With the largest contingent from South Asia at the Olympics 2020 in Tokyo, India’s victories are pinned to the hopes of athletes from the entire region. And as of August 2, with less a week more to go, Indian women athletes are leading their contingent of 120 sportspersons when it comes to scoring medals.
Weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu earned a silver in her category – and a government job back home in India as additional superintendent of police (sport) in her state of Manipur along with a reward of INR 1 crore, besides another INR 2 crore from the Indian Railways.
Badminton star PV Sindhu clinched a bronze – her second Olympics medal. Assam’s Lovlina Borgohain made it to the quarterfinals in boxing, assuring India of a bronze at the very least, and Kamalpreet Kaur’s ‘monster throw’ of 64m in women’s discus throw helped her qualify automatically for the finals on her Olympics debut; she finished in an impressive sixth place. In hockey, both the Indian women’s and men’s teams have reached the semi-finals.
These welcome victories, however, mask the fact that the challenges and obstacles faced by women athletes are far greater than those faced by men, and comparisons are unfair.
Rani Rampal, the captain of India women’s national hockey team so feted today, was born in an impoverished home in a Haryana village. The family barely had enough to eat, let alone pay for her training or sport nutrition. When she expressed her desire to play hockey, she was ridiculed by other villagers, and neighbours said she’d bring her family ‘a bad name’.
It was ultimately with the support of her father, who was a humble horse-cart driver, and her hockey coach that Rani continued with her training and finally became an award-winning sportswoman.
Saikhom Mirabai Chanu too had to struggle to pursue her passion for weightlifting, and was supported by her mother, who is a paddy farmer and sports fan. Born in a small Manipur village that had high levels of militancy and presence of armed forces, Mirabai Chanu had to travel long distances – usually with the help of local truck drivers – to go for her training. Even after reaching the national stage, the struggle did not end: she faced instances of harassment from other Indians.
It’s not just in India but all across South Asia that women athletes find themselves facing far greater odds than men. Social constraints and gender-based harassment added to funding deficits and volatile political situations make it a herculean feat to reach the national or international stage even for the most promising talents.
These issues were brought up recently at an event organised by South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN), titled ‘Women in Sport: Challenges and Wins’ (disclosure: I am a founding member of SAPAN and was the anchor for the virtual event).
Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghanistan women’s national football team, shared how difficult it was for girls to come out and play football in a war-torn nation, where “women had no voice”. She led the first women’s football team from the country and was part of the ‘women’s football movement’ from 2007 to 2010 that saw thousands of girls joining the game.
Khalida was also the only woman on the country’s football board, a position she had to fight for. Eventually, war tore their country apart, and faced with increasing threats to her life for speaking up for women’s rights, Khalida had to seek asylum in Europe.
She now runs her own nonprofit Girl Power to create opportunities for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides refugees in Europe. “We all share the pain of being South Asian women. The opportunities and resources are so limited for us. We need unity amongst ourselves, and the support of our male allies,” she said.
A similar story of being brought up in a war zone was shared by Pakistani sportswoman Noorena Shams, who had to lie to her mother and disguise herself as a boy to play cricket in her youth in Peshawar, at a time when the sound of bombs would reverberate in the area but could not dampen the children’s spirit to play cricket.
She eventually became an international squash player – the first woman to reach that level from the Malakand division in Pakistan’s conflicted north-western region – but regrets that she is still the only one. “Even education is such a big struggle for girls from that area, so imagine how hard it is to say, ‘I want to play sports’,” she said.
Noorena listed the obstacles girls from her region have to face: “First they block us with guns, then with gender stereotypes, then they tell us we aren’t as good as men in sports, then they stop us wearing shorts because it isn’t honourable, then they blame us for not winning, then they don’t support us with funding… They test us to such extremes, and yet we break all those barriers and move ahead. Still, they call us weak. It makes me laugh.”
Ashreen Mridha, a national-level basketball player from Bangladesh, became an activist to help address some of the issues she herself faced as an athlete. She was part of the first women’s national basketball team as far back as 2009, and rues the fact that there is still no national league for women till date.
Ashreen has now formed her own organisation Deshi Ballers to empower women in sport. “The participation of girls in sports is low globally and particularly in a country like Bangladesh that is predominantly Muslim. Girls are not encouraged to play outdoor sports,” she said, highlighting the lack of women referees, coaches and managers.
There is also the issue of ageism and discrimination on the basis of marital status for female athletes that Ashreen pointed out: “Why do federations feel that when women cross a certain age or get married, they are no longer eligible for sport?” The root issue, she believes, is that there aren’t enough women in leadership roles on sports boards.
Despite all the international acclaim for cricket in South Asia, Sana Mir, former captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, shared how little funding is offered to the women’s team. While men’s teams get contracts, world-class equipment and facilities to encourage them to perform, the women’s teams are expected to “give the result first” before they are offered any funding for their growth.
Bangladesh women’s national cricket team captain Rumana Ahmed shared similar stories from her own country, as did former India cricketer Roopa Nagraj, who had to move to UAE in search of a job and finally set up a free cricket coaching service there for girls.
The virtual event – the fourth in the series ‘Imagine! Neighbours in Peace’ by SAPAN, which is a coalition of individuals and organisations working towards peace, unity and democracy in South Asia – saw the presence of 13 women athletes besides eminent personalities and activists from around the region. Issues such as moral policing, clothing restrictions, sexual harassment and lack of support for disabled athletes were also brought up.
Despite all these hurdles, the fact that South Asian women continue to win medals at the international level is a testament to their endurance, strength and resourcefulness.
Instead of testing them, restricting their funds and neglecting their needs, sports bodies, governments and private organisations should support women athletes as much – if not more – than men.
They have already earned it.