‘Women’s cricket team’, ‘Women’s World Cup’, ‘Women Hockey team’ as opposed to ‘Indian Cricket team’ (Men’s), ‘Cricket World Cup/Football World Cup’ (Men’s), ‘Indian Hockey Team’ (Men’s) — These are some terms that we all are very familiar with. In sports, much like in most professions, the term “women” comes through as a mandatory usage when referring to women’s events, sports, tournaments, sportspersons, politicians, etc. While the generic usage is reserved for men. It’s never “Men’s IPL” or a “male” politician.
This language used is not just something that is limited to news reports or event hoardings. Rather it has a much larger socio-cultural significance. It stems from a gendered understanding that most of us are conditioned with. This patriarchal thought process looks at women, and in this case women in sports, with an unequal lens. Women in sports are still a rarity in India not because they can’t, but because they still aren’t allowed to.
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Mirabai Chanu — BBC Indian Sportswoman of the Year
On March 28th, 2022, BBC hosted the 3rd edition of ‘BBC Indian Sportswoman of the Year Award’. The awards ceremony was attended by eminent personalities from sports, media, and politics. The event recognised and awarded the Olympians and the Paralympians from Tokyo 2020 as well as acknowledged the efforts and struggles of sportswomen across generations. Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu was awarded the BBC Indian Sportswoman of the Year award 2021. Chanu is the first Indian weightlifter to win a silver medal at an Olympic Games when she finished second in the 49kg category in Tokyo. The BBC Emerging Player award was presented to 18-year-old cricketer Shafali Verma, who is currently playing at the World Cup in New Zealand. The BBC also awarded Karnam Malleswari, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal (bronze in weightlifting at the 2000 Games in Sydney) with the BBC Lifetime Achievement award. The Indian Men’s and Women’s Hockey team, Paralympic champions Avani Lekhara and Palak Kohli, Olympic boxer Lovlina Borgohain, and veteran Indian long-jump champion Anju Bobby George were also felicitated.
While this initiative to honour women in sports and their struggles is surely commendable and is a significant step in the right direction, one must also look at the entire sports ecosystem critically to analyse why more needs to be done.
Lack of Support
One of the key factors here is the lack of support that is extended to women who want to enter sports. The patriarchal Indian society perceives women as passive participants in society. It is the same mindset that believes and propagates that women’s place is within the house and not outside. For women in sports, the first barrier they face is this, before they could access the resources and opportunities that are more easily available to men.
Talking about this to Feminism In India, Indian Hockey team goalkeeper Savita Punia says that while the journey to this stage, where now women are being pushed forward to take up sports and hockey, in particular, is heart-warming, the road to reach here hasn’t been easy. “As a team, we had it in our head that in Tokyo Olympics we are not just going to participate, but win. Usually, when it comes to women, society has a lax attitude and often says that even participation is enough. We wanted to break that myth,” adds Savita. She says that they had nothing to lose and that they will give their 100% and be true to their struggle and their game. Savita also envisages of a future where parents do not differentiate between their children on the virtue of their gender when it comes to pushing them to take up a sport they like. An optimistic Savita added that if we come to a point in our society where women are given the same freedom as men, they can reach greater heights.
Reflecting on the societal barriers that women continue to face, boxer and Olympian Lovlina Borgohain said that women really have to struggle to take up sports. Lovlina says that when she started learning martial arts very young in life, she had to face a lot of backlash. “People used to tell me, ‘You are a girl, what will you do in boxing?’ You won’t be able to achieve anything. But my mother always pushed me and she never compared me to the men around me. She always told me that I am one step ahead of all the men, and that is the reason that I am where I am,” Lovlina added.
While states like Odisha have stepped up to provide support to athletes, at the grassroots there is still a lot of work that is left to be done. Recognition only comes when there is a number next to the medal tally of the athlete, and the initial struggle in terms of resources, be it material, financial as well as emotional is most often borne by them and them alone. When it comes to Paralympians and athletes with disabilities, the fight against the system is twice as hard, as they face marginalisation not just based on their gender but also because of the deep-rooted able-bodied approach that society has to everything.
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Generalisation of Needs
Their needs are generalised and their requirements with respect to the challenges they face are not considered. Talking about this, India’s youngest para-badminton player Palak Kohli says that even though her disability does not define her, it is the first thing that people notice, and then comes the sympathy. “My disability is not something I want pity for. It is something that is unique and different and makes me stand apart from the crowd. People with disability are 15% of the entire population of the world. The resources that we require are different from what other Olympians do, and challenges are compounded,” she adds. The government and sports authorities have failed to provide them with these resources, says Palak.
She also added that while it is true that people have become more aware about para-sports in the past couple of years, there’s still a long way to go for para-athletes to receive the support that they need. “We need more people, more states to come and support our game, as the support system and the ecosystem required for our training is higher, and more customisations are required, as compared to able-bodied athletes. The costs for all these are higher and I haven’t seen much support from the government unless there is a number next to your medal tally. I have spent my own money in training and continue to make my own way, but I am hoping that this mindset changes and the necessary support comes through,” Palak concluded.
Tokyo Paralympic gold medallist and Padma Shri awardee Shooter Avani Lekhara says that she is happy that her gold medal in Tokyo broke a lot of barriers not just for women but for para-athletes. “I am happy that my gold medal has dented the patriarchal barrier and broken this myth to show that Indian women can also win gold in Paralympics,” she said. Avani also spoke about sports and its role in shaping one’s self-image, adding that the world of sports provides a dynamic platform to also send out many social messages. Avani says, “Sports can not only change people’s perception of you but your own perception of yourself and your body and what you can achieve.“
Paving Way For Future Generation Of Athletes
Athletes, over the years, have faced discrimination and struggled to not only break free and shine but also help others after them. One of them is India’s weightlifting icon and the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics in 2000, Karnam Malleswari. She was also the first Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal. Her win and her struggle epitomised the roadblocks that women have had to face in sports for the bare minimum. She is currently the vice-chancellor of Delhi Sports University, established by the state government. Reflecting on her struggle in the last century and the accessibility for women in sports, Malleswari says that when she entered the world of sports 35 years ago, it was something unheard of for a woman. Sports wasn’t seen as a “woman’s cup of tea”. She says that even now this mindset persists, despite all the progress that society has made.
“While 35 years seems like a long time and many things have changed in the sports ecosystem, like having access to funds, sports medicine, sports doctors, the mindset that women can’t do it is yet to be completely eradicated. The Indian women are the ones who are getting all the medals and all the accolades, so the barrier is breaking everyday bit by bit,” she says. Malleswari adds that one of the biggest blocks that athletes, especially women, face in India is access to resources and infrastructure at the grassroots level, particularly in the rural areas. “We can get 100 athletes if we give them proper access, but we end up getting 1-2. So that’s where I want to work in to make things better, to provide proper coaching and training for the athletes coming from marginalised backgrounds,” she says.
Veteran athlete Anju Bobby George says that in the late 90s and early 2000 when she was playing, it used to be a one-person show. The athletes had to invest in themselves, do their own training, and participate in the games. “While times have changed and there have been changes in the system, we still have a long way to go. Veteran athletes like myself and Karnam Malleswari want to provide support to younger athletes, the support that we lacked in our time. We want to create an ecosystem that the young women who decide to take up sports, can rely on to learn and grow,” Anju concludes.
Willing To Invest In Sportwomen?
It’s 2022, and despite several technological, economic, social, digital progress we continue to harbour sexist beliefs that are detrimental to the extent of sportwomen not getting the resources they deserve. This idea that women in sports cannot exist solely on their own talent continues to sideline several women. There are fewer people who are willing to invest in women’s sports. One of the biggest examples of that in India is that a billion-dollar league like the IPL has been around and flourishing since 2008, but it is only now that talks of a ‘Women’s’ IPL have entered the foray and that too, is still is in its gestating phase with an approximate date of 2023.
The government and the authorities only recognise athletes when they come back with wins next to their names. Whereas there are countless others who do not get the invites to events, or recognition or felicitation, despite high levels of hard work, commitment and demonstrated prowess. While events celebrating sportswomen are great initiatives to create more awareness around women in sports, a lot of work remains to be done to create an equitable playing ground for all.
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