K Tanzeel Zaman veers into the world of sports and peaks into the lives of four female athletes who won gold medals in 2019 South Asian (SA) games.
Since I was born, I was always led to believe that the word sports held its essence by being synonymous to ‘cricket’, or as my neighbourhood kids would call it “kiriket”. Boarding the hype train with the unconditional support from my father, a retired businessman now, I soon discovered that the glorified sport was really not my cup of tea. With barrages of critique thrown at me such as, “he throws like a girl” or “a girl can do better,” made me lean towards the world of ones and zeros. Falling in love with the colourful world of computer and console games even to this day in my late-twenties, (I assure you, I am not a geek, really), it never gets old for me. However, a few notions from the past still lingered in my mind; what if I did not board the hype train? What if I had a supposed hidden talent in some other kind of athletic pursuits such as Karate, fencing, archery, or perhaps weightlifting?
A decade later, my eyes were wide as flying saucers, witnessing my newsfeed being flooded with the results of the 2019 South Asian Games. Humaira Akhter Antara wins gold in Karate, Mabiya Akhtar gets gold in Weightlifting, Fatema Mujib brings gold in Fencing, and Ety Khatun scores gold in Archery. By the time I read the third news, it was apparent to me what should be my next cover story. Without further ado, the first athlete I was able to track down was the 20-year-old karateka, Humaira Akhter Antara.
“I WANTED MORE OUT OF LIFE. I WANTED MORE OUT OF MYSELF. I WANTED TO DO SOMETHING I LIKE.”
I arrive at the NSC or the National Sports Council in Motijheel on a busy Thursday to meet the famed karateka. As I entered the venue, I observe multiple courts with equipment designed for gymnastics, judo, etc. Having discovered these, my inner-child wanted to do laps around the venue with others just for the fun of it. As I was looking around the centre, I had stumbled upon our woman of the hour.
At first glance, anyone might take Humaira to be just another ordinary girl going about her life. However, once she donned her Karategi (formal Japanese name for the traditional uniform used for Karate) on, she started emitting an aura which was nothing short of a championed warrior. In my head, I immediately found myself admiring her by relating her to none other than Mulan, the warrior princess from the famous Disney movie itself.
Being a Madrasa student until the seventh grade, her aspiration to be an athlete was always an idea that was not initially encouraged by her parents. “They wanted me to focus on my studies more and get a decent job by the time I complete my studies,” she goes on to share, “I wanted more out of life. I wanted more out of myself. I wanted to do something I like.”
Humaira always wanted to achieve things on her own accord. She even convinced her parents that self-defence is mandatory for her safety and wellbeing. “I made them understand that I cannot be safe only by wearing a veil or a Burqa. I needed to know how to defend myself. That’s how I got myself into Karate in 2013,” she adds.
The world of Karate requires discipline, will power, patience and burning desire to grow consistently. “I love the disciplined life; it always shows me what I need to do next,” the Karateka said.
It was only a matter of time when her seniors at the Karate club noticed the spark of greatness in her. The twin brothers, Sun and Moon senseis, nurtured her latent potential. Setting her eyes on the Nationals and going through rigorous training, she was able to win three gold medals in a single event. A similar record was made 16 years ago. However, this was the second coming of a prodigy. After that achievement, Humaira started getting support from her family and aim for the stars. “My mother is the one who motivates me the most. My teammates and my mentors believe that I can do better. I know what to expect out of myself.”
Before participating in the 2019 SA Games, Humaira gained the experience of playing on an international platform from the AKF tournament held in Uzbekistan; the Asian Karatedo Championships are the highest level of competition for sport Karate in Asia. This exposure gave Humaira enough determination and will power to compete in the SA Games. “Participating in those events allowed me to understand how to improve myself.”
During the initial rounds of the tournament, the 20-year old Karateka had her eyes locked on the prize, “I had to win the gold medal, for my family, friends and most importantly for Bangladesh. I was representing my country. I had to make her proud at any cost,” she states. By the third day of the tournament, Humaira bagged a gold medal. “It was overwhelming for me. I sacrificed many things, including my studies for this sport. I missed my university admission tests just because of the SA Games preparation,” she adds by dwelling on her recent memories.
As her closing statement, she stated that it is imperative for women and young girls to learn self-defence. “No incident comes knocking at your door; you have to be prepared. Karate is a sport of honesty and discipline. We all need these qualities in life,” she concludes.
The next athlete in my list was Fatema Mujib, the Fencer. We decided over the phone to meet at the Shaheed Suhrawardi Indoor Stadium in Mirpur 10. In the middle of the week, it was anticipated that there would be horrendous traffic. Much to my dismay, my team and I reached the location 2 hours late. Fatema was kind enough to wait for us at the indoor stadium. Apologising profusely to her only made me feel more guilty when she said it’s okay with her comforting smile. Don’t judge me. It was the epic Mirpur traffic.
After the initial formalities and more apologising, she led us to the central court of the indoor stadium. The herculean dome was something to marvel at. The stadium had many courts on which youngsters were either playing different sports or practising for their next big game. I never thought I could breathe as freely in a building as I would on an open field. It’s safe to say that my team members had the same impression of the place as I did. Moving on with the story of the Gold-winning Fencer.
Fatema Mujib is a timid girl whose voice can’t be heard across a room full of people. If one needs to describe her in a few words, her eyes exude innocence. Her soft-spoken demeanour can easily lead anyone to believe that Fatema is incapable of hurting a fly, let alone a seasoned opponent. At least, that was my first impression of her. Little did I know, her persona would completely change once she dons her fencing uniform while arming herself with a sabre. She was no less than a lioness ready to strike at any moment.
We began our interview, but Fatema struggled to speak her mind due to her shyness. After a few trial and error, I was finally able to break the ice by talking about her equipment and basics of Fencing.
“I HAD TO KEEP DOING BETTER. I HAD TO KEEP MY FOCUS ON MY ASPIRATIONS TOWARDS LIFE. I WANTED TO MAKE MY BROTHER PROUD OF ME. I HAVE A LOT TO PROVE DESPITE MY CIRCUMSTANCES”
Being the youngest among her four other siblings, Fatema always looked up to her brother, Saddam Mujib, who bagged a silver in 2013 Bangladesh Games for Fencing. Admiring his dedication and focus, Fatema was enticed into the world of Fencing. What started as two siblings playing with swords, later with time, it ended up as sparring matches. Seeing her potential, Saddam began to bring Fatema along to his training sessions. “My brother used to take me to practices on his bicycle from a great distance, it meant a lot to me,” the fencer shares her humble beginnings.
When she started to master the basics of the elegant sport, Saddam convinced their father to let Fatema join Fencing officially. Being reserved at first, their father eventually gave in to their passion. “I began my formal training in 2013, the same year my brother won the silver medal,” she continues to say, “from that point on I trained twice a day, wearing my brother’s uniform. We couldn’t afford a second one,” she says with glistening eyes.
Fatema’s natural affinity towards the sport was prominent enough to get the Bangladesh Navy to recruit her under its talent acquisition program. Thanks to this opportunity Fatema was able to achieve silver medals in seven National tournaments back to back. If that’s not enough she also scored two gold medals in the Bangladesh games in her career. “I had to keep doing better. I had to keep my focus on my aspirations towards life. I wanted to make my brother proud of me. I have a lot to prove despite my circumstances,” she adds.
The sportswoman states that her coach Abu Zahid Chowdhury always played one of the most vital roles in making her the athlete she is today. She adds, “without his support, I wouldn’t be the Fatema I am today.”
For Fatema, who grew up without a mother, her brother was the greatest motivator. “I grew up without a mother, and he practically raised me. My brother always supported me and urged me to do better,” she shares with pride. The sister is a devoted keeper of the wisdom passed down by her brother even while she’s facing an opponent on the platform.
2019 SA Games is the first international tournament Fatema ever participated in. Stepping into a new country, meeting new people and hearing new languages was all a bit too overwhelming for her. “It was both scary and exciting at the same time,” Fatema adds while laughing shyly.
While facing her opponent, Fatema only visualised what her brother would do. She shares, “My brother was not there with me cheering from the side, but I knew how he would face his opponents.” With her iron will, unconditional support from her brother and a coach who believed in her Fatema was able to bring gold for Bangladesh while she was participating in SA games for the first time.
The gifted fencer believes that she has a lot to give to her country, and she is not willing to stop any time soon. “With a little more support, I am confident that I can bring positive results from bigger platform,” she confidently said.
Fatema advises the younger generation to come forward with their passion and keep moving ahead until they reach their goal. “We are a nation of gifted people, there are many Fatema like me out there waiting to prove themselves. Do not stay silent, do not compromise when it comes to your passion and do not let anyone tell you you’re incapable of achieving your dream,” she concludes.
Our next golden girl was Mabia Akter Simanto, the weightlifter. This time we reached the location on time and hoped that we would be able to wrap up the interview in an hour or so. However, Mabia was already busy with her workout session. Naturally, we couldn’t speak much since she was already in her zone. At that moment, as any curious mind would do, I decided to check out her gym, and I was done in mere seconds. The space of the gym only stretched as far as two small rooms and the set of worn-out equipment makes your neighbourhood gym looks like a branch of Tapout, a renowned franchise for workout.
Seeing her in action only gave me a preconceived notion; she is nothing short of an Amazonian warrior princess, Diana, The Wonder Woman. The conviction in her eyes and the strength of her presence would make anyone believe that she can compete on any international platform.
“AFTER A DECADE OF SACRIFICE, RIGOROUS TRAINING, DEDICATION AND SUPPORT FROM MY FAMILY AND TEAMMATES, I AM THE WOMAN THAT I AM TODAY”
After waiting for about an hour, she was finally ready to sit for the interview. She started by saying that she stepped into the world of weight lifting, thanks to her maternal uncle Shahadat Kazi in 2010. “After a decade of sacrifice, rigorous training, dedication and support from my family and teammates, I am the woman that I am today,” the lifter adds.
The fierce lady wholeheartedly believes that without any kind of support from family, no one can accomplish what they want in life. Apart from being self-motivated, she always looks up to her confidant, vice president of the federation, wing commander Mohiuddin Ahmed. “He always counsels me, and his words have always helped me keep my head levelled. When I failed to motivate myself, these people bring me back on my feet,” she states.
Like any other child, Mabia always aspired to become someone who can motivate and inspire the nation. At the age of eleven, after several trial and error across sports, she fell in love with weight lifting at first sight, and the rest was history.
“Winning the gold medal at SA 2019 was very overwhelming for me, tears of joy rolled down my eyes involuntarily while I carried our flag,” her eyes beam with the joy of pride.
She plans to keep playing for the country and reach new frontiers in the world of weightlifting. However, she is displeased with the facilities provided by the authorities concerned. She states that she had to prepare herself mostly with her own efforts and gets little to no support “Our standard now has decreased to below-par. We do not get to participate in enough training camps. If we were nurtured properly, we could hone ourselves to perform on bigger international platforms,” Mabia stated.
I was in awe of the resilience she revealed during her interview. This woman brought home gold with backdated equipment and a room that barely passes as a gym. Gold medalists like her deserve way more, and it is disheartening to see that they train in such conditions. The strong-headed woman adds, “I hope that my juniors won’t have to work in the condition we are working on right now.”
She advises the younger generation to pursue their dreams, whether it lies in sports or any other sector. “Struggle, sacrifice, perseverance and willpower are a must when you need to achieve any goals you might have. So hang tight, grit your teeth and keep moving forward,” she concludes.
The last athlete I needed to track down was Ety Khatun, the 15-year-old Archer who won us a gold medal at the South Asian Games 2019. The only problem was my team, and I had to go to meet her at a stadium in Tongi during the week of Bishwa Ijtema. Yes, you read that right. Getting to the destination, while being unsure of what the future held for us, was an adventure on its own.
Snailing through the traffic for almost two hours, we finally reached our destination. An open field with the sun beating down mercilessly. A few minutes of waiting, the 15-year-old Archer herself came to greet us. Wasting no time, we sat down to know about her incredible journey.
Ety’s story begins from a village named Belgachhi in Chuadanga. The energetic teenager has always been fond of sports since she was a child. She was a regular participant in her school sporting events and her bouts of winning begun there. While still studying in her hometown school, Ety had her true calling when her sports teacher introduced her to Archery.
By the time Ety was in 6th grade, her father, Ebadat, decided to marry her off. This news caused her to rebel against her parents and to go on a 2-day hunger strike. Ety’s resilience led her to victory against child marriage.
Ety’s big break came in December 2016 when she participated in the Archery Talent Hunt in Chuadanga. Out of 40 participants, a total of 10 archers were selected, and five of them were sent to Dhaka for advanced training, and Ety was one of them. But the problem arose when her family refused to let her go to Dhaka.
“THERE ARE PLENTY OF PEOPLE WHO WILL TELL YOU THAT YOU WILL FAIL. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. LIVE UP TO THE POTENTIAL YOU ARE BORN WITH”
Two of her well-wishers, Naim Hasan Joardar, general secretary of Chuadanga District Sports Association and Sohel Akram, a founding member of Bangladesh Archery Federation stepped in at this point. They met with Ety’s father who was asked to visit at Chuadanga stadium and eventually managed to convince Ebadat to send Ety to Dhaka.
Sohel Akram ensured everything Ety needed for her progress, her education, her archery training and whatnot. From that point on, Ety never had to look back and the credit goes to her guardian angels.
Being one of the youngest athletes in the SA Games 2019, Ety was able to bag three golds, thus engraving her name in the pages of history.
Ety Khatun, a brave girl from an unknown village, managed to make her country proud. Her resolve to pursue her passion kept her from veering away into a life she would have regretted as long as she lived. Bangladesh would have missed out on a gifted girl if she didn’t reach for the stars.
She advises girls and boys of her age to be brave. “Be brave enough to go out of your way to achieve what you desire. There are plenty of people who will tell you that you will fail. Do not listen to them. Live up to the potential you are born with. Be brave and keep making small steps towards your goal,” the Archer concludes.
Ety Khatun is not just a gold-winning athlete, she is a brave soul who went beyond the oppressive social barriers to follow her passion. The Olympics are right around the corner, and our Hawkeye has her bow aimed at the bullseye.
Our country is full of amazing women and girls leading various sectors and winning multiple accolades in diverse fields.
To my young readers, the world out there can be scary and downright unfair, but that did not stop these girls from making their dreams come true. So, don’t get intimidated by the things that confine you in a bubble, commit yourself to something that has a meaning beyond the contemporary socio-economic binding. May the force be with you. Who knows, maybe you are next Fatima or Ety who would get Bangladesh the next gold medal?
*Photographs by Eivan Sardar