Sania Mirza knows what it’s like to be the first. From 2003 to 2013, the women’s tennis star was ranked as the No.1 player in India in both singles and doubles, as well as the Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP) overall highest-ranking female tennis player in Indian history. The 3-time major mixed doubles champion is also the first-ever Indian to surpass $1 million in tennis earnings.
In a storied career of Indian-firsts, however, Mirza’s most honorable “first” distinction could very well be the one she most-recently earned off the tennis court.
On Nov. 25, the United Nations named Mirza the Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia at its International Day to End Violence Against Women. The 28-year-old is the first-ever South Asian woman to be appointed Goodwill Ambassador.
Upon receiving the UN’s distinction, Mirza voiced her desire to fight the epidemic of gender disparity and violence against women in South Asia, while also empowering women to strive for equality.
“My role is a very important battle that I will fight off the tennis court for gender equality,” the 2014 WTA Finals champion said. “Gender equality is what I believe in.”
To Mirza, the problem is cultural, as women are often made to feel like second-rate citizens by their male counterparts.
“To that effect, there is an urgent need to change this mindset,” Mirza said. “Women must be made aware that they are equal to men.”
At the UN event, Mirza also emphasized the need for men and women of all walks of life to get on board with making sports, as well as life, more female friendly in South Asia.
“Equality depends on each and all of us,” said the 2014 mixed doubles US Open champion. “From the government that changes its laws, to the company that advances equal pay and equal opportunity, to the mother and father who teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated equally, to the athletes who demonstrate equality and excellence.”
Likewise, the tennis star urged members of the media to advocate for gender equality, as she acknowledged that their influence on modern South Asian society is considerable and far-reaching.
“Media has the biggest voice; they can and should make a difference,” Mirza stated.
At the UN event, Mirza also opened up about her own struggles as a female athlete in India.
“It is difficult to be Sania Mirza in this country,” admitted the first-ever Indian to crack the World Tennis Association’s top 50 rankings. “I think a lot of controversies that I had faced in my career was because I am woman. Had I been a man, I could have avoided some of the controversies.”
UN Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri touted Mirza’s vast athletic achievements and fervent voice for social issues as reasons for her appointment as the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador.
“She has been a role model to many children, including girls to break barriers and strive for their goals in life and career choices,” Puri said. “She has used the spotlight on her professional success to highlight social issues that are of concern for many Indians.”
With her most-recent distinction, Mirza looks forward to serving as an even louder voice for women’s equality than she was in the past.
“It inspires me to work hard towards a level playing field for women,” Mirza declared. “Gender equality in sports as well as using sports to advocate for gender equality in communities is essential.”
If Mirza’s track record of barrier-breaking feats is any indication of what to expect from her tenure as Goodwill Ambassador, more “firsts” are surely on the way for women in the movement towards gender equality in South Asia.