A loud grunt, aggression and the raw ability to overthrow an opponent, quite literally. These are a few traits that are now unabashedly lady-like, thanks to the dozens of women athletes from across boundaries, fighting it out in the world’s biggest sports spectacle, Olympics 2016.
If the test of fire makes fine steel, who better than the XX power houses to validate that old adage! While London 2012 was special for having all participating countries comprise women athletes in their contingents, a first for the Olympics, Rio 2016 has been special with women athletes breaking the next glass ceiling, by fighting and winning “Like a girl”! This time, sportswomen from across the globe have forced the arc lights on their achievements. Battling gender stereotypes, every victory has meant much more than winning a medal.
Be it the Canadian team at Olympics which clinched 5 medals so far, all by women or be it the Indian tally of 2 medals in hand and two that were dangerously close, again by women athletes, it’s a story that’s being written with every sunrise at the Olympic stadium. Much has been written about women in sport and yet much needs to be written. For with every high jump, with every strong throw, with every gravity-defying vault and with every show of pure muscle, that woman in that sport of that country, is telling us a new story, of constant push against the pull of gender stereotypes. This is not one woman’s victory; it is a combined haul these sportswomen are giving to the idea of sport being a woman’s domain too. The crown of a sportswoman is a tad bit more heavy.
It’s easy to paint it all as a Feminist rant and I say this because the more I talk about this, the more I also hear counter arguments on how if gender equality is what we strive for, then maybe we can start off by not making a big deal out of a woman winning a medal in an otherwise male dominated sport. But a big deal it is.
Take the case of 23-year-old Indian wrestler Sakshi Malik. She hails from a small state in Northern India, Haryana. It’s a state that has the dubious distinction of having the highest female foeticide rate in the country and one of the worst sex ratios in India. It is also the state where women constantly find themselves stone walled by the Khap Panchayats (quasi-judicial bodies that dole out justice based on archaic customs and traditions), where marrying by one’s choice could result in “honour killing’ and where literacy for women is not a granted affair. In that context, this young girl’s victory cannot be limited to the show of her strength in the 6-minute bout alone.
The bronze medal is a symbol of her fight to survive, to be blessed with a family that chose to support her, that chose to let her live and through her showed why underestimating a girl is plain stupid. As she earns her right to hold the flag of India in 2016 Rio’s closing ceremony, Sakshi Malik will also be holding a large mirror to the global society that most often than not, does not believe in the power of women athletes. When the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand fought the IAAF for two years over her naturally high testosterone levels to finally win her right to compete in women’s track events, she was also enduring the humiliation of an entire country raising questions on her gender.
Imagine being questioned about the two things you know for sure, who you are and what you dream of. Now imagine being questioned about it in front of the whole world. That’s the fight this 20-year-old, hailing from a poor weaver’s family, fought before she finally arrived in Rio with a pair of sneakers sponsored by a private online firm after she ruefully admitted, her old pair had worn off. Perhaps, a reflection of how marketing and sales teams’ world over believe the glamour of male sportspersons is more dependable with endorsements and sponsorships. Her very presence in Rio is her victory. If you think achievements can annihilate sexism, think again. Tennis World No 1 Sania Mirza has faced fatwas from local religious bodies for wearing skirts on court and she has faced questions about family and marital bliss after she came back with her World no 1 title, a first for an Indian. Achieving though, is the only sure shot way, as Sania mentions in her autobiography Ace against Odds, of overcoming doubts and defeats. Shuttlers PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, gymnast Dipa Kamarkar, shooters, archers and several other Indian sports women continue to keep the sails high with determination and dedication, so the path ahead for women they inspire, may well be more welcoming and less prejudiced of women sports talent. These are women who have painted new start lines in their respective sports.
Yet, women athletes continue to be described basis appearance, age, motherhood and marital status. It took an Andy Murray to reiterate that he isn’t the first tennis player to win two gold medals at the Olympics, Serena & Venus Williams having won four each. It’s this ingrained sexism that’s hard to beat. And which is why when Acclaimed Chinese swimmer and bronze medalist Fu Yuanhui discussed her menstruation while talking about her performance in the 4X100 m medley relay swimming competition at Rio, she was making the world sit up and notice one of the many invisible hurdles a female athlete jumps over, in a no-nonsense way, always.
The picture of an Egyptian Beach Volleyball player returning the ball to her German opponent, while wearing a hijab went viral on social media platforms. It’s a narrative that’s a necessary evil. On one hand, I wish we could look beyond the costume, I wish we could take that photo and talk about the strength she exhibits, the training she went through to reach that very moment and yet I know it is also necessary to talk about how she can do this despite the perceived restrictions of a hijab. It is necessary to tell all that a sportswoman is more than her hairdo, her costume, her skin and the length of her eyelashes. Do note I say “more than”. For she is not either-or. She’s all this and more, much much more.
She is the loud roar in badminton player & silver medalist PV Sindhu’s voice, she is the swimming champion Yusra Mardini who rescued lives towing a boat of Syrian refugees, she is every sports woman who held the flag of a nation on her shoulders, amidst tears of joy, achievement and sheer pride. In the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest, every woman competing against the world’s finest, is fighting the odds and more with all the girl power that she has! The least we can do, is not stand in her way.
(Preeti Singh is an Indian journalist and a graduate in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. She is currently in the UK and writes for Indian and international news publications. She can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @singhpreeti08)
Sharanya Mageshwaran is a team member and illustrator at continnect.