• Fareeha Tafim: “When I do Wushu, my mind becomes free.” (SBS Dateline)
What happens when cultural tradition clashes with a young person’s dream? Dateline meets a Muslim girl whose passion for martial arts is raising difficult questions for her family.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 21:30

NOTE: Apologies, but this story is no longer available for copyright reasons - you can however read the transcript below.

“Does the Quran say that a girl can’t do karate?” 14-year-old Fareeha Tafim asks her mother.

“[The Quran] says you can’t go outside without a veil,” her mother responds.

Fareeha recently qualified for the Indian national championships of Wushu, a form of Chinese martial arts.

“With this martial art I’ve learned to stand up for myself,” she tells Dateline reporter Jayisha Patel. “When I do Wushu, my mind becomes free.”

But Fareeha’s dream of winning the national championships is not as simple as being the best competitor – she is struggling against the wishes of her family and entrenched cultural traditions to even compete in the event.

Fareeha comes from a conservative Islamic family and her mother believes Fareeha’s involvement in the competition would compromise her duty to her faith.

 “If you show your face then you’ll be called shameless, because you’ll be performing in front of thousands of people,” her mother tells her. “Islam says that women should stay at home.”

Fareeha learnt the fighting style at her school in Hyderabad, where it is taught as a way for young girls to defend themselves against violence. For Fareeha, it has become more than a self-defense mechanism.

She faces the same opposition from her brother; “Our name gets spoilt. The name of the family is disgraced,” he says. “Your family says no.”

The pressures a young girl like Fareeha faces to conform to cultural expectations rather than pursue her passions, is symptomatic of broader gender inequality issues in Indian society.

This inequality is reflected in workplace figures. While the country’s GDP has seen 6 per cent growth in the past decade, female labour force participation has declined from 34 per cent to 27 per cent. Women are also paid roughly 50 per cent less than men across industries.

Gender and religious expectations weigh heavy on Fareeha, as she tells Dateline; “most women I know, they work at home,” she says.

Another Wushu fighter from Fareeha’s school, Summaiya, grew up in a similar culture; “In our community mothers don’t go out and work,” she says. “Whatever you want to do, you have to do before marriage.”

While her mother encourages Fareeha to adhere to the expectations placed on young women in her community, her father does not. He grew up in poverty – illiterate and struggling for food – and wants to see his children raised to be independent and successful.

Likewise, Fareeha sees martial arts as a pathway to a future out of home, to something beyond what her mother expects of her. After school she wants to be a police officer, to keep young girls like herself safe from violence.

All the people in Fareeha’s life want the best for her, whether that’s staying at home or chasing her dreams.

But will they allow her to do what she wants?


A young woman’s struggle against tradition
One school in India has taken a unique approach to combating violence against women; teaching their students a Chinese martial art, writes reporter Jayisha Patel.
Achieving gender equality in India: what works, and what doesn’t
Discrimination against women and girls is a pervasive and long-running phenomenon that characterises Indian society at every level.


Camera/Director: Jayisha Patel

Field producer: Alok Kupar

Producer: Hugh Hartford

Story Editor: Greg Pittard


Chinese Martial Arts is not what you'd expect young Indian girls to be practising, especially not in a strict Muslim community.

GIRLS:  Fareeha, Fareeha!

FAREEHA (Translation):  My name is Fareeha Tafim and I’m 14 years old. When I do wushu, my mind becomes free.

COACH (Translation):  Stop.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I won gold in the state championships, and have qualified for the nationals. This is a big thing for me. I feel that I can win.

Fareeha's school started teaching wushu due to growing concerns about violence against women. She's a skilled fighter and has been selected to compete in the national championships in Assam state, a 60-hour journey by train. But Fareeha's mother doesn't want her to go.

FAREEHA (Translation):  She said “No, you’re too young.” If it was closer, she would have let me go.

GIRL (Translation):  What? You’re not going?   But you like doing wushu right?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Yes, I love it.

GIRL (Translation):  And you want to do it?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Yes.

GIRL (Translation):  Have you tried asking your Mum and Dad?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Many times, I didn’t eat. I fell at their feet and cried. And they still said no. 

GIRL (Translation):  Who’s your mother scared of?  Get them to talk to her.

FAREEHA (Translation):  No one can scare my Mum. If my parents don’t allow me to go to the National Championships I would feel really hurt.

Before Fareeha can fight in the Nationals she must face a battle with her family. And she's up against her mother's staunch belief - that a girls place is at home.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I want to step out of my house to see the world. I must go to the Championship. 
Mum, would you have sent my brother if he was selected for the championship?

MOTHER (Translation): Yes, we can send boys.

FAREEHA (Translation):  But why not girls?

MOTHER (Translation): You’re a young girl. It’s dangerous outside. 

FAREEHA (Translation):  But I am going there to do Martial Arts.

MOTHER (Translation):  Yes but if it’s in a different city.

FAREEHA (Translation):  Does the Quran say that a girl can’t do karate?

MOTHER (Translation):  It says you can’t go outside without a veil.

FAREEHA (Translation):  But I'll compete with my veil on.

MOTHER (Translation): That’s not the point. This is what has been told to us.  Don't spill it. 

FAREEHA (Translation):  What will happen if I go?

MOTHER (Translation): You’ll be outside without a veil.

FAREEHA (Translation):  But I'll keep my veil on.

MOTHER (Translation):  That’s not good enough.

FAREEHA (Translation):   Why?

MOTHER (Translation):  If you show your face, then you’re called shameless, because you’ll be performing in front of thousands of people.  You can’t go. Islam tells us that women should stay at home.   We only let you learn it for your safety.  There’s no need to win the competition.

FAREEHA (Translation):  But I want to win.

MOTHER (Translation):  No I don't like this at all.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I don’t think my mum has any expectations of me. Most women I know work at home.  But I look up to my dad a lot.

Fareeha's last hope is her father. Can he look beyond the gender and religious expectations, and see how much this competition means to her?

FATHER (Translation): What happened? Did you fight someone today?

FAREEHA (Translation):  No.

FATHER (Translation):  No?  Aren’t you happy?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Yes, I am.  Why isn’t mother letting me go?

FATHER (Translation):  She says ‘You’re young, so how will you go alone.’

FAREEHA (Translation):  You only get this chance once in your life.

FATHER (Translation):  I’m not stopping you from going.

FAREEHA (Translation):  Tell mum that.

FATHER (Translation):  I will but all I can say to her is that you should go.

FAREEHA (Translation):  Didn’t you promise me that you’d discuss it with her everyday?

FATHER (Translation):  Yes, but I have to be sure she’s relaxed, before I do so. And I work till one a.m. so I barely see her. Should I wake her up and explain to her, tell me?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Phone her then. 

FATHER (Translation):  How? If I speak to her on the phone she’ll go crazy and my blood pressure will shoot up. She’ll only listen if I’m stern with her, if I’m easy with her she just counter attacks me. But if I am bit stern with her, she’ll listen.  I used to sleep in plastic sheets. That’s how I grew up. I was illiterate. I used to do small jobs here and there. But I still stayed hungry. I couldn’t get enough to eat. That's why I don't want to stop you kids from doing these things. That’s why I want you kids to get education and gain knowledge.

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  How do we instil the religious beliefs that we have inherited from the Prophet into the minds of our children?  In their everyday schooling, our children should not neglect their religious beliefs. If we let them be free, they will be corrupted and will never be devout. If we let our children go out into this dirty polluted world, if we let them loose in this sinful environment, where they will not have a way to defend themselves, they will not have the religious strength to fight against the outside world.

Martial Arts gives Fareeha physical strength, but also the determination to pursue a non-conventional future, out of the home.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I learn wushu at school because there is a lot of violence against girls. When I grow up I want to be a police officer because more than anything else I want to keep young girls safe.  

The school principal is on her side.

TEACHER (Translation): Why aren't you able to go for the National Championships?

FAREEHA (Translation):  My mum won’t allow me but my Dad is ready to send me.

PRINCIPAL (Translation):  But are you ready to go? Are you fully prepared?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Will you please speak to my dad?

PRINCIPAL (Translation): No, but why doesn't your Mum come here and speak to me?

FAREEHA (Translation):  She says it would be pointless as she knows she won’t send me.

PRINCIPAL (Translation):  Remember one thing. If you don’t go you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. No?  Forget the past when girls used to hide in their houses, especially Muslim girls. You must convince your mother of all the things I’ve explained to you.

MOTHER (Translation):  Remove the lid. The whole neighbourhood is talking and asking "Why would you let your daughter go"? 

BROTHER (Translation): Our name gets spoilt. The name of the family is disgraced. People start to make comments about the girl's character.

FAREEHA (Translation):  But I want to see what the competition is like and compete in front of an audience.

BROTHER (Translation):  No.

MOTHER (Translation): Don’t you watch the news? There are always stories that it’s not safe for a girl to go so far.

BROTHER (Translation):  There’s no need for you to go. Tell your teacher that your family says no.

Fareeha is stuck in the middle of a tug of war, although everyone has her interest at heart, one side wants to see her protected, and the other wants to see her free to chase her dreams. 

MOTHER (Translation): Eat it. Or I’ll have to throw it away. 

FATHER (Translation):  Fareeha?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Yes Dad?

FATHER (Translation):  Come here. Keep this in the kitchen. Listen, boys are going, she is the same.

MOTHER (Translation):  The times are…

FATHER (Translation):  I know, times are not safe, but it’s not the same as before. Let her become something; let her progress in life. 

MOTHER (Translation):  But travelling so far away…

FATHER (Translation):  The school are taking responsibility of the children, if she wants to go then let her go. We’ll tell her how she should act in front of men.

MOTHER (Translation):  Do you think she’ll listen?

FATHER (Translation):  Give her a chance.

MOTHER (Translation):  It's our duty to make her see that it’s not safe. 

FATHER (Translation):  You think I’d want bad things to happen to my daughter? Is she not my child too? If she wants to go, let her go.  If a boy wanted to go you would have sent him.

MOTHER (Translation):  She’s a girl. It's different for a girl, to go so far.

FATHER (Translation):  I hate this in my house. Don't make me mad. The moment I enter the house I just hear a no.  If she wants to go, let her go.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I am so happy! I’m not sure how Dad managed to convince my Mum and brother to let me go.  Finally I’m allowed to go.  If I win... I’ll be extremely happy.

GIRL (Translation):  Make sure you win, Fareeha.

BROTHER (Translation):  Be careful and look after your health.

FATHER (Translation):  Are you crying?

FAREEHA (Translation):  No.

BROTHER (Translation):  Keep your phone on. I've recharge your phone so keep it on. 

FATHER (Translation):  He will get it recharged so you can call whenever you like.  Take care of yourself sweetheart. Okay we’ll go now. Adil? Let's go. Fareeha, bye.

Fareeha is travelling to Assam to compete in the Wushu National Championships. She'll compete against girls from across India, but unlike her, are mostly Hindu. It's a chance to show her strength, and her independence.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I'm really excited. This will be the first time I’ll be going out alone in my life. There's no pressure from my parents, I’m free.

ANNOUNCER (Translation): I declare the 7th National Vovinam Martial Art Championships open.

FAREEHA (Translation):  Summaiya has also been selected for the National Championships. When we got to the competition, we were the only two Muslim girls there. This is our chance to prove ourselves. 

ANNOUNCER:  This is the first call for Fareeha in the red corner from Telegana state and Nitta from Assam state.

COACH (Translation):  Where the first punch should land? Where?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Here.

COACH (Translation):  What should get busted?

FAREEHA (Translation):  The mouth.

COACH (Translation):  And?

FAREEHA (Translation):  The nose.

COACH (Translation):  Whose punch will be the first one?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Mine.

COACH (Translation):  Who will win?

FAREEHA (Translation):  Me.

GIRL (Translation):  Hit him.

COACH (Translation):  See that girl over there is crying. Are you crying? Are you crying? No. She is crying because you’re going to beat her. You’re going to beat her okay?

FAREEHA (Translation):  But what if she doesn't play?

COACH (Translation):  If she doesn't play, you’ll win.  Make her scared and you’ll win. Go.

ANNOUNCER:  Second call for Nita from Assam. Third and final call for Nita from Assam. Fareeha in the red corner is the winner.

FAREEHA (Translation):  What happened?  Why didn’t she turn up?

COACH (Translation):  She saw you and got scared. Didn't you see? She was crying over there. You’re the winner of this round.

Summaiya is from the same school as Fareeha. She's getting to know some of the other competitors, and sharing stories of home.

SUMMAIYA (Translation):  What does your Dad do?

GIRL (Translation): He was in the Air Force. Now he is a teacher.

SUMMAIYA (Translation):  And your Mum?

GIRL (Translation):  She's also a teacher.

SUMMAIYA (Translation):  In our community mothers don’t go out and work. Whatever you want to do, you have to do before marriage. After that we’re not allowed to do anything.

After Fareeha's opponent forfeited, she automatically progresses to the finals. Now it's finally her chance to fight.

ANNOUNCER:   First call for Fareeha in the Red corner.

FAREEHA (Translation):  It’s time to show everybody how much I have been practising for the past three years.  It’s now or never.

COACH (Translation):  Fight in the same way you normally fight. Got it? 

ANNOUNCER:  Final call for Fareeha, in the red corner from Telangana state.

COACH (Translation):  With the leg!  Sidekick, sidekick…Have some water.

FAREEHA (Translation):  One second first take this off.

COACH (Translation):    What do you want me to take off? Have some water.  Have some water.

FAREEHA (Translation):  Am I fighting ok?

COACH (Translation):  You’re doing brilliantly. I’m proud of you.

FAREEHA (Translation):  I'm feeling dizzy.

COACH (Translation):  This is the last bout, you won't get another chance after this.

SUMMAIYA (Translation):  Do the scissorsick. Quickly. Quickly.

ANNOUNCER: The winner is… Red Corner.

FAREEHA (Translation):  Hello Salaam Alekum. I won. Please tell Dad I can't get through to him. I called him first. Yes I won the final. Yes, full final. Tell dad.  I really won. Yes, I won.  It feels so good that as Muslims we have come here and accomplished something. I want to tell this to everyone at home. With this martial art I’ve learned to stand up for myself.  Girls should get the same freedom boys do. We can do everything they can. 

jayisha patel

field  producer
alok kupar

hugh hartford

assistant producer
priya  biring

story editor
greg pittard

micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

14th February 2017