Arifa Bilal, 24, earned the nickname of 'Iron Woman' after winning two gold medals at the 4th National Powerlifting Benchpress and Deadlift Championship held in Assand, Haryana two years ago.

She triumphed despite receiving widespread criticism for selecting powerlifting as a sport in a patriarchal society like Kashmir. "Everyone asked me, don't do this, it's a men's game. Me and my family have been taunted. With that, I disproved my critics and made Kashmiris proud," says Bilal.

In Kashmir, crimes against women by men have increased significantly during the past two years. In this context Bilal has taken matters into her own hands and built a gym training facility called 'Doctor Gym' for women.

She also beat the national record two years ago in Assand, powerlifting 130 kilos in the women's under-55 kg weight category in the competition.

Hailing from Kujjar in the Ganderbal area of central Kashmir, Bilal is a student at the Government Degree College Ganderbal and attended the Girls Higher Secondary Ganderbal for her intermediate education.

With her victories, she has also earned a spot in the international powerlifting competition which will take place in Dubai on April 2022.

"Everyday we are getting disturbing news. Women face harassment, they are being burnt by their in-laws, acid throwing incidents, etc. Police can book the culprits and they can punish them. But, here women should prepare themselves to fight battles. My gym center offers training to them," Arifa tells the Citizen.

She says that opening up a gym center is not an easy task for women in Kashmir. "I was heavily criticised by all segments of society, but my family members stood shoulder to shoulder with me."

In a milieu where powerlifting is typically associated with men, she says, "More women are speaking up in this patriarchal environment where criticism is at its highest, because I became the first female powerlifter by winning a gold medal."

Hailing from a family that did not have a lot of money, she never stopped pursuing her ambitions and refused to let them go.

In addition to having a black belt in sqay martial arts, Arifa, the fourth of her five siblings, has won numerous gold medals in various state and national championships in different sports, including powerlifting, squash, volleyball, and cricket.

Doctor Gym in the Behama Ganderbal chowk where she offers self-defence training and gym instruction has become a hub for women in Ganderbal.

As many as 365 rape crimes were reported in J&K in 2020, according to crime statistics provided by the Jammu and Kashmir police, a 19% increase from 2019. These were reported from nearly all the districts of the union territory.

Side by side, attendance at Arifa Bilal's gym keeps growing. "Three years ago, when I started training the women at my gym, only a few young girls were coming to the gym. Society in Kashmir has kept the gym only for males here. I am the one who broke this notion," she explains.

Even as she was about to give up due to criticism and financial crunch at home, her father, who is a labourer by profession, remained shoulder to shoulder with Arifa in her journey.

She expresses her gratitude to her parents and other family members for their support of her efforts. The fact that girls are no longer viewed as a burden in Indian homes fills her with great pride and joy. In addition to advocating for women's rights, her mother, Habla Bano, says daughters can do anything they want. She asks that we let girls become strong, independent women.

Rubi Jan, 24, whose name has been changed at her request, is a student of Bilal's and says that when she bagged those gold medals in powerlifting, it generated hope among women in Kashmir.

"Now more and more women are turning out in the field. Gym keeps us physically fit, and women are vulnerable in every society. Sexual harassment, physical abuse, incidents like eye teasing are continuously increasing. Once you are physically bold and fit, you can teach sobering lessons to those who sexually harass the women," says Rubi.

Although Bilal is on a mission to root out crimes by men against women in Kashmir, she says the government has not provided her a single penny for setting up the gym centre. Her parents sold some precious things to make the Arifa's career bright and shine.

At Doctor Gym, Arifa trains not only women but men as well.

"There is a notion in Kashmir that females can do nothing. But I made my critics wrong. I am thankful to Saleem Pathan, my mentor who taught me all," says Bilal.

She further says the government ought to come forward to help her as she is eyeing competitions in international powerlifting for which she is eligible now.

"Since I was a young child, I've been interested in sports. In 2012, I began studying the sqay martial arts professionally, and coach Saleem Pathan was a crucial part of my training."

She says she is the only woman running a gym centre in Ganderbal. She is certainly an inspiration for many young women and believes the community has responded very favourably to her efforts. "I'm training a lot of females that want to be physically strong."

Being a girl has historically drawn a lot of criticism, according to Arifa, who recalls being teased for selecting powerlifting as a sport because in a male supremacist culture it is considered appropriate only for men.

Now however, Arifa Bilal is a household name in the field of powerlifting in Kashmir.

"I want to make my area a crime-free society for which I am burning the midnight oil," she concludes.