By Torsa Ghosal
Originally published on 25 August 2016.
This past week it has been heartening to see a social media news feed full of updates about Indian women athletes’ triumphs in Rio. After all, who doesn’t like to wake up to a hashtag such as #fightlikeagirl? My well-meaning friends have also used this momentous week to share posts critiquing female foeticide (we shouldn’t kill female fetuses because girls win Olympic medals), the rape culture and honor killing in Haryana (a female wrestler from the state won a bronze, so yeah, makes sense), national ignorance and apathy for north-eastern states (a gymnast from Tripura finished fourth and we just got done slamming Irom Sharmila of Manipur, another north eastern state, for her life choices, so this must be a good time to discuss the attitudes to “north east”), and that thing above all things: the lack of infrastructure for Indian athletes.
Given that we scarcely conclude a conversation about Indian sports, apart from cricket I suppose, without throwing the word “infrastructure” in the mix, I googled the various contexts in which the word has been used vis-à-vis the medal winning athletes this week. I will not bore you with the search results but I cannot resist sharing one find: while, on social and mass media, we applauded Dipa Karmakar for excelling in a sport which has “no infrastructure” in India, Karmakar, in an interview given soon after returning to India, asserted that there’s no such dearth of infrastructure. We may take her word for it or not but, either way, while making up our mind, we would be thinking of facilities — equipment, spaces, allotted resources — as constituting infrastructure.
However, aren’t our systems of belief the foundation for this infrastructure? And perhaps we do not need to dissect the biographies of the few athletes who make it to the Olympics or troll the Shobhaa Des of social media to reach some degree of self-awareness about these attitudes.
Each time I have come across a status message on Facebook exalting “girl power” this week I have recalled my own short-lived recreational brushes with sports in India as a woman. I acquired little skill from the various trainings due to my own lack of aptitude. Yet, even in these brisk, generally forgettable encounters with sports, I picked up lots of truisms about Indian women’s stints with sports, which I am afraid, will outlive this momentary euphoria.
Truism 1: The most important thing about a woman doing anything, including sports, is her clothes.
My parents left no stone unturned in trying to get me to exercise, much to my displeasure. We were members of this swimming club which basically consisted of a pond with uneven mud flooring and water exposed to the elements. Once when I was training for a district camp, our trainer called my father — not my mother — to have a word. In my adolescent enthusiasm, I thought the trainer would discuss my stupendous swimming skills (which I no longer have any illusions about; thank god). However, the subject of the discussion was the plunging back of my one-piece swimming costume. According to the trainer, who was a middle-aged man, my swimming costume was not letting the boys in the pool master that elusive butterfly. My father emerged from the conversation, stomping his feet, angry at the trainer for being sexist. My mother too couldn’t believe the trainer’s stupidity and audacity, sometimes you can’t tell the difference. And I couldn’t believe my swimming costume was causing so much ripple on the surface of that opaque moss-green water. I did not go to the club the next day. But then we saw reason: it’s the only club around, we said. So, there I was again, this time armed — more like, covered — with a random white cloth sewn to the back of my costume.
These days if the mass media focuses on female athletes’ clothing, we call them out for it on social media, which is great. However, I cannot but wonder if my trainer too is chastising the “media” on social networks while policing his female students at the club, if it still exists.
Truism 2: There is a national team and then, there’s the national “women’s” team.
In 1997, my parents, my sister, and I had gone to watch the final match of the cricket World Cup in Eden gardens. Once we came back, my sister and I said (read: bragged) to one extended family member that we had gone to the Australian team’s dressing room.
My sister: We got the Aussie’s captain’s autograph!
Family member: You guys met Steve Waugh?
My sister: No, Belinda J Clark.
Family member: Oh, for me, there’s only 1 Aussie captain. That’s Steve Waugh.
What makes this exchange even more bizarre is that I come from a family with a strong “female” connection to cricket: my aunt, her friends, my sister, her friends, have all played at different levels including city clubs, the state, and the country.
And if you thought this one family member was silly, then here’s a test — when you read “cricket World Cup”, “final”, “Eden”, “1997”, did you think I got my facts wrong? Because, if you did, you know… Or another still, can you name 6 (not even 11) contemporary women cricketers? And that when cricket is the more privileged sport in India.
It’s hardly surprising then that while we have the men’s cricket captain hosted in five star hotels, the women’s team’s captain calls my sister one evening and asks her to fetch a quilt from a supermarket, because she has been asked to sleep on the floor of a damp dormitory in Kolkata in winter. Women’s sports do not have enough sponsors, we say; well, that’s because we don’t watch their matches unless they’re as big as the Olympics.
Truism 3: Some games are for men, others for women.
The high points of the otherwise seemingly purposeless physical training regimes we went through in the schools where I studied were the annual sports days. For me, a personal high point was the “Weave a Garland” race. Now you haven’t seen that one in Olympics, have you? However, you can still watch one of those races in schools — at least, in Bengal (as I have just confirmed). In this race, custom made for female students, marigold flowers are strewn through the track and you run, equipped with needle and thread, weaving a garland out of the flowers on the way. When it comes to regular 100m running, I used to come second last or third last but I had won bronze and silver in school for the garland race. So, you see, I never asked my teachers why on earth we had these “women-only” garland races, or thread the needle races, or balance the pitcher on your head races. What were we — girls — being prepared for and why weren’t our male classmates receiving the same training? Well, I never asked. I loved my medals.
Truism 4: Perform gender, but also figure out how much is too much
One of the desi flat-mates I have had during my grad school in the US used to train in tennis while in India. Not long after she had settled in the flat, she told me with a sense of urgency, “I have to do something about my arms.” Years of tennis, which were now behind her, were to blame for turning her “Bengali girls’ shoulders into ‘manly’ Punjabi girls’ shoulders.” Marking body types in terms of ethnicity or gender is not restricted to India. One need only check out the toxic discussions around Serena Williams’s body. However, in the case of my flat-mate, having a players’ body had complicated implications. On one hand she had come to dislike the manliness of her body. On the other hand, often with a beaming sense of pride, she mentioned how she had never had the time to do “girly” things to her body because she was a woman of sports; the girly things, according to her, being makeup, skin and hair care. Listening to her was so déjà vu. I had grown up hearing how my cricketer aunt had a “broad mind” and a “heart of gold” since she spent her youth playing instead of gossiping and dating like “typical women.” She always had a “simple” hairstyle, either a ponytail or, later in life, a “boy’s cut.” Through all the girl-boy binaries casually alluded to in the conversations, sports became associated with primal innocence, and to this innocence, which was the prerogative of children or men, adult women had access via sports. Yet, if the sportswomen became too “manly,” muscular and broad, they would be an eyesore.
What is more, due to our collective inability to distinguish between gender performance and sexual orientation, the “manly” “simple” sportswoman with “boy’s cut” hair can also potentially turn into a queer figure we don’t know how to embrace. In the women’s cricketing circles to which I had access through family, female-female relationships of any kind were (and still are) frequently sexualised during casual banter in ways that do not reflect acceptance of queer sexual desires, if and when those exist, but instead voice anxiety about any faint possibility of same-sex love. Incidentally, quite a few ex-players of the women’s cricket teams, my aunt’s contemporaries, never married. There are several competing narratives as to why they did not. The more comforting versions locate them as child-like innocent women who, while training in cricket, never managed to train themselves in the schemes of courtship unlike the “typical women” who spend their youths seducing men. The more subversive narratives consider these women’s prolonged proximity to one another and diagnose them as being prone to queer (without using that word, of course) relations, which the women in question then deny or ignore.
Truism 5: We have got everything there is to know about fitness figured out
There is this weird glorification of hunger, at least, when it comes to training women athletes. And I am not speaking of Gopichand-level trainers saying “I didn’t let Sindhu have ice cream” but the local gym uncle with some vague claim to fitness deciding on your diet without taking into account your allergies, preferences, and more importantly, specific needs. The goal of this one-size-fits-all diet is to make you “look” fit. Whether you are actually fit is of little consequence. This attitude continues in some sporting circles. In my sister’s cricket club, for instance, while her pace bowling skills were revered (measured by a custom yardstick — “her ball once chipped a boy’s tooth during net practice”), people were constantly policing what she ate as she “looked” unhealthy. Her coach warned her that the selection committee might choose to drop her because she “looks” unhealthy. What is more, the coach also took this opportunity to teach my sister’s team members important lessons about health based on body-shaming my sister, connecting it to social class, and basically, driving home the point that if one wants to make it big in sports, one has to remain hungry (no, not metaphorically but like, literally).
Truism 6: Playing fields are not level
The town in which I grew up was the ending point of an annual 81 km open swimming competition in the Bhagirathi river. Soon after joining the swimming club — which, as you can tell, I couldn’t get enough of — I learned that everyone there took pride in the fact that one of the guys (a trainer’s son) had won the famous marathon. There was no question of any girl attempting the feat until this one girl came along.
During those years, I measured people’s ages according to their height. So given that this girl was a good few inches shorter than me I took her to be a “kid” destined to be in the novice section for years. I was wrong — not only on the account of the ageism inherent in my assumption — but also because this girl was extremely skilled. The trainers took note of her and began training her overtime for the marathon. I wish I could say that many of us (girls) who had never even thought of attempting the marathon, were now inspired. Instead, several of us, along with our parents, devoted ourselves to unpacking the sources of this girl’s skill. “She comes from a village, must have bathed in the river all her life. No wonder she swims like a fish,” we said. “Only girls like her, accustomed to hardships, can attempt feats like this,” we rationalised. Put simply, we had managed to turn her lack of privilege into a privilege (you know, the kind of rhetoric we use when we say, “These people from SC/ST communities are so lucky to have reservations.” The importance of equity eludes us).
Anyway, I would have forgotten about this girl, if many years later a very similar, if somewhat flipped, situation had not transpired. This time my sister’s cricket coach, while body-shaming my sister, brought up the fact that her social class was higher than that of her teammates: she was overweight because she ate a lot because she had money. When my sister’s best friend from the team stood beside my sister, the coach reminded this other girl that while this girl’s father was a grocer, my sister’s was an engineer. And so, if my sister never gets to play any matches, it is alright because my father can amply provide for her while this other girl will have to earn her own bread. And on the off chance that my sister is forced to earn her bread, she would have her degrees to fall back on while this other girl, who had all but dropped out of school, would be left with nothing. Now, there is absolutely no denying that socio-economic class has material consequences, offers some people a higher safety net and more opportunities to fail than others, but I don’t think the coach realised how she was perpetuating several problematic beliefs at once, the most obvious one being: Women excel at sports only when they are forced to do so by circumstances because under “natural” circumstances (which we align with middle class norms and privileges) which girl would think of swimming several laps across the Bhagirathi every day?
Truism 7: Ignore every naysayer, offender
The problem with my white cloth-patched swimming costume was not that it was ugly (well, that was a problem too) but that it covered up the annoyance, anger, and shame that the trainer’s conversation with my dad had triggered. Well-wishers say, ignore the people who offend you, don’t engage them because they are not worth it. If you are talented, you will emerge victorious out of every episode of personal humiliation: just look at so-and-so, she was born in x family, had y problems, but still won z. The fact that we manage to fit almost any success story to this x-y-z arc should tell us that there’s something wrong with it. While each individual is different, our staple suggestion to any woman who complains of systematic abuse is that they should stop complaining by mustering a magical inner strength and focusing on the “more important” details in life.
So, the fact that in one of my schools, we spent several minutes before our physical training classes adjusting our skirts and underwear because our PT teacher had a tendency of fixing his gaze on that-which-lies-between-our-legs is a trivial issue, to be ignored because in the more important scheme of things this man had other credentials recommending him for the job. There are several variants of this “ignore the naysayer and offender” situation: when that random friend, aunt, uncle, or well-wisher taunts us and tells us we cannot do this or that as a girl, we ought to take it in the “right” spirit, appreciate their “good” humor, and if we can do neither, at the very least, ignore them. Despite everything, if we manage to accomplish something, and this same acquaintance jokes, “but the women’s cricket field is smaller than the men’s,” or “women play fewer sets than men,” once again we ought to take the facts in the “right” spirit. We’d better not question their beliefs and attitudes, betrayed by their rattling off of “facts”. We’d better not lose our tempers, because nothing cracks people up more than angry women.
And once we’ve internalised these truisms, we can #fightlikeagirl, because, why not?
Torsa Ghosal studies and teaches literature, writes poetry and fiction. She is the Associate Editor of Papercuts.
Image credits: Beach by Brazil Women’s Beach Volleyball Team via Flickr/CC by 2.0, Rhythm Gymnastics, Wembley Stadium by Rob Schofield via Flickr/CC by 2.0, Run Faster, Jump Higher by Helgi Halldorsson via Flickr/CC by 2.0, West Point Wins Judo Championship by West Point the US Military Academy via Flickr/CC by 2.0