In a moment that seems to have been scripted by irony itself, the athletes that have brought Olympic glory to India happened to be women.
PV Sindhu beat Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara to reach the finals at the Olympics in Rio and I watched the game crouched over my laptop while simultaneously trying to meet some deadlines at work. I rocked back and forth in my chair, biting my lips and making nervous chatter with my colleague, who kept silencing me because he was just as engrossed in the game. And then pure grit, determination and talent, Sindhu took her place in history. While my colleague automatically let out a celebratory squeal, I barely registered any emotion. I quietly closed my laptop, walked up to the office bathroom, closed the door behind me and then promptly broke down in sobs.
These weren’t happy tears. I was exhausted and angry. I couldn’t shake off one thought that had taken root.
PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik did not win at the Olympics because of India. They won despite it.
The sporting world is generous when it comes to serving sexism to its female athletes (and some male athletes too who don’t conform to gender expectations). Women have to work harder and achieve far more than their male counterparts in order to be taken half as seriously. It’s the truth for women in most spheres of life but in the sporting world, this issue can’t be escaped because sports has always been informed by toxic masculinity. Find this hard to believe? During the course of just this Rio Olympics, world-class athletes have been slut shamed, body shamed , bullied and undermined, all because they happen to be women.
And while this is a global issue and definitely not confined to India alone, thanks to our country flourishing under the perverse tyranny of Brahmanical patriarchy, the problem gets hopped up on steroids. Female athletes not only have to work against gender biases but they also have to face mistreatment over and over again. And then you have athletes like Dutee Chand who are humiliated and choked out of the system.
While thoroughly disheartening, none of this should come as a shock to anyone. After all, in a land where rape culture is normalized, even encouraged (read: Salman Khan), to not be a man can sometimes feel like an unending battle. The Prime Minister of India encourages parents to plant trees when they have daughters claiming that it will help them pay for her wedding, because why bother with securing good education when there is dowry to be paid? Our movies celebrate toxic masculinity and sell a woman’s meekness as a virtue. Success is measured in marriages and children (mind you, those kids ought to be male!). We are told to not raise our voices, we are mocked for questioning the status quo and we are punished for trying to claim agency of our own bodies. We are expected to be good enough so as to fulfil our rightful duties of being non-threatening side-kicks to the men; men who are expected to be authors and inheritors of our legacy.
And therefore, it is miraculous and worthy of celebration that in this past week, two glorious chapters in our history were written solely by PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik on their own merit. Two women who emerged singular, individual and victorious. Their sweat glistening like armor. Warriors. Queens.
But that’s not where their stories begin.
Sakshi Malik’s chapter begins in Haryana. Part of the reason why she took to wrestling is because she simply wanted to go to Games and ride an aeroplane. In Haryana, the male literacy rate is 85.38 percent and the female literacy at 66.77 percent. In Haryana, for every 1,000 man, there are 879 women.
PV Sindhu chapter starts in Andhra Pradesh. Born to parents who are both athletes (her father being an Arjuna awardee), sporting greatness was always waiting for her to be claimed. In Andhra Pradesh, for every 1,000 men, there are 993 women. In Andhra Pradesh, the male literacy at 75.56 percent and female literacy at 59.74 percent.
I watched part of their stories and legacies unfold while weeping in a sterile bathroom in Karnataka. In Karnataka, the female literacy rate is 68.08 percent and the male literacy rate is 82.47 percent. In Karnataka, for every 1,000 men, there are 973 women. And inside that IT company where women are considerably outnumbered by men, I wept for Dipa Karmakar, who put her own life in the line in order to bring home a medal she so desperately wanted. I wept for Dipika Pallikal, a squash player whose relentless fight for equal pay ultimately ended in victory recently, after years of mockery and struggle. I wept for Ritu Rani, who successfully led the first Indian hockey’s team in 36 years to qualify for the Olympics, only to be dropped unceremoniously. I wept for every girl who has been called a burden, a bitch, a slut. I wept for every girl and boy who had been wrested away from their dreams because those dreams didn’t align with what was expected of their gender. And I wept for myself, who as an amateur runner has been slut shamed, body shamed and sexually harassed for daring to step out of my house wearing shorts.
And, in that sterile bathroom as I sat there composing myself, I was suddenly enveloped with hope.
PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik did not win at the Olympics because of India, they won despite it.
And if that doesn’t make you want to step out and smash the hell out of patriarchy while charting your own success story, I don’t know what will.
So, go out there and make some history.
Featured Image Credit: Hindustan Times