Ayesha Noor was just 6 years old when she decided to follow her elder brother to a karate class. Just a year earlier, she had been forced to leave school because her teachers were unable to handle her epileptic seizures. She didn't know at the time that, one day, karate would become her refuge and she would go on to train thousands of young girls and women.
At 19, Ayesha is a karate champion, having won two gold medals at national level events and three at the international level.
"The first day when she walked into the class with her brother, I knew she was very brave," her coach M.A. Ali recalled. When he asked a 6-year-old Ayesha why she wanted to learn karate, she promptly replied, "I want to defend myself. I want to be strong."
In a documentary, titled, Girl Connected, that was broadcast on Doordarshan earlier this month, Ayesha's story featured along with four other teenage girls from Kenya, Jordan, Bangladesh and Peru, all of them trying to fight gender discrimination in their own way.
"I become a sherni (tigress) when I teach karate," Ayesha told HuffPost India with conviction in her voice. She has epileptic attacks twice and sometimes, even three times, every month. "But, my disease never comes in the way when I teach karate," she added.
Ayesha was 13 when she lost her father. Her mother works as a tailor, making a meagre income mending clothes. Her brother sells slippers to earn a living. They live in a one-room house
sandwiched between two biryani shops on Mofidul Islam Lane in central Kolkata's Beniapukur locality.
With little money for even basic needs, every day is a struggle for the 19-year-old. "She has not been able to go for so many international events because she fell sick and didn't have the money to buy medicines," her coach, Ali, said.
Ayesha trains every day at the Ramleela ground in Central Kolkata's Entally locality and coaches girls in self-defence on Sunday evenings at a park opposite the Rajabazar Science College.
After winning two golds at national events in 2012, Ayesha was selected for the Thai Pitchai International Youth Karate Championship the next year. She was the only girl in the 12-member Indian team. She struck gold, beating out rivals from 40 different countries. In 2014, she was selected for another international event in France but couldn't make it as she didn't have medicines for her condition. In 2015, she won gold at another international championship in Thailand.
"She doesn't get four meals a day, forget about competing in international events," Ali said. "It's so difficult to arrange for funds even for her medicine."
As karate is not recognised as a sport by the Indian government, it doesn't provide any funds to assist karate practitioners.
"Sometime people gather and and manage to arrange for funds, but most of it goes in buying her medicine," Ali said. "The government should do something about this."
After the brutal 2012 gang-rape in Delhi that horrified the entire country, Ayesha came up with a plan. "When I heard that a girl was raped in Delhi, I decided to teach girls from marginalised sections of the society to defend themselves," she said. "Instead of getting scared, we need to learn to fight."
Every Sunday, Ayesha teaches self-defense to young girls and women. Some of them wear burkas, some come in sarees and many haven't had any formal education. But that doesn't stop them from "learning to fight". "I want them to become Maa Chandi," said Ayesha, referring to the Hindu goddess epitomising Shakti, the cosmic female force that fights evil.
The 19-year-old wants her students to learn self-defense skills from her and, in turn, train more women.
Ayesha plans to appear for her Class 10th examination this year from an open school as she couldn't attend a regular school. "But I keep falling sick. I had an an epilepsy attack yesterday too," she said.
Ayesha's coach says that her disability doesn't come in the picture when she fights. "All my other students are rich," Ali said. "But Ayesha has battled poverty and sickness to become one of the most esteemed karate fighters in India. That is what makes her different."
"She is a real fighter," he added.
The high regard and esteem is mutual. "I want to be like my sir. Want to teach karate to people across the world," Ayesha replied when asked about her future plans.
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