The misogyny in college debating societies

Newslaundry’s survey of female participation and success rates in college debating societies uncovers the blatant sexism and discrimination in these circuits.

WrittenBy:Saakhi Chadha
Article image

In a classic characterisation of the activity, debating has for long been a “boy’s game”. It is a circuit where being assertive and competitive is seen as strong and powerful, whereas for the women in the game, these traits can do more harm than good. Debating societies exist in numerous universities and colleges, where male and female debaters host and attend tournaments. These enclosed debating circuits are often seen as spaces championing the cause of gender equality and representation in public spaces, both often recurring themes on the “most debated list”.

In spite of this awareness, sexism within such spaces is little spoken about. But it is not completely invisible.

To understand and uncover this sexism, Newslaundry conducted a survey of 25 debating societies in prominent colleges and universities across the country. The list is not exhaustive because it covered only a sample of colleges, and within them, only the English debating societies. In a process spanning four weeks from April 13, we reached out to the present and the past members of debating circuits to collate a database of women’s representation over three academic years(2015-2018) in three areas:

(1) number of women holding posts within the society;
(2) number of women core-adjudicators (CA). CAs are experienced debaters with enough credentials to make motions and oversee tournaments, often paid by the host society for their work; and
(3) number of women in winning teams of these tournaments.

The results were appallingly sexist and blatantly discriminatory.

To have an estimate of female participation in the activity in the first place, speaker tabs (a comprehensive list of all participants and their individual scores) of 18 tournaments were compiled, and the tabulated result was 36.97%.

Findings from the 25 societies and their host tournaments showed:

  • 26 per cent of tournament winners were women
  • 21 per cent of core adjudicators were women
  • 43 per cent of posts were held by women (a relatively higher percentage because four out of the 25 colleges were women’s colleges)
imageby :
imageby :
imageby :
imageby :

To get a better understanding of female participation, over 20 current and past debaters were interviewed, both men and women. Their experiences and views helped us uncover the causes of the problem and its possible solutions.

Tournament timings

Public spaces continue to be unwelcoming to women, and safety is a concern. One reason for low participation is the timing of various debating tournaments and practices. Most students agreed that events at such inconvenient hours make it difficult for women to get parental permission, and it is even worse for those living in PGs and hostels with curfews.

Several tournaments end at 8 or 9 p.m. My parents were upset when in my first year I had to come back alone from NLUD in Dwarka at 10 in the night. For similar reasons, outstation tournaments are also a problem.” says Ashi Datta, Hindu College, Delhi University.

Biases against women within the circuit

Debating, as an activity, holds all qualities that are typically male in a patriarchal set-up and this is mirrored by the debating circuit. Stereotypes about women show them as emotional and sentimental beings, incapable of having an opinion, and even more incapable of expressing it aggressively. An alumnus of St. Stephen’s College highlighted the problem as the failure to recognise women’s opinions as fact-driven instead of emotionally-driven.

“Right from school and family, public speaking is privileged as an activity for men simply because it forms a part of the ‘public’, whereas women are encouraged and assumed to be better at perhaps art and dance over speaking. Within these societies, there is also hyper-masculinity that privileges certain qualities in debaters. Aggressiveness, both physically and verbally, is appreciated because it shows ‘passion.’” Yash Sharma, from  Ramjas College Delhi University said. 

The visibility of men in public places, and their ownership of these places, has not left the activity of debating untouched.

“Women in patriarchal societies are taught to be non-confrontational growing up, whereas men are encouraged early on to form and express opinions. They’re a lot more confident with articulation and speaking in public. A lot of women (myself included) feel intimidated facing all-male teams even if they’re not rude or mean, simply because you fear their confidence.”

Shweta Venkatesan, National Law University Delhi

It is difficult to disagree with Anirudh Nigam, a student from National Law School of India University, Bangalore, when he says, People’s internal biases mean women speakers need to work twice as hard to be recognised as half as competent.

Instances of objectification

The biases that underlie the attitude for women are often manifested in casual objectification experienced by women within the circuit. Some of these experiences are shared below.

According to Shweta,“Women are often simply looked at as hot or beautiful and their talents are dismissed. I’m also aware of instances of sexual harassment women have faced in the circuit. Some have left debating due to this.”

When speaking to other female debaters, the magnitude of harassment and objectification became starker. Vrinda Sharma from Kirori Mal College said, The circuit is filled with people of both genders that preach equality, but these are also the same people who would make confessions(on facebook pages) about ‘how hot that girl is’.”

Poorna Mujumdar, co-founder of the Indian Women’s Debating Championship (IWDC), quoted instances she had witnessed during her debating career: “I gave her one mark extra because I could see the red strap of her bra and that was hot.”
“Your speech was far clearer and more sensible than your (male) partner’s, but he said stuff with such gusto that it made a lot of impact.”

“Women winning IWDC is so stupid. There’s hardly any competition there. It’s just another committee for women to sit together and whine.”

Many debaters found the way the circuit treats issues of misogyny and sexism problematic. Motions debated upon are often not gender-sensitive, and it’s common for casual sexist remarks to be passed as arguments during the course of a debate. Ashi Datta said,I have at least witnessed four debates where a man has made comments about rape or harassment while completely ignoring the complex nature of these life experiences. These things are shamelessly used as props to win a debate, and I don’t know if these people actually think twice about how layered and difficult these things are.”

Ananya Bhardwaj from Hindu College also brought to light the ‘hypocrisy’ that she feels the circuit displays:

“When we are in a circuit where issues like equality, feminism, and liberalism are debated, you hardly expect these people to come and touch you, or pass sexist comments. This is one circuit that claims to be socially more aware and liberal than other people. When women in the circuit face such treatment, it’s kind of a shock.”

This describes a deep-rooted hypocrisy in the behaviour of students in these societies. While the seven-minute long speeches reek of abstract notions of equality, gender justice and fairness, their behaviour towards women falls short.

Vibhuti Dikshit, an alumna of Kirori Mal College, Delhi University, agreed when she said:

“The more men appear to be woke and socially conscious, the harder it is to call them out, especially if professors join in. However, this is an experience that is not limited to debating. This is something that other forward-thinking spaces like performing arts—particularly the slam poetry culture—are also coming to terms with.”

These results are more shocking because of the context in which they are reflected. Education, awareness, deliberation and critical thinking are considered the most efficient tools to equip people to challenge patriarchy. The circuit doesn’t lack these. Given the degree of misogyny in this circuit, it is safe to assume that sexism isn’t just existent in our country: it is lived, breathed and normalised. The understanding of the deep rooted inequality within the circuit points out to certain possible solutions.

Changes in the institutional set up of debates

Tournaments and mock practices should be held on time and a strict schedule must be followed for women debaters and their parents to be comfortable with their participation. The difference that such changes can make is brought out by Samprathi Gowda from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University:

“My joint convenor pressured the admin to provide for 3rd A.C. ticket reimbursement for participants. With this, we saw a slight increase. We even reimburse every girl who takes part in IWDC and have started implementing all-women intra-university debates. We have made it a rule to have at least one female member in the core adjudicator pool.”

Reservation was perhaps the most common remedy that most students felt could help increase women core adjudicators (CA). But it is a contested policy suggestion. The problem of tokenism is evident. In Yash’s words:

“I’ve been core adjudicator at tournaments where the organisation committee has said we want to have a woman on core, not because of her credentials but because it looks good. This tokenism is equally problematic and this is why you see one woman in a 4-5-member CA group but never a female majority.”

Constitution of equity committees

Tournaments are required to have an equity committee to take disciplinary action against misbehavior by a participant. The functioning, constitution, and efficiency of these committees continue to be questionable.

Dibyojyoti Mainak, National Law School, said that no common community action is taken against perpetrators of sexual harassment:

“We are still at a stage where merely removing someone from core for repeated allegations of sexual harassment invites controversy. Instead, such persons should be brought before an equity committee, a proper process should be conducted, and then (if liable under a preponderance of probability standard), should be blacklisted from debating altogether.”

Not everyone holds the same level of trust in these committees. Vrinda said such instances aren’t always black and white, and equity gives the illusion of a safe space without actually doing much.

Speaking about the inefficiency of these committees, Ananya added, “Their function is not fulfilled until and unless they name and shame the person who is doing it. If you are trying to keep it casual or limited to that person and the committee, nothing is going to happen.”

Aditya Kavia, Institute of Law, Nirma University, has been CA at 18 tournaments. His extensive experience in the circuit has helped him observe issues and suggest changes that perhaps others might miss.

“We don’t have good online resources that can help a parent understand what this activity is like. Unlike Malaysia or other debate countries, prominent debaters are not a household name. A lot can be done in terms of getting eyeballs using the media. Introducing this activity in schools can be of great help, as schools are not only a safe space but also an institute that usually does things on time. Once parents see their kids engage in this activity, it becomes that much easier to continue the activity.”

Speaking particularly on female participation, he suggested: running a tournament where all debates are related to gender, granting slots based on diversity quota and regional woman’s councils, and more initiatives such as the Indian Women’s Debating Championship.

Changing cultural norms

While these changes are largely institutional, Dhwani Nagpal from Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University, emphasised targeting cultural norms and expectations that men and women unquestioningly ascribe to:

“Girls have been conditioned into believing that certain things are more important than other things. Certain conversations are more important than other conversations. These are things they are interested in but don’t pay attention to. They assume it’s not for them. They don’t realise their interest unless they are directed towards it.”

On similar lines, Sharada Srinivasan, CA for IWDC in 2015, said, “Mentoring for women and a lot of encouragement to get them to participate is important. At large regional tournaments, I’ve personally sat down and talked to parents for hours.”

This mentoring could also be provided by college faculty to show their support and to motivate women to take up the activity with zeal and confidence. A forum could also be set up to facilitate the interaction between college students and women debating alumni, to share experiences and bring to light this largely unnoticed problem.

Delhi University debater Mayank Chari pretty much summed up the issue when he said, “a space that champions itself for free speech is anything but that for a woman who wants to say something. If there’s no effort to make it just that, all that eloquence is in vain.”


Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like