It’s disingenuous to frame an argument on the shoulders of victory. If a female athlete needs to accomplish extraordinary tasks to be acknowledged as ‘India’s daughter’, then what status does she enjoy before that?
She could have chosen to ignore it. She could have waited to tweet a photo with a medal winner. She could have clicked selfies with only those who were winning their contests in Rio. But she chose to show empathy. The talented Vinesh Phogat had shared her pain on Twitter after an injury ended her Olympics campaign in Rio de Janeiro. The Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj responded with grace, a gift that many politicians seem to not possess these days.
Many within Swaraj’s party and its supporters never seem to reach their nadir, such is the nature of their vitriolic abuse that is dished out on a daily basis. But Swaraj rose above it, especially when the wait for a medal in Rio was lengthening. Vinesh Phogat did not need to win something to be recognised as ‘India’s daughter’.
Another tweet, however, put that assumption into doubt. Virender Sehwag has acquired a reputation for humorous irreverence on Twitter but, like his playing days, he had one wild swing too many. His message on Twitter following Sakshi Malik’s bronze medal ruffled quite a few feathers. It once again brought to light the notion that a woman needs to achieve something extraordinary to justify her existence.
It hardly needs belabouring but one cannot be complacent either: women do not need to win Olympic medals or Nobel Prizes to show why one should not kill the girl child. Sex-based discrimination is not invalidated only in the case of an extraordinary achievement. Taking someone’s life on the basis of their gender is a heinous crime. Nothing more to it. Olympic medals do not come into this debate.
The success of Sakshi Malik and P.V. Sindhu is remarkable because they stand out in an oppressive society for women; their battle is also against a disheartening history in sport for the country. For Indians who spend their days and months following the national teams and players in sporting contests there are few waterfalls of joy. Most of them run dry. A sense of entitlement covers our mind when the Olympics arrive. We suddenly feel there will be a rush of medals but the waterfall cannot rejuvenate itself in days.
In his richly evocative piece on the experience of following India at the Olympics, Amitava Kumar made a piercing observation. “Those experiencing humiliation tend to belong to what used to be called the leisure class; the athlete soldiering on the field is often from poor, disadvantaged strata.”
This is what makes any achievement by an Indian sportsperson so exceptional. There are many reasons to not pursue the endeavour. In fact, it is not a system meant to produce athletes. It takes an irrational dedication, like the support given to Sakshi by her mother Sudesh who ensured the Malik family moved closer to her training stadium in Rohtak. The mother, a former anganwadi supervisor; her father Sukhbir drives state buses in Delhi. Ends may have been met but Sakshi’s ends were arguably not worth seeking. Perhaps they were if you think like a wrestler who overturns a deficit in every round to win an Olympic medal.
Indian sportspersons, for better or worse, have always carried the impression of lacking the hard touch. Tales from the past are full of men and women who let glory slip past them. Some of them apocryphal, some of them baseless but enough of them true for the stereotype to remain. We don’t do ruthless well.
Sakshi Malik and Sindhu counter that narrative. When things got tight in her semifinal against the Japanese Nozomi Okuhara, Sindhu responded by winning 11 points in a row to book her place in the final. In the gold medal match, a lesser player would have faded in face of Carolina Marin’s domineering onslaught. But Sindhu won five consecutive points to take the first game. The eventual loss that resulted in a silver medal was a consequence of a better player besting the Indian star. Nerves did not come into it.
The battle in the face of adversity is a romantic metaphor for the struggles women have to face in every sphere of life in India. The limits placed on them by patriarchal notions serve to distance them from the sporting arena. This is why it is heartening to see Sakshi Malik and Sindhu respond with a never-say-die attitude. A lesson in fortitude.
But it would be advisable to exercise scepticism in light of their success. We don’t have any evidence to suggest that sporting victories can cause large-change social transformations. But victories like these dent the barricades that lie in front of a progressive society. Sakshi’s win is another attack on the authoritarian diktats that tell women to comport publicly in a certain fashion; Sindhu’s success is another answer to a society that expects its women to be docile.
This is why there is a need to be responsible in the aftermath of this success. These medals are not just monoliths that will remind us of what was achieved on-field, but also the need to address how we deal with accomplishments of women in sport.
A recent study on media and women’s sport at Cambridge University showed that female athletes are often not given the credit they deserve. Their achievements are underplayed and infantilising language is used to refer to them. Even when they get the attention, it is often for reasons other than their on-field exploits. It has more to do with their appearance, clothing and other things that evoke sexualised images.
There have been many such instances at the ongoing Olympics. Women continue to battle for their rightful place in sport. This is why it’s thoroughly disrespectful when a television news anchor calls Sakshi Malik a “kid.” When the Prime Minister of the country links her achievement to a festival that paints women as inferior beings. The auspicious occasion should be her success alone. India’s daughter. India’s sister. Why not just an Indian woman?
Such patronising discourse harms the gains made by path-breaking athletes like Sakshi Malik and P.V. Sindhu. They are worthy of respect as women who are very good at what they do. And even when they fail to win, they remain worthy of our respect and time.
A much-discussed (below) by Shobhaa De early in the Olympics had caused significant outrage in public. However, the response to it in the past few days has played into the hands of the crass opinion. A series of headlines have claimed that Malik and Sindhu’s success have provided the ‘perfect’ riposte to Shobhaa De. But what if they had not gained the medals? Would there have been no response to her insignificant tweet? Would the argument have been lost?
This is why it’s disingenuous to frame the argument on the shoulders of victory. Even if Indian athletes return empty-handed, they remain worthy of our respect, for they have chosen a battle they are likely to lose. Stymied by the system, they achieve in spite of the obstacles posed in front of them.
Imagine running a 100m race with floating hurdles. As you run, some bricks are thrown at you that you need to evade. If you can fathom the level of competence that would be required to pass that test, you can get a fair idea of the challenges faced by Indian athletes. Of course, this cannot serve to excuse every poor performance – but the key is placing the situation in context. When you do not, you end up focusing on the selfies, Raksha Bandhan and what not.
Of course, women have it even tougher. If a female athlete needs to accomplish extraordinary tasks in order to be acknowledged as ‘India’s daughter’, then what status does she enjoy before that? A pariah? A burden? Is her existence an argument against the girl child?
This is the dangerous territory that ill-informed opinions inhabit. Sushma Swaraj’s response, though, was heart-warming. One can only wish that it also breaks a few grounds for an empathy-driven approach to sportspersons, even if a wise person would not bet on it.
Last week, Dutee Chand finished 50th in the women’s 100m qualification round. It was an unremarkable display but for one reason – Dutee Chand ran. Hers is a complex case and this is not the place to discuss it in full detail; to do anything less would be unjust. But it would be remiss if one did not mention that Chand has been at the forefront of the movement that is seeking a wider understanding of gender in sport, and at large. With a final decision in abeyance, she is allowed to participate in international competitions for now.
Chand did not win a medal but she is an Indian woman, too. She is not a woman who conforms to the narrow limits society places on female bodies; rather, she is someone who has fought her case to be seen as different, and is yet be accepted as a woman. She is really not different from Sindhu and Sakshi. They have challenged stereotypes in elite sport; Chand is leading a similar fight. Even when she does not win a medal, we need to be proud of her as an Indian woman. She is not just a sister or a daughter. She is a woman who is fighting for her rightful place in history. She is part of our family.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.