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Female Indian wrestler grapples with gender bias

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BALALI/PATIALA (Reuters) -- As Geeta Phogat completes her sprint at a sprawling sports campus in Punjab state, one of her coaches nods approvingly at her stopwatch, another rushes to check her pulse, and a third ushers her toward the gym for a bout of wrestling.

Such attention and encouragement is routine for a top athlete, but it is unusual for women from Geeta's village in the northern Indian state of Haryana.

It is rare for a girl to have a life outside her home.

"In my village, girls have limited opportunities," says 23-year-old Geeta, the first female Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. "If they get admission in a college, only a few households would allow them to go for further studies."

When Geeta and her wrestler-sisters began training, they were ridiculed by the community.

"They said nobody will marry us because we would have disfigured ears," says Geeta, pointing to her cauliflower ears, a common condition among wrestlers in which the outer ear is swollen.

Twelve years later Geeta is a local celebrity. Ask for the house where Geeta lives and people several kilometres away can direct you to it.

Tanned and lithe, Geeta stood with her legs apart and her muscular arms folded across her chest, as she spoke to Reuters at her gym. It was a confident posture, unlike that of many of the women from her village who were too shy to speak to journalists.

Her home state of Haryana is notorious for its gender bias and sex-selective abortion. A girl child is considered so undesirable, and they are so frequently aborted, that a 2011 census found there were only 877 women for every 1,000 men. The national sex ratio is 940.

Girls are often viewed as a financial burden because of the marriage dowry given by the bride's family to the groom - a social custom widely practised despite being illegal in India.

"In my village earlier, when families found they were going to have a girl child, they used to get an abortion," says Geeta's younger sister, Ritu, who is also a wrestler.

An adolescent girl in Haryana is typically expected to do household chores and is often married by the age of 15, says Anjali Makhija, who works for the Institute of Rural Research and Development.

Most women are expected to do chores such as bathing livestock, milking cows or working in the fields. Education is not a priority.

Hardly any of Geeta's childhood friends went to college or have a job. She had an unconventional upbringing as her father decided to coach her in kushti, traditional Indian wrestling, which is usually fought on a mud surface.

"If I was not a wrestler, or if my father was not a good coach, I would have been married by now," she says.

Instead, Geeta and her sisters were brought up as boys with her father disapproving of long hair or feminine clothes.

"We used to wear a track suit and T-shirt while training," says Geeta, who has grown her hair longer now and has a ponytail. "But that did not go down well with the villagers, because women are usually supposed to wear salwar kameez (a long shirt paired with loose pyjamas)."

Geeta now trains in a fully equipped, air-conditioned gym at Asia's largest sports institute, which includes a palace built by the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala.

It is a far cry from her initial days, when she trained in an enclosure adjoining a cattle shed in her village home.

"There was no roof where we trained, so it used to get very hot during the day and the mud used to feel very cold during the evening," says Geeta, as she toys with the keys of her grey sedan, a recent gift by the Haryana state government.

Her father and coach could not afford to buy a wrestling mat used in international competitions.

"I received no facilities or help from the government," says Mahavir Singh, a 52-year-old former wrestler, as he smokes a hookah in his courtyard.

While kushti is popular in Haryana, a state known for producing quality wrestlers, it is considered a man's sport with no training infrastructure for women. The Phogat sisters had mud bouts with boys to hone their skills.

"We were known as the sisters who beat all the boys," says Geeta.

While she was excused from doing household chores, she found her father's training schedule overwhelming at first.

"She used to cry a lot earlier," says Daya Kaur, Geeta's mother, who keeps her face covered like most women in rural Haryana. "Her dad used to keep a stick. If she was late even by one minute in the morning, she used to get beaten up."

Geeta says she is both excited and nervous about the Olympics in London, a city she has never seen before. But even if she does not win gold, her success has inspired girls in and around her village.

"Those who used to ask my father to be ashamed of himself for training us in wrestling now say they wish they have daughters like me," says Geeta, who will be competing in the 55-kg category at the London Games this year.

Since the success of the Phogat sisters in international tournaments, their father has started training other girls from the village in the family wrestling hall - which finally has a mat.

"Those girls who used to think they can only do field work, they want to make a name for themselves," says Babita, Geeta's younger sister, who bagged a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. "Now they convince their parents to send them here for training."

"My grandmother had desired a male child," says Geeta, who plans to marry after the Olympics. "Now she says if she has a hundred daughters like me, she won't have any regrets."