Fatwas, Feminism, and Forehands: The Life of Indian Tennis Superstar Sania Mirza

The Indian tennis superstar is not only one of the world's most popular athletes--she is also one of its most outspoken.

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Jan 15 2015, 1:50pm

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sania Mirza had offended Islam. Such was the judgement of a group of Muslim clerics. It was September of 2005, and Mirza, then 18 years old and the No. 34-ranked tennis player in the world, was on her way to Kolkata, India to play in the Sunfeast Open.

Then came the fatwa. It would be Mirza's first brush with radical Islam, but not her last.

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Issued by Haseeb-ul-hasan Siddiqui, a leading cleric with the little-known Sunni Ulema Board, the religious order demanded that Mirza, a practicing Muslim, stop wearing "indecent" clothes to play tennis.

Instead of standard-issue t-shirts and skirts, the board ruled, she should wear long tunics and headscarves, like a group of female Iranian badminton players. Or else.

"She will be stopped from playing if she doesn't adhere to it," Siddiqullah Chowdhry, a cleric with a Kolkata-based Muslim group Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind, told Reuters. The threat was vague, but still alarming.

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier that year, Mirza burst onto the international scene at the Australian Open by becoming the first Indian tennis player to win two rounds at a major tournament before falling to eventual champion Serena Williams, impressing along the way. "I was excited to see someone particularly do so well from [India], and I told her to keep fighting," Williams told reporters after the match. "I think she has a very solid game, especially to be so young; she's only 18. I definitely see a very bright future for her."

Immediately following the Australian Open, Mirza became the first Indian woman to win a WTA title by winning her hometown tournament in Hyderabad. She then got her first top-10 win over reigning U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in Dubai. Later that summer in New York, Mirza made it all the way to the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

With a powerful forehand and an effervescent personality, she also made headlines wherever she went. While Mirza was still finding her voice in the press, she made statements with her style, wearing t-shirts with slogans like "I'm cute," "You can either agree with me - or be wrong," and "Well behaved girls rarely make history."

With that mentality in place, Mirza still came to Kolkata to play the tournament, but special accommodations had to be made to ensure her safety.

"I remember having a thousand people for security," she told the New York Times in 2013. "I couldn't leave the hotel room without informing about five different people. And even when I did, I had a car in front of me and I had a car behind me. I had a guy sitting with me."

Nothing happened in Kolkata, but that was far from the last time that Mirza would be at the center of a media firestorm. And her decision to play--in shorts--was the first in a series of bold, feminist choices. Since then, "Well behaved girls rarely make history," has been more than a slogan on a t-shirt for Mirza. It has been a way of life.

The words "trailblazer" and "idol" are thrown around a lot when referring to athletes, and rarely are the labels deserved. Most athletes wield influence solely within their sports, only lending their voices elsewhere when it makes financial sense. That's understandable--pro athletes have short careers, and speaking up about social justice issues and politics can be a risky move. It's rare when an athlete in his or her prime will take a stand.

Mirza, now 28, has become perhaps the most prominent exception to this rule. Despite having a lot to lose--she is, after all, the most successful female Indian tennis player in history and one of the most popular female athletes in the world--Mirza has never shied away from addressing her critics or tackling controversial issues such as gender, nationalism, and her Muslim faith.

And, as Mirza has proven recently, the more successful she gets, the louder she speaks up for what she believes is right.

At the end of October last year, Mirza earned the biggest women's doubles title of her career. Partnering with Cara Black, Mirza won the WTA Finals, the season-ending championship that consists solely of the year's top eight teams. She also won her third mixed doubles Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, and a gold medal in the Asian Games.

Just one month later, Mirza's year got even better when she was named UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. She was the first South Asian woman to be appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador in the organization's history.

Many of the news reports on the announcement carried headlines to the effect of "No Respect For Women in India, Says Sania Mirza." As a result, she was attacked mercilessly in both mainstream and social media. Once again, Mirza was faced with unrelenting criticism during a period of her life that should have been spent celebrating her personal and professional successes.

But Mirza didn't ignore the criticism, and despite the fact that the widespread headline was not a nuanced representation of what Mirza had said, she didn't apologize or back down. Instead, she used this as yet another opportunity to speak up for herself and for South Asian women, by sending the following message in a long series of tweets (edited for clarity):

Just to make a couple of things very clear: I did NOT say that there is no respect for women in India. I am the ambassador for the region and I would never be where I am today if the country hadn't given me all this love. But I am fortunate, very fortunate. There are millions of women who are less fortunate in this part of the world and have been victims of abuse, physical or sexual, and have not been allowed to follow their dreams because they were a girl! So whether you guys like to accept it or not, this is the truth. And yes, I do believe that if I was a man I would not have faced certain unnecessary controversies that I did! And some language that is being used here on Twitter doesn't seem too respectful to me!! So some of you need to clean your tongue first before wanting to claim that you respect women and people in general. And read the whole article, not just a sensationalized headline before commenting please, because the headline is exactly what certain media uses to grab your attention! I have made myself very clear, and will stand for what I believe in and address the issue of gender inequality.

Photo by Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Three years after the fatwa in Kolkata, a photo of her casually putting her feet up near an Indian flag during a Hopman Cup competition caused so much public outrage that Mirza thought about quitting tennis altogether. She didn't. And she would soon be in for more.

Mirza's relationship with famous Pakistani cricket player Shoaib Malik generated previously unseen levels of controversy. There were two additional fatwas: one for possible pre-marital sex, and one for living together in advance of the wedding. The union--they were married in 2010--caused so much outrage among some Muslims and Indians that there were actual protests against it. SOME Indians feared that Mirza would become a Pakistani.

Through it all, Mirza's celebrity status has skyrocketed. She has 2.27 million Twitter followers, nearly 1 million more than Maria Sharapova, and is a perennial member of the Forbes India Celebrity 100. In a country where female athletes are few and far between, and where cricket and Bollywood loom large on the cultural horizon, she has become an icon in her own right. In fact, the year that she got married she was the most searched for female athlete in the world, according to Google statistics.

On the court, Mirza reached a career high ranking of No. 27 in singles, but a wrist injury forced her to give up her singles career and focus on doubles. She has flourished in that discipline, winning three Slams in mixed doubles and reaching three other Slam finals--two in mixed, one in women's doubles. A decade after her debut, she still carries the torch for women's tennis in India--there are no other Indian women ranked in the top 200 in singles or doubles.

And yet still, it seems for so many in her country, nothing she does is good enough. In mid-2014, Mirza was named the brand ambassador for the state of Telangana. However, she was criticized by politicians for not being Indian enough, and was referred to as "Pakistan's daughter-in-law." The remarks made the usually composed Mirza break down in tears on television while defending herself.

While Mirza's ability to withstand constant attacks has been necessary for her activism, what has set her apart from other high profile athletes has been her willingness to speak on all women's rights issues. No topic is off limits.

She has taken the Indian tennis federation to task for treating her like a pawn to pacify her male countrymen during the Olympics, condemned elected officials for their handling of rape cases, and spoken out against the all-too-rampant sex-selective abortions taking place in her country.

In 2012, India ranked 84th out of 113 countries on the Economist's ranking of economic opportunity for women. The country's rate of violence against women actually went up 7.1 percent from 2010 to 2014. In fact, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, violence against women is so much a part of the culture in India that in the past five years, Indian political parties have nominated 260 candidates who have outstanding charges for crimes against women.

There is no one reason for these statistics--it's a cultural problem hardly unique to any one country. And just like in most other parts of the world, the problem hinges on a societal fixation on what a woman should look like and what her traditional duties are.

"On the sub-continent, for girls to be lighter skinned is supposed to be great," Mirza told the BBC's Sportshour a few years ago. "So my aunts, uncles, and cousins were concerned I wouldn't be able to find someone to marry me if I got dark. That's the kind of culture there is over there.

"There's a norm in India of what a woman should and shouldn't do. That's one of the reasons we don't have as many professional women athletes at the highest levels, especially in global sports like tennis and golf, where you really have to get out there, travel the world, and sacrifice a lot of other things."

Mirza isn't the only famous female athlete in India--boxer MC Mary Kom and badminton superstar Saina Nehwal also share spots on the Forbes India Celebrity 100--but female athletes are still far from the norm. Besides leading by example, and publicly encouraging women to pursue athletics, Mirza now has her own tennis academy where she hopes to foster many successors to the Indian tennis throne.

But while she can make an impact with the academy, and an even bigger one by continuing to reach new heights in her thriving tennis career, nothing will make as big of a difference as Mirza's vocal and unrelenting refusal to accept the status quo.

"Gender equality is something we all advocate," she said when she was named the UN Ambassador. "Some speak about it, some don't. I have chosen to speak about it. I hope one day everyone will say that we are equal and women are not treated as objects. I will try and do everything I can to bring about a change."