When you’re 14 and watch a film like Chak De, India!, your mind, amply conditioned, but devoid of baggage, takes home more from it than the filmmakers intended. It helps you connect the dots and learn that the life of a woman is a constant tussle between fighting for your rights and fighting for your dignity, on and off the court, inside and outside the office, and within and without the confines of a home. That direct match against the boys to fight for equality—on what wasn’t a level-playing field, given how the boys got the patriarchal privilege of more resources dedicated to their honing and training—was as symbolic to real life as it was true in the literal sense.
Despite Nike’s recent campaign, featuring leading sportswomen of this country, that should have the ‘da da ding’ going off loud and clear that the women have arrived and are waiting to be let in, very little has changed on the ground or in the field. The sexist coverage of women achievers at Rio - even as they pulled some absolutely incredible stunts, broke records, enthralled and entertained all the same - was a not-so-gentle reminder that women have been and will always be treated as second-class citizens in sports. Here is a history of women's sport, in sexist digs, discrimination and denial of their due:
This is a worldwide phenomenon. It started way before Lisa Olson, among the first school of sportswriters, got locker-room access the football team censored little in their words and bodies, as a rude gesture to let her know that she didn’t belong. Olson said she felt “mind-raped.” This came to be dubbed as the curse of the female sportswriter.
When the England Lionesses—as the England women'snational football team is referred to—lifted the FIFA cup, the country’s football association couldn’t help but reference the unsettling reminder that these Lionesses are going to be tamed seconds from then, as they retreat to their kitchen and their jerseys turn into aprons, in a tweet worded: “Our lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title - heroes”
Chelsea’s physiotherapist Eva Carneiro, who served the team between 2009 and 2015, was literally booed out of the stadium, her bastion and her job when she was subjected to aggressive sexist chants by Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United supporters in the 2014–15 season.
Chris Gayle’s liberal usage of innuendos have largely been criticised and described as 'uninventive', 'unimpressive', 'unfunny' and 'uncalled for'. He has put several female reporters on the spot, while propositioning them – often using not-so-subtle references about what he would like to do to them on international live television, and has even been fined for it on one occasion –when he just couldn’t keep his “very, very big bat, the biggest in the wooooorld,” in his pants. “You think you could lift it? You’d need two hands,” he asked journalist Charlotte Edwardes prudishly, before inquiring how many black men she has “had”, and whether she has ever had a “t’eesome”. He goes to the extent of asking her if she dyes her hair, as his gaze fell downwards.
Safe to say that Women’s Tennis Association has fought more matches off court, than on it. Chak De’s battle of the sexes was the reality for Billie Jean King, way back in 1973, when Bobby Riggs, the top ranked player in the 1940s opined that the female game was inferior and that even at his current age of 55, he’d beat any of the top female players. King took him up on his offer and led him to the humiliating fate he had sealed for himself, with a crushing victory. But even that milestone match didn’t help women’s tennis inch closer to the larger victory in getting equal recognition and reward as men. Venus Williams, a classic underdog, fought the inherent classicism, racism and sexism of the tennis viewing and organising population to become a champion in all senses – for black rights, women’s rights and equal pay, as she carried the onslaught for getting equal prize money on her shoulders. It took her eight years, and history, eighty, to finally close the gap and compensate women equally in 2006.
Her sister, Serena Williams, reigning queen of tennis, being among the players with the highest number of titles held in history, had grappled with similar treatment and discrimination. As an impressionable teenager, she was tasked with concentrating on her game even as a largely white and bigoted crowd yelled slurs like "if it was '75, we'd skin you alive".
Cut now, to 14 years later, when Serena still has to exasperatedly retort to ignorant comments, like the one made by Raymond Moore, former tennis great and CEO of Indian Wells:"In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the (Women's Tennis Association) because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.’
A poised Serena retorted with some official facts: “the women's final of last year's US Open sold out faster than the men's, extinguishes doubt about the stature of women in tennis.”
This year, when Serena Williams, played in the white costume mandated by Wimbledon, people couldn’t help but focus on the fact that she has nipples and they show, rather than the fact that she has oodles of talent and that was on display too. Former Bollywood actor Twinkle Khanna comically pointed out the irony in her coloumn on DNA – “I’m looking for Leander Paes’ nipples on the internet.”
When the US team won the Women's World Cup in soccer last year, fans of both genders came out in support, but the men wanting to sport the star-spangled jerseys found that they were not available in men's sizes – and were only launched after vehement protests. In another corner of the sporting universe basketball star, WNBA player Elena Delle Donne, was named NBA player of the year and shook up all records –and yet, a Twitter user hissed that she should "go back to the kitchen." The ESPN March Madness bracket smartphone app (ESPN Tournament Challenge) doesn't track the women's tournament, although its numbers in viewership and engagement are promising.
In the year 2005, a girl made it to the junior quarter finals of the world’s most prestigious tournament, and she was seen as the mascot for the tornado her wins had the potential to bring, in the way women’s sports were treated and touted in the country . The opposition and scepticism to very idea of a woman shining on an international stage manifested in the form of scrutiny of her every move. With every congratulatory message came a taunt that she was overreaching. Her outfits for starters—mostly athletic gear like skirts and jerseys, which were the international norm for tennis players—came under fire for not being cohesive to the conventionally modest Muslim attire. “Every word I speak, every skirt I wear is discussed and analysed… Wherever I go, people look at me. That’s why these days I prefer to stay at home. I have to learn to live with all this. It is quite disturbing that my dress has become the subject of controversy; I don’t want to say anything on this,” a young Sania had said.
When she was chosen as new state Telangana’s brand ambassador, an Indian politician was only too quick to alienate her altogether and write her off as anti-national and Pakistani, because she married Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Akhtar. Had a male athlete married a Pakistani woman, his patriotism would never be questioned, and neither would the doubt arise about whether he has changed his allegiance.
Our women in blue are a formidable front. The ship is captained by Mithali Raj,who is amongst the top four in the world and has excelled at many an international tournaments, including making the world cup finals in 2005. To capitalise on the popularity of the sport, Cricket Australia organised the WBBL in 2015, as the female counterpart to the already existing men's tournament, and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) also followed suite, rolling out the Women's Super League, due to kickstart in July 2016. Not only does India have no such plans to promote women’s cricket in a cricket-worshipping country (especially taking a cue from the success of the IPL), but the Indian girls were also made to snub with WBBL last year, owing to “lack of preparedness,” but also lack of budgetary allocations, safe to assume. This policy was altered as recently as two months ago, when the BCCI finally decided to allow the women to participate in international tournaments of the T20 format. In another instance of exploitation, a BCCI official is embroiled in a controversy for allegedly sexually harassing a female cricketer.
The IPl, often touted as the most glamourous cricketing tournament, is alas, only glamourous to the male gaze, and the way it plays out is to largely please the male consumer. Anjali Doshi penned an article about 'The strategy (of the IPL) to choose women who know absolutely nothing about cricket, dress them up in skimpy clothes and get them to ask foolish questions on television.' While the hosts, Karishma Kotak, Rochelle Maria Rao, Shibani Dandekar are not to be blamed at all as they simply accepted a lucrative offer that would be great for their careers, the thought process of the bosses back at IPL and Set Max in hiring these women, is the real problem. The hires were made for all the wrong reasons, and simply put - using women as eye candy, in the form of attractive hosts, cheerleaders with the camera mimicking the male gaze and panning up and down their bodies, to attract viewers is thoroughly sexist and propagates the stereotype that women are second-class citizens in this ‘gentleman’s game.’ “The focus is on fun and entertainment and not on serious cricket,” Neeraj Vyas, Business Head, Max, revealed, surprisingly without any scruples. “The girls are not chosen for their knowledge of cricket.”The women, in turn, faced the music on social media – trolled about their assets being put to use to land themselves a juicy gig. Mandira Bedi’s recruitment way back in 2003 is symptomatic of this half-hearted move to be more ‘gender inclusive.’ While she held her own with flair, her knowledge fell shy of competing with that of the likes of Sidhu and Gavaskar. Due to no fault of her own, she became a symbol of ‘tokenism’ in cricket- when the truth is that women are very well capable of earning their spots in front of the commentator’s mic. Isa Guha, former Indo-Brit cricketer, once the top ranked bowler in ODIs, is changing that notion one match at a time, as of 2013.
A ruling by the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) made skirts mandatory for female players, blatantly admitting that the move is to draw more people to watch matches when a Saina Nehwal or Jwala Gutta or an Ashwini Ponnappa plays. Once again, a stupendously talented woman cannot count on her talent, grace with the racket, and the sheer pleasure she induces in being watched performing her master strokes, to be popular. She has to resort to superficial and frivolous gimmicks to be noticed. Saina’s father, Harvir Singh, shared, “She was totally confused after the ruling was announced! Saina is used to wearing shorts and pants not just on court, but also at home. She spent the day looking for her old skirts, trying them on and looking into the mirror to see how she looked. I am sure the BWF has a reason for introducing such a rule, but I still feel they should have kept it optional.”
Cricketer Mitali Raj spoke out in protest, too. “This rule does expose the dark side of society we live in. It sends out a wrong message that women are still looked upon as objects of pleasure more than anything else. If the BWF is openly saying that female players have to wear skirts to add glamour, thereby inviting more people to the stadium, it clearly hints that people are invited not to just watch the match but see players in short skirts. Allow the players to make their individual style statement, just like a Serena Williams or a Maria Sharapova or Anna Kournikova. That way they could be able to wear what they want and create their own individuality in terms of style.”
Not only are women players compelled to wear something they may not be comfortable playing in, but the men aren’t made to stick to a dress code, or objectified, while gunning for numbers.
The boxing authorities saw merit in this strategy and decided to apply it to the sport of boxing as well. India’s poster child for the sport, Mary Kom, spoke out in strong disagreement, opining that this move is clearly sexist, partial, and used as bait to attract crowd for all the wrong reasons. “This is being done to differentiate between men and women boxers and create individuality. I, however, think that girls should not be forced to wear skirts, at least not when they are playing in India because we belong to a different culture altogether. They can perhaps wear them when they are playing outside India. Also if skirts are being made mandatory just so as to draw people to the stadium, then the idea in itself is wrong because it does hint at telling people that the match is not important but that the player is wearing a short skirt is more important. And this isn’t right,” she had said, in opposition.
Santhi Soundarajan, a Dalit woman, was hoping to use sport as her ladderto climb out of her circumstances. She diligently saw through the part of the arrangement she could control – she ran for her life, broke national records and won hundreds of medals. At 25, she won the silver at Doha.But her fifteen minutes of fame ended sooner than planned, when she was made to take a gender test, which she failed, because of a condition called hyperandrogenism, causing a hormone imbalance and leading her to test negative in possessing female characteristics. Dutee Chand, another runner and Olympics aspirant, met the same fate when her high level of androgens were said to give her an unfair advantage in competing against other women.
“I am treated as an outcast and am unable to even go out of my house. I feel it is unfair to detriment the quality of people based on chromosomes. It was a very bitter and humiliating experience for me and my family,” she had said, at the time.
Santhi and Dutee contested this unfair verdict together, and fought until the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in their favour last July, and suspended the gender test. Santhi also hopes to regain the silver medal and the Rs 10-lakh prize money that the Central government had withheld from her.
These sportswomen keep at it braving non-support, lack of acknowledgment, deprivation of infrastructure and exposure, grants and training, not to mention a general denial of appreciation. They do it out of their passion for the sport, and the motherland they owe their existence to. As a population, we may not garland them when they arrive upon airports or railway stations, but the least we can do it applaud their efforts.