Dressed in a full-sleeved black leotard and a hijab secured around her head, Majiziya Bhanu stands with her competitors on stage.
Over the next few minutes, the 23-year-old from Kozhikode aces the women’s category of the Mr Kerala competition organised by the Body Building Association.
Looking at how confidently she handles herself, it comes as a jolt to us when we learn that this is the first time she is taking part in a body-building competition
Majiziya, who is a champion weightlifter, looks surprised when she is judged the winner.
"I did not intent to participate in this at all. I am a powerlifter and had never thought of participating in a body-building competition. One reason was that I will be required to expose my body. So when I came across a Facebook post on the event, I was still sceptical. But my fiancé sent me photos of Muslim women from other countries who participated in body-building competitions wearing a hijab. That's how I decided to participate; it was just an attempt. I did not expect to win the title!" Majiziya laughs.
The hijab-clad powerlifter
This fourth-year student of dentistry has only been training in sports for the past one year.
Although Majiziya took part in athletics and long jump when she was in school, she never actively pursued any sport.
It all changed when she joined a boxing class in her third year of college.
"It had always been my dream to learn boxing, but I never got the opportunity. My family did not object to this desire, but we did not have any training centres in our area, especially for women. Even gyms in my area did not have any provision for training women," she says.
Once she found a boxing class in Vadakara, her instructor there suggested that she was better suited to powerlifting. Soon, she began training in powerlifting.
Just two weeks into her training, she was ready to take part in the Kozhikode District Powerlifting Championship.
"This was an awakening for me ... That there are people like me who have been training for 6 years and have worked towards gradually building their strength. But I guess it is in my blood and that's how I am able to do it," Majiziya says.
In the last year, she aced several competitions, including state- and national-level championships. She also came second in the Asian Powerlifting Championship, lifting 370 kg.
While it had been nearly impossible to find a gym that accommodates women in the past, the situation has now changed for the better, she points out.
"Now, in Kozhikode, they let me train in any gym, since they know me. They know I have reached a certain level and they now accept me. After me, several of my women classmates and neighbours have hit the gym. It has helped make gyms more women-friendly. Earlier, gyms did not entertain women since they felt it was too much of a hassle," she says.
From the very beginning, Majiziya was particular that she would not compete without wearing a hijab and, fortunately for her, rules and guidelines did not come in the way.
However, Majiziya feels that a majority of the people and community members, who now support her, wouldn't have done so if she had, at any point, decided to shed her hijab.
"Now, they don't have anything to oppose. We Muslim women have to fear society in a way. It is because I am wearing a hijab that nobody seems to have a problem. Otherwise I am sure, I would lose at least 75% of the support I now receive," she says.
(All photographs from Facebook)