While mainstream media continues to focus on games politicians play, this column will focus on the games women play, as in cricket, tennis, football, hockey, athletics, etc., and how the media covers their struggles and achievements.
International Women’s Day (IWD) has just gone by and women in India are being praised, their successes celebrated even as they continue to be targeted for consumer goods, or continue to suffer ‘mansplaining’ as erudite ‘experts’, usually all men, hold forth on what should be done to promote women’s equality. All of this has become an annual and rather predictable ritual.
But even this ritualistic acknowledgement of one day for women was not the norm earlier. In fact, I can recall in the mid-eighties, when I worked for a national daily newspaper, trying to persuade my editor to carry an editorial to mark the day. This was a time when Indian women’s groups were on the streets demanding changes in laws that affected women such as rape and dowry. To his credit, the editor did agree that the day was worthy of an editorial comment.
Now, although IWD is readily acknowledged, for the rest of the year, it would appear that no day is women’s day as the majority of Indian women continue to fight against misogyny, sexual harassment at the workplace, violence in their homes and on the street, unequal pay, low employment, poverty and much more.
Yet, some things are changing, slowly. One cannot help but notice the sudden spurt in coverage of women in sports in the print media. Has the media suddenly woken up to the fact that these women also deserve attention? More likely, however, the attention is a consequence of big money finally backing some women’s sports, such as cricket.
There’s little doubt that the Women’s Premier League has catapulted women’s cricket to the top of the sports pages. Women have been playing cricket for a while, and doing well. But rarely did they get the kind of media attention they are getting today.
Before the WPL, the U-19 Women’s cricket team won the World Cup. The Indian Express wrote about their victory in their lead story on the sports page with an unfortunate headline.
“First Ladies”. Ladies? Really? These are determined and plucky women who have fought to play a sport they love and excelled in it. “Ladies” is hardly the appropriate way to describe them.
Fortunately, the rest of the page told a different story as reports about individual players revealed that most of these women came from so-called “humble beginnings” (a cliché that has been bleached of all meaning). Not only did they struggle to find financial resources to train but they also had to fight the embedded misogyny in Indian society that holds back young girls from pursuing their dreams such as recounted in this story about bowling all-rounder .
Archana’s story exemplifies in many ways the story of women’s sports in India today. Unlike individual sports like tennis or badminton, team sports like hockey, football, and cricket as well as athletics attract women from less-privileged backgrounds. Each story you hear after they succeed speaks of their struggle to first overcome familial opposition, then convince a sports association to give them a chance.
In this important story on women’s sports, Shivani Naik of , writes about the results of a recent survey of women in sports. It revealed that sports women had to overcome “poor access to sports facilities, no equipment to play, having to travel more than 10 km to reach the facility, safety concerns, lack of preferred female coaches, unsafe travelling to tournaments and discrimination in sport”. Apart from this was the perennial issue of lack of toilets and even safe drinking water.
In Bihar, women athletes who chose to wear shorts while training as they were more comfortable rather than salwars had to contend with men who “would surround the group and stare, which could get intimidating”.
These are stories that need to be excavated and reported by the media. They are a necessary reality check on women’s sports in India. While the individual stories of the women who succeed are important, as they play a role in encouraging other women who dream of making a career in sports, the difficult conditions sportswomen face once they have taken the first steps, also need to be highlighted.
Apart from this, there is also a darker story about women’s sports that emerges occasionally, and then disappears.
This year, the sensational accusations made by leading against the head of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, once again forced open the hidden world of sexual harassment in sports. There have been reported over the years. Some of them have received passing attention from the media but not enough to compel those in authority to act. This time, the women wrestlers who are speaking out will not be silenced.
That these young women who come away from their homes for training in various sporting facilities are vulnerable goes without saying. As this editorial in points out: “Young female athletes, often coming from an underprivileged background and staying at a sports training centre far away from home, stay silent as sports federation officials and coaches possess complete authority over their career and future. In team events, this can lead to the axing of a sportsperson who spurns the advances of a coach or an official; in individual sports, such a strong-willed player can be penalised citing indiscipline or lack of fitness.”
Also, as Anupriya, a former cricketer writes in this article in , “Due to the historical ties of powerful politicians to sporting bodies, and the revenue sports provide to media institutions, there is almost an incentivised culture of hushing up whistleblowing. Indian athletes will always be vulnerable because the very nature and structure of sports rely on conforming to established norms and existing within the ecosystem.”
Sharda Ugra, one of the first women journalists to cover sports, reminds us how even when sexual harassment charges surface, they are addressed or rather not in this article in . She refers to a 2018 incident when two women cricketers complained about the inappropriate behaviour of a senior Board of Control for Cricket India (BCCI) official.
Ugra writes: “The whole exercise, undertaken with correct protocol and procedure, was, however, pitted with mishaps and missteps, in deed, language and public perception. It could become a case study for every corporation in the public eye as to how not to behave when attempting to follow the rule book in response to allegations of sexual harassment against their top brass. A case study also on why women in any industry find it hard to lodge any formal protest against powerful men in their business.”
Perhaps it is expecting the impossible to believe that a media, fuelled by the same corporations that back some sports, would be willing to expose the way these sports federations, often run by powerful politicians, deal with issues like sexual harassment. But after the attention drawn to the issue by the women wrestlers, I would suggest that this is a story that needs more media exposure.
Also, this would be an appropriate time for the media to introspect about the way women’s sports have been covered so far. In the past, coverage has swung between outright misogyny, where the only interest in women who played sport was in how they looked or dressed, to one where they got sporadic attention when a team, or an individual, did well. Today, despite a spurt of interest in women’s sports, for the most, sports pages continue to be dominated by men’s sports, including coverage of even minor tournaments. Surely this must change.
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