Fighting Like a Girl in Rape-Plagued Delhi

Sep 18, 2013 at 12:43 PM ET

On a hot Sunday afternoon in New Delhi, in an affluent part of the city known for its shopping malls, Gurleen Kaur found herself squirming on the ground beneath a man who outweighed her by roughly 15 pounds. Beads of sweat dripped down from her loose ponytail as she grimaced and snarled and desperately clung to the man, before fending him off by hooking and twisting his arm, then propelling herself over top of him.

Delhi has long been known as a dangerous place for women. But Kaur, 21, was not defending herself in the street. Instead, she was one of 15 students attending a class at a mixed martial arts (MMA) school called Crosstrain, practicing the limb-breaking art of jujitsu to the sounds of Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” blaring in the background. Kaur enrolled in June and is learning how to protect herself from sexual assaults in this sprawling capital of roughly 17 million. “MMA makes you so mentally and physically strong,” she says, “that you can hit back in any situation. I really want all girls to do this.”

Increasingly, many are. Kaur is now one of 12 women who train at her school, and mixed martial arts students in Delhi say female enrollment has surged since last year. One reason: The brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus last December. Her story and subsequent death roiled the nation, leading to mass protests. Last week a judge sentenced the four adult culprits to death, but for millions of women, the randomness of the crime meant that it could happen to them.

Now some women have decided to fight back by enrolling in self-defense classes. But instead of opting for traditional martial arts such as karate or taekwondo, a growing number are turning to MMA—a sport with a violent, bloody reputation—that combines kickboxing, wrestling and ground fighting. Although MMA classes have rules—no groin strikes, fish hooking or putting your fingers in any orifice—punching and choking people on the ground are allowed.

And for some women, that’s the appeal: It’s more realistic than simply punching and kicking a bag. The sport’s grittiness, they say, offers them more effective self-defense. “Women are not doing this for namesake,” says Yashpal Singh Kalsi, an MMA trainer in Gurgaon, a satellite city just south of New Delhi. “They want to do it for real. Otherwise, how can they seriously protect [themselves]?”

Five or six years ago, most of those training with Kalsi opted for traditional martial arts; now 300 of his 500 students are learning MMA, and roughly a third of them are women. Shobha Rawat, for instance, signed up for MMA classes this summer after moving back from Bangalore to Gurgaon. The 26-year-old believes that learning karate isn’t enough because it doesn’t teach you how to defend yourself on the ground.

But how can a woman hope of fighting off a much bigger attacker or, as in the recent case, a ruthless group of them? Rawat says trainees often ask their coaches similar questions. “I sometimes think that it’s not possible, especially if more than one persons attacks you,” she says. “But if you have the technique, you can try, instead of just going blank.”

During the past two decades, MMA has grown from a grisly spectacle to one of the fastest growing and watched sports around the world. It’s still in its infancy in India, but television channels are broadcasting professional fights organized by the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s leading global brand.

MMA’s growing popularity has even led some women, who initially began training for self-defense, to take the sport more seriously. Kaur, a college student studying interior design, says she wants to compete for the Mumbai-based Super Fight League, India’s only professional MMA organization, which was created in 2012 and regularly holds televised fights. Kaur says she doesn’t watch regular television on Friday nights because she tunes into MMA fights on the Star Sports channel, or catches a clip almost everyday on YouTube.

Lipika Uniyal, an 18-year-old national karate champion, made her first stride into professional MMA fighting at an SFL match in June. She says she wanted to experience the rising trend for herself. “I got a lot of injuries,” she acknowledges. “But once you’re in the cage your adrenaline is so high. I immediately got hit in the face, but I didn’t feel it.”

Of course, most women who have taken to MMA are preparing to defend themselves in the street, not the cage. And they’re willing to withstand the grueling practice sessions and frequent injuries, all in case they are one day forced to use it on Delhi’s mean streets. As Kaur’s coach, Siddharth Singh, 27, puts it: “We don’t go easy on the girls. This isn’t a gym—it’s a fight club.”