It was from the most unlikely of beginnings that the 22-year-old Mabia Aktar became a sporting star and symbol of female empowerment in her home country of Bangladesh for her success in weightlifting.
Growing up in rural Khilgaon, her family faced financial hardship. Aktar was forced to stop going to school and struggled to eat the nutrition she needed to be able to train. Now she is a double gold medallist in the South Asian games, and this week she competed in her first Commonwealth Games as her country’s flagbearer.
Aktar exceeded expectations by coming eighth in the 64kg category, matching her national record with a total of 181kg. Before her success, female participation in weightlifting in majority-Muslim Bangladesh was largely unheard of and she often faced criticism and discrimination for taking part.
“I’m trying to perform in a way so that others females can come forward and join weightlifting or other sports. I want to see others coming up and sharing the same platform as me,” she said.
“I don’t feel gender is much of an issue for me any more, I get equal support from the authorities. It’s just about delivering the best results possible.”
In recent years she has been able to rely on the support of Bangladesh’s government. The country has been led by female prime ministers for most of the past 30 years, and under the current leader Sheikh Hasina its annual gross domestic product has tripled since 2009.
During that time the opportunities for women to participate in sport has increased rapidly. Bangladesh women’s cricket team is now ranked one of the best in the world, and are Asia Cup champions. Of the 31 athletes who attended the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this week, 11 were women.
“The Bangladesh government is facilitating women in sport and making us feel empowered,” Aktar said. “This extra interest in women coming forward means we’re now working hand-in-hand with the gents.”
Born in Madaripur, Aktar was introduced to weightlifting through her uncle at a young age. With all the challenges she faced in being able to train, she attributes her success to the support of her family. She hopes that the support for female sport by the Bangladeshi government means other female athletes will not have to overcome the same hurdles she faced.
“I want to see more girls will come forward to do weightlifting, and one day I want to see athletes from Bangladesh get a chance to compete at the Olympics and win some medals,” she said.