Follow the line of time and you will arrive at a continent marked change.
When the first Olympics were held in 1890, its founder, Pierrre de Coubertin believed the primary role of women should be to crown the victors, not take part in the games themselves. One century and two decades later, the London Olympics saw the highest number of women competing in the Olympics – and they competed in all the 26 sports that were showcased this time. Women constituted almost the number of participants for the first time in Olympic history – considerably greater than the 42 per cent representation achieved at Beijing in 2008. There were other notable developments this time too, like the US including more women and men in its team, and Saudi Arabia breaking its own unstated taboo of not sending women as participants – although commentators have remarked that this was only because of the threat of being banned by the International Olympics Committee, rather than any structural change in gender relations in that country.
So where does India figure on the line of time? India has the distinction of being the first country in Asia to send women to the Olympics: Four women athletes were part of the national squad at the Helsinki 1952 Olympics, which lingers in national memory not because of their participation but the fact that India won its fifth consecutive gold for hockey in those Games. It took another 32 years for an Indian woman to reach the Olympic finals, with P.T. Usha missing the bronze by a whisker in the 400 m hurdles in 1984. Finally, 16 years later, Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to actually land a medal – a bronze in the 69 kg weightlifting segment in Sydney 2000. Today, 12 years on, in London, we have two Indian women – Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom – winning bronzes.
The 30th edition of the Games proved particularly special for India in terms of gender participation. Comprising just a fourth of the squad, women accounted for a third of the medals the country won, thanks to the great victories notched by Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom. And even those women who didn’t come home with the coveted metal disks had extraordinary achievements to their name. There was Tintu Luka, daughter of a mason, running shoulder to shoulder with the big guns of the world. Floods had forced her mother and sister to leave their home in the village of Valamthode-Karikottakari, near Kannur, Kerala. They had to watch her run on television while in a relief camp. Or take Geeta Phogat coming from Haryana, the state with the most unequal sex ratio in the country, and making it to the freestyle wrestling finals in the 55 kg category. Krishna Poonia joined the select band of six Indians who have made it to the final Olympic round in the track and field events – the third woman, after P.T. Usha and Anju Bobby George, to have done so.
All the media superlatives that were showered like confetti on Nehwal and Kom – including an ad for a brand of butter that had the legend “Hum kisise Kom nahi” – could not capture their most notable achievement: To succeed in an arena where there are no expectations of sportswomen. It was only after they have hung on long enough in a scenario that was far from encouraging, if not downright obstructive, did they catch the eye of the authorities and coaches prepared to take them to the next level.
There are many young women in India who had tried to hang on like them but have fallen by the wayside for various reasons, whether it is institutionalised gender bias, sexual harassment, notions of family honour or just plain apathy. When Sania Mirza complained that she is being used as a bait to get Leander Paes to play in the Olympics after his standoff with Mahesh Bhupathi, she was making a tangential reference to the structured gender biases that marks sports administration in the country. Jwala Gutta, badminton champion, has remarked that gender discrimination is one of Indian sports worst kept secrets. When it comes to sexual assault that sportswomen have faced, there are innumerable examples that can be cited, but who can forget Chandigarh’s bright faced Ruchika Girhotra, a budding tennis star? Her complaint of being sexually molested by the head of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association, Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore, led to systematic and unrelenting harassment meted out to both the teenager and her family, which finally led to her committing suicide.
Sports is all about the body, which is what makes sportswomen particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. Fighting back is tough, given the socialisation that marks female as the inferior gender very early in women’s lives. That is why British woman clean-and-jerk weightlifter Zoe Smith, delighted so many – and not just those watching her lift weights. When bombarded with sexist comments on her Twitter account, calling her unattractive and muscular, she hit back with this blog:
“[We] don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.
Oh but wait, you aren’t. This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren’t closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?! We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.”
Zoe Smith should be the “pin-up girl” for Indian sportswomen, as they negotiate their way through a playing field that is often a minefield.