Sunday, July 08, 2012

Thank you, Sania

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 8, 2012

Sania Mirza. Photo: PTI
The Hindu Sania Mirza. Photo: PTI

When Sania spoke up, everyone reacted. Sania Mirza did not mince words. She was polite. But she told the All India Tennis Association (AITA) that this was no way to treat “an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century”. She said she found it “disillusioning” and “humiliating” that she was “put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis”. She ended by stating, “This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country.”

Many applauded Sania for speaking out. Others insisted she had gone overboard by invoking “Indian womanhood” in a battle that was essentially of egos and the system that governs a national sport. But whether one likes Sania Mirza as an individual, or a player, or one agrees or disagrees with her statement, there is no doubt that she has forced open a subject that must be discussed — sexism and gender discrimination in sport.

Of course, it is easier for someone like Sania Mirza, who plays an individual sport like tennis, to speak out than many other women in sports. She does not depend on state patronage. She has now played enough grand slams and won to be able to hold her own.

In contrast, a woman hockey player, for instance, would find it impossible to go public with a grievance. Hockey is almost totally dependent on state patronage and the girls who play hockey for India are hardly ever in the limelight except fleetingly, when they do well in an international tournament. The rest of the time we have no idea about their training facilities, how much they are paid and whether they experience discrimination at various levels through the year. We will never know because they would be afraid to speak out and the media is mostly indifferent.

With Olympics on the horizon, we do know now that at least some of our medal hopes for India are women — the redoubtable boxer Mary Kom, or the world’s number one woman archer, 18-year-old Deepika Kumari, or even the low-key badminton champion Saina Nehwal. But the path of women to the Olympics worldwide has not been an easy one.

Astonishing progress

According to a United Nations report on women and sports (Women, Gender Equality and Sport, December 2007), in the first modern Olympics held in Paris in 1900, only 19 women competed in just three events — tennis, golf and croquet. By 2004, during the Athens Olympics, women participated in 26 out of 28 sports and comprised 40.7 per cent of the total athletes.

This progress in numbers and the variety of sports is not accidental. It is the result of a concerted effort to break stereotypes about the sports that women can and cannot play, about ensuring that facilities and opportunities are available for women to progress in these sports and to expose and fight against discrimination and sexual harassment that restricts women’s chances of succeeding in sports.
In fact, the current Olympic charter, adopted in 2004, includes this significant statement: “encourage and support promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women”.

Yet, despite this, women face very real hurdles to get ahead. Some of them are physical. In many countries, the facilities that will allow women to train in a sport simply do not exist. If they do, they are restricted and often out of reach for those without money or backing.

There are social constraints. Many societies continue to regard most games and sports as “unfeminine” or not suitable for girls and women. As a result, it is virtually impossible for a young girl growing up under such constraints to attempt to succeed in a sport. Until quite recently, women were considered too weak for endurance sports such as the marathon, or weight lifting or cycling. Such sports were actually deemed harmful to them. Yet, women have successfully broken through this stereotype. In India, it has been fascinating to watch women who are excelling in precisely some of these sports — boxing, wrestling and weight-lifting.

There are economic constraints. Poverty automatically excludes a large section of the population. Only the lucky few, who perhaps manage to go to a school that encourages sport, or are backed by a patron or a non-governmental organisation, can come through. We simply have no idea how many potential sportswomen, or sportsmen, there are in a country like ours where poor children are denied basic education leave alone physical education.

And after all this, even if some women come through, they have to fight against gender discrimination — with the sport in which they participate being given secondary status — as also sexual harassment. A research study conducted for the Norwegian Olympic Committee between 1995-2000 found that 28 per cent of women athletes reported sexual harassment “in the sporting context”, which means from other athletes, coaches, managers or spectators. The percentages were much higher in other countries.

Women playing sports like tennis have had to fight for equal prize money and have finally got it for the major fixtures in tennis. But in many other sports, they continue to argue for parity.

No one can now dispute the benefits of sports and outdoor activities on health — for men and women. But for women and girls, participating in individual or team sports has another dimension — it increases their self-confidence. This is particularly true in societies where girls are forced into accepting that they are weaker and inferior to men.

So thank you Sania, for speaking up. In your own way you have given a leg up to many other women who feel like you, who suffer worse forms of discrimination, but whose stories are never told or heard.

(To read the original, click here)

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