Bilal is on a mission to eradicate crimes committed by men against women in Kashmir, she says the government has not provided her with a single penny for setting up the fitness center. Her parents sold precious items to make Arifa’s career shine and shine.

At Doctor Gym, Arifa trains not only women but also men.

“There is an idea in Kashmir that women cannot do anything. But I have wronged my critics. I am grateful to Saleem Pathan, my mentor who taught me everything,” says Bilal.

She further says that the government should come forward to help her as she is considering international powerlifting competitions which she is currently eligible for.

“Since I was a young child, I have been interested in sports. In 2012, I started studying sqay martial arts professionally, and coach Saleem Pathan played a crucial role in my training.”

She says she is the only woman running a gym center in Ganderbal. She is certainly an inspiration to many young women and believes the community has responded very favorably to her efforts. “I train a lot of women who want to be physically strong.”

Being a girl has always drawn a lot of criticism, according to Arifa, who recalls being teased for choosing powerlifting as a sport because in a male supremacist culture, it’s seen as appropriate only for men.

Now, however, Arifa Bilal is a household name in the weightlifting arena in Kashmir.

“I want to make my region a crime-free society for which I burn midnight oil,” she concludes.

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