The 21st century saw a considerable surge in Indian women sportspersons leading from the front and leaving their mark in Olympic sports like weightlifting, boxing and badminton. After Karnam Malleswari’s historic bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Indian sportswomen gained more visibility and accolades on the world stage.
An important question that follows is, as Indian women take their rightful place in the world of sports, have the sports federations and the government ensured the necessary mechanisms for their equality, dignity and bodily integrity? Or are these women still playing in a man’s world?
Illustrious wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik, along with Bajrang Punia, started a sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar in January, bringing to light alleged incidents of sexual harassment by Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
Phogat alleged that the “coaches are harassing women, and some coaches, who are favourites of the Federation, misbehave with women coaches as well. They sexually harass girls. The WFI president has sexually harassed many girls.”
It took a sustained sit-in protest and the Supreme Court’s intervention for the Delhi police to register FIRs against Singh, but unfortunately, the serious and disturbing claims by the protesting wrestlers have been met with a general reticence and a dismissive attitude. For instance, P.T. Usha referred to the protests by wrestlers as “indiscipline” and “tarnishing the image of India”.
The rather alarmist collective conscience of the country that erupts into dramatic boycotts over issues like an unappealing movie, has shown a deafening silence at best and a general disdain at worst for the protesting women wrestlers.
The WFI chief said, “Vinesh Phogat wanted to speak to her father and she didn’t have a phone back then. So I helped her speak to her father and then later I hugged her. When she felt uncomfortable, I told her that I hugged her as a father figure. Tell me, if I should be hanged for this.”
His remarks show not only unapologetic ignorance of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (PoSH), but an inexcusable disregard for the physical boundaries set by women at their workplaces.
According to Section 2(n) of the PoSH Act, sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as “physical contacts and advance, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions.” Furthermore, in Vishaka & Ors vs State Of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court acknowledged that “sexual harassment of women is a violation of the fundamental right of women to work in a safe environment.”
The Supreme Court has elaborated that “such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem … Effective complaints procedures and remedies, including compensation, should be provided.”
If the dangerous justification given by the WFI president is acceptable to the people, one can only imagine the plight of the younger, more vulnerable women in any institutional space, where men are in positions of power. This instance, therefore, has implications not just for sportswomen but all women and young girls in India.
Touching a woman in a ‘fatherly’ or ‘brotherly’ capacity are patriarchal references relying on the male narratives of women’s bodies that need to be rejected outright. Workplace colleagues and superiors ought to respect women’s self-defined physical boundaries, and their own notions of their bodily integrity and consent in all their behaviour. Whether it be in the context of women employed at home, in the fields, in corporate jobs, or as students, research scholars or sportspersons, the mandate of the law must supersede the arbitrary patriarchal sensibilities of men in positions of power.
Under Section 4 of the PoSH Act, it is mandatory for all workplaces – which include sports institutes and game venues – employing ten or more people to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
The Act envisages adequate representation of women in these committees: it requires a woman presiding officer, half the members to be women, and an external member specialising in or familiar with women’s issues.
Such a duly constituted ICC has the mandate to receive, inquire into and make recommendations on the complaints of sexual harassment. The Mary Kom-led Oversight Committee formed by the sports ministry on January 23, 2023 found in its report that the WFI does not have an ICC. This means the women wrestlers did not have access to an ICC that would have given them an easy and reliable means of filing a complaint.
Half the national sports federations in India – the governing bodies of the respective sports – have failed to constitute the mandatory ICC in accordance with the Act. According to an investigation by the Indian Express, 16 of the 30 national sports federations – including the WFI – do not meet the mandatory compliance with regard to the formation of a proper ICC.
Workplace redressal of complaints is important so that attitudes and perceptions change from the existing culture of silencing and undermining complaints to actively encouraging women to complain against sexual harassment. The UK government has shown support to the newly introduced Sex-based Harassment in the Public Bill 2022-23, which has already passed through the committee stage. Even though sexual harassment is already illegal in the UK, the government is keen on making public sexual harassment a separate offence, with the intention of encouraging women to complain about and emphasize the widespread nature of street harassment of women.
Often, to be able to reach a point of complaining against their harasser, women must fight hard against the odds of shaming, blaming, personal attacks, intimidation, threats and workplace pressure. To be able to complain is a herculean task, in a society where there is a culture of backlash against women victims.
In such a state of affairs, where legal mechanisms of redressal for women’s complainants are absent and there is lack of awareness regarding workplace conduct, the protesting wrestlers should be lauded and thanked for pointing out these glaring inadequacies.
The WFI president’s remarks demonstrate a backlash mentality. He said, “Why did the women who are protesting call me to their wedding? Why did they click pictures of me, why did they take my blessings?” These comments are in line with the attacks faced by women complainants for not being the ‘ideal victims’.
The law doesn’t define a specific emotional or social response as a more appropriate or valid reaction to an unwanted advance, nor is it a qualification to make a complaint.
The most common ways of ‘complainant-blaming’ entail a series of insinuations and backwards-pushing logics: blaming the complainants for the timing of the complaint, why they continued to socially interact with the accused, their reaction not being appropriate, etc. Such arguments minimize the responsibility of men in positions of power and aim to shift the moral burden of performing the ideal sufferers/victims/complainants on women.
In India, complaints of sexual harassment by women are largely addressed through the IPC section 354, ‘outrage of modesty’, applied to instances that do not involve penetration. ‘Modesty’ in women is an outdated patriarchal idea which implies that a man’s physical touch has the power to defile a woman’s intrinsic sense of self. It is difficult for women to achieve a sense of justice and empowerment when the legal vocabulary draws from Victorian socio-cultural morality. In the social interpretation of modesty, the onus of preventing the outrage is largely on the women themselves as she could be ‘asking for it’. This further feeds into discussions over women’s clothing, morality and ‘purity’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi often makes mention of women’s empowerment in his speeches. The sense of empowerment invoked in the context of women in India is still limited to them achieving something for the betterment of their families or for the honour of their country, and not in the service of their own rights and freedoms. The India growth story aims at greater participation of women, but doesn’t speak of the existing conditions of their work, which are more often than not gendered to their disadvantage. When women raise their voices to realise this unfulfilled dream of empowerment and equality, they are deemed as loud, selfish or ‘indisciplined’.
Advancements in the laws related to women’s rights are manifestations of the social churning caused by women’s movements and agitations. Whether it be the right to vote, right to property, reproductive rights or equal pay – the most historic advancements in the rights of women have materialised as a result of women’s organised movements.
It is important to reiterate that the PoSH Act too is a congelation of a series of protests by women, activists and university students during the 2012-13 Nirbhaya movement. The movement changed the popular discourse on sexual violence against women in India by questioning systemic violence, structures of power and the use of sexual violence as a tool of power. It inserted the ideas of ‘freedom without fear’ and consent into the public imagination, which shaped the Verma Committee report and eventually the existing law.
The ongoing agitation by women wrestlers is a moment of churning for women in India and a learning opportunity for the Delhi police, the Sports Ministry and the sports federations in India.
Abhiruchi Ranjan is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and History at CHRIST (Deemed to be University) in Bangalore.