Don’t fight like a girl…
Don’t run like a girl…
Don’t play like a girl…
Some people use the above to chide their teammates at games. Some people use it as insults. And some people simply believe it to be true. But no one has ever thought it to be offensive or insulting, despite having national jewels like PT Usha, Phogat sisters, Sakshi Malik, to name a few.
Recently, an Australian student delegation had visited India on a study tour. I was one of the three panelists invited to speak to them on ‘Women in Sports’. The most glaring question that came out of the discussion was ‘how do we ensure acceptance of women in sports’. While the world of sports is surely opening up for women, it still has a long way to go.
To me, the answer to this question lies with our existing successful sportswomen and their responsibility to lay out a concrete path, enabling other women to follow suit and achieve the desired success.
In India, even today, the focus is largely on academics. Sports is secondary. We are worried our children will keep playing and forget to choose an ‘intellectual’ career in the process!
These days, innumerable avenues have opened up in sports and sports management, giving viable career options. Yet, parents are likelier to allow boys to choose a sport as a profession, but not many girls are encouraged to do so.
There are various social, cultural and a few economic factors for this. In traditional India, we train our daughters to be serious towards life and not play around, because how can anyone accept an athletic bahu (daughter in law) in her marital home? In thinking this, we forget that playing a sport teaches us to be responsible and be team players as well, and may as well stand us in good stead in various areas of our lives.
The biggest aspect here is acceptance. There is a notion, to a large extent true, that women players do not get paid as much as their male counterparts. That their careers dip during pregnancies etc. That the costumes they wear are not appropriate. That swimming causes tanning, and girls always look beautiful when they are fair.
After all, who will marry someone who is dark, wears short skirts and travels to different cities to play?
Subsequent to our panel discussion, I spoke to Mallika Bajaj, who graciously agreed to share her views on women in sports, based on her experiences.
Mallika is a popular figure in Media, Sports and Women Empowerment space. She has represented India in Tennis and later, when she stopped playing due to an unfortunate injury, she continued to be active in sports in other capacities. She anchored a documentary, Tennis – Play & Stay, sponsored by All India Tennis Association and broadcast by International Tennis Federation. She further went on to become the youngest and the only female host/MC for the Davis Cup Asia/Oceania, for over eight years.
She started her own company at the age of 23, The Little Yellow Beetle, and has established it as a well-known digital media company with India’s first 360-degree media solutions digital studio. She has also worked with groups like Hindustan Times, Live Mint (Wall Street Journal), NewsX, BBC, and Australia’s ABC.
Mallika strongly feels that sports is necessary for the overall development of a child. She says that more than anything else, playing a sport builds character. It teaches women how strong they can be physically, keeps them active and away from diseases like osteoporosis. Additionally, the professions sports has to offer are innumerable – athlete, nutritionist, coach, trainer, lawyer, journalist, empire/referee, counsellor. And, they are well paying.
Creating awareness about these things will take us a long way towards encouraging women in sports. However, the fact remains that true acceptance will come only when we think about it at a personal level. We can develop ourselves as a sports nation, have strict laws and equal pays, but unless, at individual level, we let our girls go out and play, the efforts of the nation will not be of much use.
This is where the role of parents become important. Mallika clearly says that you have to begin early. Unless parents of little girls put them in sport, they won’t be accepted within the system when they grow up. We need more parents to break past the stereotypes. If women weren’t accepted, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, the Phogat’s and many more wouldn’t exist. It is harder, for sure, for women athletes to get funding etc, but everything is tough in the beginning. We get there eventually. Where there is a will, there is always a way.
Further, sports need people to give back. Successful women in sports should encourage and train more youngsters, and pave the way for them. We already have some great examples of sportswomen doing their bit. PT Usha runs her own academy. Sania has her own academy with world class facilities. Mary Kom has her own centre of excellence. The Phogat sisters have perhaps made ground breaking contribution by allowing their journey to be filmed, generating widespread acknowledgment of women’s struggle in a male dominated field.
Moreover, we need better infrastructure and other ecosystem like good coaches, safety etc. even at school level. This will encourage more parents to send their girls on tournaments.
True acceptance of women in sports will come when we stop talking about women in sports; when, instead of talking about sportswomen and sportsmen, we talk about sportspersons.
Ms. Nirmala Sitaraman, in an interview, questioned why she was addressed as the female defence minister, rather than the defence minister. Why do we feel the need to specify someone’s gender when talking about a position where gender has absolutely no role to play?
Mallika has a very interesting perspective here. She feels that true equality will be achieved when the world stops using fancy words like feminism, male dominated, etc. as an excuse to distract from the root of the problem. The problem is, women are not coming into sport, because parents have their stereotypical issues. Unless we make our girls play, women in sports would not exist.
She further tells us that we can’t blame the men entirely for not having women around. In her words:
‘More men have supported me, to become this person I am, than women have. Female journalists, more often than not end up putting male athletes onto the sports segment and the women into the gossip/entertainment/fashion segment – when that ends, sportspersons will be seen where they belong – SPORTS NEWS.
The stereotypes exist around the industry – from outside (starting from parents to the industry and policy makers, broadcasters, and news-makers who have never played sport) that underline the differences. These differences do not exist on field.
I often hear people saying men don’t practice with women, but let’s be honest, if my opponent isn’t as strong as me (boy or girl) would I still practice because I need to be gender neutral? Women don’t practice with women unless they are the same level or stronger, isn’t it better for their craft? We’ve all seen Roger and Serena practice with each other, or Sharapova with the Rafael, Paes and Hingis/Navratilova play and compete – if you’re good at what you do, you find your way up and beyond. If you’re not, innumerable excuses will always be handy.
Sport by itself, as a genre, is perhaps the most gender neutral industry – it is the people, perceptions and our priorities that keep us away from it, and gender is becoming an excuse, much like in any other situation, which is only unfair.’