She’s one of the most iconic athletes in Indian sport and continues to break barriers with every achievement she manages to accomplish on the tennis court.
Sania Mirza is a six-time doubles and mixed doubles Grand Slam champion and was ranked No1 in the world in doubles on the WTA tour.
Teaming up with the Population Foundation of India, Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar and his initiative MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination), along with well-known director Feroz Abbas Khan, Mirza and her father Imran Mirza took part in a campaign which aims to end gender bias and violence against women and girls.
In her career as a professional tennis player, Sania has frequently come under fire from the public for not conforming to their own idea of what is appropriate for a woman to pursue in her life.
Imran has been a constant supporter in her corner, and together they speak up in the video above about her journey in professional sport.
“It’s actually happened to me where my own extended family used to tell my parents ‘now she’s 12 years old, she’ll become dark, why are you letting her play tennis?’” said the 30-year-old Sania.
“All my other friends, they slowly kept dropping out, you know others who used to play tennis, because their parents said ‘no, you need to get a 85 per cent, you need to get a 90 per cent’ and I used to feel ‘wow, my parents never say that’. I was never told by anyone in my house that I’m not going to be able to do something because I’m a girl and I’m not going to be able to follow my dream.”
Imran acknowledges that encouraging his daughter to pursue a career in sport was not a typical thing for an Indian father to do but it’s something he’s extremely proud of.
“Being recognised as Sania Mirza’s father is one of the greatest thrills of my life,” he says.
“Way back in 1991 Sania was probably four and a half, five years old, and I was playing tennis and Sania accompanied to the courts there, she was picking balls for us and her two cousins were there and they were bullying her into saying that ‘you can’t play this game, this is for boys’ literally,” he added.
“In a country like India, I think probably that there was a feeling that a girl is someone else’s property – at some point she’s going to get married… I would hear there were people talking about the fact that she was a girl, she shouldn’t be playing tennis and she shouldn’t be playing a sport.
“Probably that’s where we were a little bit different because I know there are families where they wouldn’t put in this kind of time and effort if it was a girl and they might have done that for a boy.”
Sania explains that to this day, she faces gender discrimination.
“It’s not just about ill-treating a woman, it’s not just the extreme stuff. Gender issues are everywhere in the world. At the WTA, we have to fight for equal prize money till today. I won Wimbledon last year, and I came back and I was asked straightaway, two days later, that ‘oh, when are you planning to have kids?’ I mean, now I’ve been married for six years, that for me is a very big discrimination,” said Sania, who is married to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik.
“There is a conditioning of where people feel that if you’re a girl then you’re going to learn how to cook, and you’re going to get married, and then you’re going to have a kid, and then your life is complete.
“To make the situation better, it doesn’t happen if I alone do it, or my dad alone does it, it happens when there’s a movement, there’s a change in thinking and that’s a cultural change that needs to come.”
Watch the video above to hear more from Sania and her father Imran. The video is part of a series of films to be released digitally to generate debate and promote positive change in cultural and social norms around the value of women in India.