India makes quick heroes of sportswomen and then shames them

Rini Barman
Rini BarmanAug 21, 2016 | 09:43

India makes quick heroes of sportswomen and then shames them

The 2016 #RioOlympics will always be spectacular not only because it has taught us some essential life lessons, but also because it has inspired billions of people to rethink the image of the female sportsperson.

In a Savlon ad I watched recently, Sania Nehwal (winner of Bronze in Badminton, 2012 London Olympics) is shown defeating all hurdles as a female player, including the social taboo of "You will never make it".

It is clear that her performance speaks volumes about women who are restricted to go beyond their prescribed limits. Through this clever ad, one is given a glimpse of how social wounds hurt much more than physical wounds, that the former is actually a hindrance to one's happiness and success.

I saw Sakshi Malik teary-eyed at her award ceremony; it brought back memories of social wounds every woman goes through. 

When I saw Sakshi Malik almost teary-eyed at her Rio award ceremony, having won a bronze, it brought back memories of those hurtful social wounds that every woman must go through in India. Not because they pursue sports, but because it is by and large a country ruled by patriarchal ideas that are just "non-malleable".

Over the last few days, there has been a healthy debate about how popular culture coins the language in which an "athletic-sportswoman" is addressed.

It showed us a battleground of opposing ideas, and many sportswomen shared their perspectives on the subject.

The vault of dreams.

Simone Biles, winner of the gold medal for gymnastics for the second time, extraordinarily countered sexist commentary in Olympics by saying "I am not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, I am the first Simone Biles."

In South Korea, at a women's weightlifting championship, a TV announcer said, "It's amazing to see women, not men, do this."

What's worse is his tone reflected admiration and he didn't realise his stupidity.

In another outrageous case, BBC Africa chose to focus on the uniforms of women's volleyball squads and they termed the match "Bikini vs Burqa".

Mind you, the Egyptian women were wearing the Hijab, not a Burqa. But the larger question is: Why the emphasis on clothing?

Similarly, the internet has dubbed 24-year-old synchronised Ukranian swimmer Anna Voloshyna's as an "Olympic sex symbol" after her striptease clip.

It has been mentioned that her accounts have "an excess of saucy pics" which "explains" her fan following.

With regards to her swimming excellence, quirky lines have been constructed- "You can watch her in action from 6pm on Tuesday, August 16."

Back in our country, these events prompt me to notice another important issue when it comes to sports-how quickly we make (and break) heroes of women sportspersons.

It is a trap. When Mary Kom brought home laurels, she was hurriedly painted as this "loyal to the nation" hero, with ads like Tata Salt's "Maine desh ka namak khaya hain".

Most recently, Sania Mirza was asked in an interview if she plans to "settle down" and "have kids", to which she gave a slaying reply: "No matter how many Wimbledons we win or number ones in the world we become, we don't become settled".

The next problem is that once players failed to fit into that "always-a-medal-fetcher" mould, they are trolled and slut-shamed.

The ones who have applauded female winners at Rio 2016 may be the ones to criticise them fiercely if they do not earn a medal in Tokyo 2020.

Many of us have seen how women players at Olympics from India were tagged alongside campaigns for anti-female foeticide, making them role models for social campaigns et al. The danger here is not that we shouldn't celebrate victory, but rather that the lives of women and sportspersons are much more than being reduced to the nation's pride.

Secondly, the process of labelling women sportspersons with #betibachao is the same old bigoted narrative, twisted a bit this time.

If this appears across all public forums, it will also encourage a blood-thirsty competition between the categories of "achievers" and the "losers".

Just as we often associate qualified female home-makers as failures and career-oriented women as "successful equals" of men. And both these notions are problematic.

The dichotomy of success versus failure in everything that one is passionate about (in this case, sports) is a problem.

In lower middle-class homes today, we discuss the "silver girl" Sindhu's success story. Our newspapers tell us "Sizzling Sindhu goes down fighting, settles for silver".

It is a proud moment for our mothers, and they are a bit baffled in the euphoria. From a BMW to Khel Ratna award to lucrative cash, they think her life is "settled". I hear some of them advise their daughters, "Aim like Sindhu if you are to be a player, the Govt. will shower all its gifts on you".

It immediately provokes one to think if times have really changed, if in a region where sports bras and Sania Mirza's skirts may cause scandalous news, can women's struggles in the field of sports be even discussed?

Hopefully, the triumphs of India at Rio will alter the material and social conditions and make them conducive for the training of players, be it male, female or the third sex.

And we will answer this oft-cited question very soon: "Should we look at Sindhu, Dipa and Sakshi as sportspersons and not as female sportspersons?"

Till then, let us not discount the fact that sexism is rampant in the ways we view and construct and shame female sportspersons.

Let the same regional governments who shower finances over a player to become rich overnight, also invest in games and players that are rarely known.

As India celebrates the medallists and crowns them with power and glory, I look ahead in the directions of states like Tripura and Manipur, and their interiors, where many young women are hoping that finally there will be incentives for sports like gymnastics and boxing.

That cutting across all barriers, they too will participate not just in more competitive games like the Olympics, but in the thrilling, and often not rewarding sport that we call life.

Last updated: August 21, 2016 | 15:02
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