“Yashaswini Bhava”: Let’s not leave all sports to Men
– Bhakti Rupika Anand
I know what you are thinking: isn’t that a typo? Shouldn’t it be “Yashaswi” Bhava? We have gotten so used to cheering for men and wishing them victory that we have left our women behind. The journey of women in sports has been marked by remarkable achievements and equally daunting challenges. From the plain ol’ discrimination to gender testing, many of these issues, just like our sportswomen, go unheard. Let’s have a look at how levelled the playing field really is.
For centuries, the primary role of a woman was to tend to the husband and kids, confined within four walls. It was believed that physical activity was detrimental to women’s health and they were discouraged from taking part in sports. Although women playing sports and racing chariots was normal and considered standard before the common era, somewhere in time, the reins were snatched away from them. It would take several centuries to jump the hurdles for women to be able to participate in sports again.
In the 1900 Olympics, 22 women competed alongside men. This encouraged young girls to get more involved and resulted in opening of various sports clubs and athletic programs for women. Since then, we have only seen the number of female athletes and the various sports they participated in increase. In 1952, at the age of just 17, Nilima Ghose wrote history for Indian women by becoming the first Indian female athlete to partake in Olympics.
Our Yashaswinis : famous Indian sportswomen
Nilima was followed by many strong women who became achievers in this male-dominated arena, I’m sure today you can name at least 5 of them at any given time. Although we celebrate PT Usha as the mother of sports in India, cheer for Saina as she smashes shuttles across the court and root for our women’s cricket team in the world cup, we fail to see all the rocks in their way that prevent them from reaching the finish line.
Gender stereotypes are deep rooted within our society and continue to dictate the nature and behaviour of institutions when it comes to women in sports. Rare talents break through these barriers catching the public eye, but many still remain unseen. According to a recent study in India, not only did 42% not find women’s sports “entertaining”, 50% couldn’t even name one sportswoman. The story isn’t much different around the world. Of all the articles published in the sports category in 2011, more than 90% were written by males and more than 85% were about sportsmen and the very few articles that focused on sportswomen, many portrayed them in a sexual, stereotypical and comical light instead of highlighting their achievements. This “representation” of sportswomen in media discourages many from taking part in sports as players and as coaches leading to fewer opportunities in sports as a career.
“Yeh game ladkiyon ke liye nahi hai”, “jyada der bahar rehegi to kali ho jayegi” are some of the ‘taanas’ that girls still have to hear today when they show an interest in sports. And as if the constant putting down by sexist comments wasn’t enough, sportswomen don’t even get paid as much as their male counterparts. In 2022, Lionel Messi earned $130 million standing at the top of the chart while in the women’s category the tennis player Naomi Osaka ranked highest with just $51.1 million: that is a gap of 87%. Across all sports categories, the gender pay gap from 15% to 100% and sometimes even more. This pay disparity discourages women from pursuing careers in sports and sends a message that their efforts are less valuable than those of male athletes.
Sexual harassment and abuse are common headlines in the news, so much so that we’ve started turning a blind eye towards them- especially for sportswomen. Larry Nassar, who is responsible for decades of abuse for more than hundred victims was convicted after almost six years from the first complaint and kept working in the same field as a doctor until he was finally convicted in 2018. Why did this happen only after an olympic gold medalist got involved? Is media coverage a requirement to have authorities notice? The fact that this harassment is also institutionalised in the industry with the practice of gender testing. Since the 1936 summer olympics, female athletes have been subjected to testing for testosterone levels to determine whether they are female or not and in some cases, like that of Dutee Chand, even gender confirmation by body examination. This is not a test that every athlete has to go through though. The players that they think look suspiciously boyish or have consistently good performances that rival their male counterparts are subjected to these rudimentary tests. Not only are these tests humiliating but these tests are still conducted without their knowledge or consent.
“Ladkiyan aage na bade to problem aur aage bad jaayein to zyada problem”. There seems no in-between that the society finds when it comes to women entering in a man’s domain. In the 21st century when men and women are going toe to toe in every field, why should they get left behind in sports? In this ongoing fight for justice and equality for all our fellow sportswomen, let’s work to create a more inclusive and equitable sports world, where they all come out yashaswinis.