As a woman of strength, she would regularly beat eve-teasers on Srinagar’s streets till she took her fights inside the Thang-Ta fields internationally, clinched Gold, and emerged as a champion. But today, Unjuman Farooq—promised ‘a good future’ by PDP patron Mufti Muhammad Sayeed—is struggling to retain her game.
Muddling her conviction, the voices would whisper in her ears, ‘Girls don’t act like boys.’ But she preferred fearlessness over societal impediment. And today, she has reached at a level, where she’ll be the first woman from Kashmir to get a Black Belt in Thang-Ta, a weapon-based martial art form, the highest achievement in the sport.
Unjuman Farooq wears a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude with a clout body language. When she gets late, says the 26-year-old gold Thang-Ta champ from Kashmir, she does not fear the dark, “I don’t mind what people think. I do, what’s required. I run!”
From the past 17 years, she has been mastering the art of Thang-Ta. Unjuman owes her ‘sports genes’ to her late footballer father Farooq A. Bhat, and mother Jameela.
Coming from Srinagar’s Baghat Barzulla area, Unjuman is presently struggling to sustain her family including her mother and younger siblings: a sister, Fozia (24) and a brother, Fazil (22). The father’s departure has made her a default breadwinner for her family.
For the living, she now works as a Physical Education lecturer at Delhi Public School, Srinagar.
Till her father was around, she never felt the responsibility of sustaining her family. But now, her circumstances force her to think that way. So far, Unjuman has braved destiny’s shocks silently and tried to emerge stronger.
Back in the days, with her parents’ backing, little Unjuman had started learning Thang-Ta when it was introduced in her school Muslim Educational Trust, Baghat.
“It must’ve been 2002,” Unjuman says, “when I started learning Thang-Ta. I instantly liked it, as it was about strength and so much more. You can kick, punch, and use equipment including real swords. It makes you an all-rounder in the field.”
Thang-Ta is part of an Manipuri Martial Art ‘Huyen langlon’—Huyen means war while langlon means net, knowledge or art.
Huyen langlon consists of two main components: Thang-ta (armed combat) and Sarit sarak (unarmed fighting). The primary weapons of Huyen langlon are the thang (sword) and ta (spear).
But following her heart was not easy for her. She had to fight the societal pressures, her contenders, and her inner self simultaneously. At times, she says, she was paranoid over the outcome of what she was doing. With time, however, she learned to boost her own self-confidence: ‘I ain’t wrong. I’m strong. And nothing else matters.’
While growing up, she had become accustomed with stray incidents of eve-teasing around. And after began her martial arts training, she knew she was strong enough to punch the eve-teasers in the face.
“I’ve beaten many boys,” she says, with a straight face. “I was never afraid of them. As I grew up, I realized that woman here needed to learn the art of self-defence. I see no reason why Kashmiri women can’t learn this art.”
But eventually, with time, she chose to part ways with her ‘tomboy’ looks. She grew her hair in Class 12, because she wanted to, and started putting on a little make-up to ‘look like a girl’, but continued to dress the way she liked. But her newfound girlishness, she says, would hardly cloud her mind from striking down her opponents with solid blows, to bring home the Gold.
Out of 16 National Level matches played so far, she has won 14 gold medals and 2 silvers. She has also played in three Federation Cups at the National Level, where a player is selected to go to the international level.
She participated in her first world cup experience in 2011 and was the first senior girl to win the gold then. She has played an International level, taking three bouts with the United Kingdom, Malaysia and England.
For her sports feats, she credits her Guru, coach Eyjaz Bhat, Joint Secretary of World Thang-Ta Federation.
“I met him in 2002 when I was in Class 6,” she says. “At the beginning of my sports career, I was sent to coaching camps and classes in the Indoor stadium and Gojwara. He helped me be the player I am today.”
Though she was doing well in the field, she chose to pursue Bachelors and Masters in Physical Education when the former Chief Minister of Kashmir Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had asked her to go for it, promising her a good future.
“I met Mufti Mohammad Sayeed once and he asked me to pursue the degree,” she says. “I did it. Now what? I’ve served the field for 17 years and still, I can’t sustain myself.”
The certificates provided by the Sports Council help the sports-persons at many levels. They earn more points wherever they apply. However, Unjuman wants Thang-Ta to have a ‘Job SRO’ associated with it like other sports including Athletics, Handball and Taekwondo.
Players, she believes, need a good coach, job security, facilities and equipment to sustain in the field. But that is yet to happen because of official indifference, she reckons. “Instead of focusing on talent in Kashmir, the government is busy politicizing sports,” she says, making a reference of Kick-boxer Tajamul Islam’s case and her faded limelight.
“While everyone knows Tajamul now, hardly anybody knows Saira Zahoor, who bagged Gold in South Korea at the same time when Tajamul was being hailed as a wonder kid in the town.”
She wants an honest endeavour behind sports in Kashmir—like her true sports passion, which has now made Unjuman as the first Kashmiri woman sportsperson to get the Thang-Ta Black Belt.
“There’re levels in Thang-Ta,” she says. “First belt is Green, second one is Blue, third is Yellow, fourth is Brown, then Red I, Red II, then the seventh one is the Advance Black Belt and the eighth one is the Black Belt. I’ll be a Black Belt now after the ceremony.”
Apart from awaiting her grand sports moment, Unjuman is busy helping evaluating players at the Thang-Ta Tournament. “This year 950 players participated in the tournament at the state level,” she says. “The number is growing and I like that.”
But on her part, the champ makes no bones about her life priorities. She wants to continue with Thang-Ta, if only it gives her a decent earning to sustain her family.
“I’ve won many fights,” she says. “The one you fight with yourself is difficult and easy at the same time.” But the fight she’s fighting at the moment is different—perhaps, different from those myriad fights she won inside various Thang-Ta fields.
Black Belt might be round the corner, but the way she sees sports taking a direction in Kashmir makes her feel that she is losing her game.