Bharti Dhoundiyal, 21-years-old, is one of few professional female MMA fighters in India. Born to a humble family and living in New Delhi's northern outskirts, she started training Taekwondo 7 years ago. A few years later, Bharti was introduced to Wushu and Judo, and went to win gold medals at a national level in both sports. Her interests turned to MMA when UFC started to broadcast matches for free in India. She was especially inspired by Ronda Rousey, who continues to be her role model.
In 2014, Bharti made her MMA debut, and she has recently signed with the main league for MMA in India, Super Fight League, which currently has only 16 female fighters in a country of more than a billion people. Given the low number of female fighters in the country, Bharti often has to compete in the 56 kg class even though she weighs only 52 kg.
I followed Bharti during two intense training sessions in New Delhi in the humid heat of July. In her training gyms, there are hardly any other women at her level and therefore she spars mostly with bigger and stronger men. In a country with significant gender inequality and obstinate patriarchal traditions, Bharti stands out in many ways. When I asked her what her family thinks of her training with men, she told me "My family supports me but my neighbors often gossip about it. They think that I am 'roaming around with boys' and ask my family what I am up to." In fact, ignoring nosy neighbors has served Bharti well. In India's capital New Delhi, women's safety is a major concern and sexual violence against women is widespread, as growing reports of rapes suggest. Two years ago, Bharti was awarded a "Bravery medal" by Delhi's Police Chief for having successfully defended herself against a 37-year old man in her neighborhood that had tried to grab and touch her inappropriately, as she returned from training one afternoon. "Even though he was older and much bigger than me, I had to defend myself. I kicked him in the stomach and hit him several times in the face. I knocked him out, on the street. Now he never never crosses my path again," said Bharti.
As a young, committed female MMA fighter, Bharti stands out for her passion and for breaking away from gender stereotypes in her traditional context. She trains devotedly, often twice a day, and when I asked the founder of the MMA gym Crosstrain Fight Club, Siddharth Singh, about her prospects he told me confidently; "Bharti is one of the most promising female MMA fighters on the Indian subcontinent." Her next fight with SFL is coming up in January 2017.