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Sports for Indian Women : A Level Playing Field?

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The Tokyo Olympics of 2021 witnessed Indian women carving a niche in sports- from PV Sindhu in badminton to Lovlina Borgohain in boxing, our women have yet again outweighed the stereotypes with their splendid performance. But is this a victory or a mere step 1 for India, where sports still remains a male-dominated sphere?

Read further to dig deeper into Indian women’s gradual emergence in sports- the reasons behind the lag and the way forward.

India and its Sportswomen: A History

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The year 1952 was remarkable in the history of Indian sports as the country sent its first women athletes to compete in the quadrennial games. Mary D’Souza, Nilima Ghose, Rita Davar and Gool Nashikwala were amongst the many who brought laurels for the nation. The journey of these women, however, wasn’t an easy one; as we can conclude from the early life of Mary D’Souza, the first female track and field contingent to represent India in the Olympics. Mary grew up learning hockey mainly by observing her brothers and playing with other boys. She didn’t get professional training for a very long time- primarily due to a lack of funds.

Another famous name in the history of Indian sports is P.T. Usha aka “Payyoli express”- one of the fastest women athletes in the country. The sprint queen of India won countless accolades throughout her career including representing India in the 1998 Asian Championships in Athletics where her team won the gold medal. As a child, P.T Usha faced health issues living in an underprivileged state. But she overcame those hurdles.

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While they had their fair share of struggle, the medals of these legendary women illuminated the path to sports for a number of young girls in the years that followed. Our country has produced some of the finest sportswomen out there- Sania Mirza, Mary Kom, Mithali Raj, Geeta Phogat, and so on. Their victories certainly act as a beacon of hope for the status of women in Indian sports. However, when we look at the current statistics, the picture isn’t all rosy.

What do the statistics have to say?

Research conducted by the BBC in 2020 shows the real picture. Only 29% of Indian women engage in sports compared to 42% of men. 33% of the respondents believed that sports like boxing, kabaddi and weightlifting are not “appropriate” for women while 29% of people said that since women don’t have the required strength, sports is not a safe field for them.

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The question remains – what all factors have led to a slow advancement of Indian women in sports?

Lack of encouragement for women in sports

One major reason behind the comparatively less number of women in sports is the lack of encouragement, both socially and financially. With 84 million of its population living below the poverty line, a majority of people don’t have the resources to afford quality food, required coaching or even access to the requisite equipment.

Take the case of Mirabai Chanu, who made India proud by bagging a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics. She had to rely on truck drivers passing through her village to give her a lift to Imphal so she could complete her training every day.
“I wanted to see the truckers who provided me regular lifts from home to the training Centre and seek their blessing,” the 26-year-old Mirabai said. (quote from Hindustan Times)

Societal Stigma: A Hurdle for Women’s Participation in Sports

The social stigma around women’s participation in sports is still deeply rooted in Indian society. Female athletes are often body shamed for their muscular frame. They are even discriminated against on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientations. The thought of seeing their daughters compete in shorts or skirts is appalling to a number of rural and middle-class households in the country. Women are objectified and sexualized instead of seen as champions. The popular movie “Dangal” shows a reflection of reality- in one scene, young Geeta and Babeeta Phogat are criticized for their “Mardaani” (manly) mannerisms.

Indian professional sprinter- Dutee Chand was criticized for “behaving like a boy” in the initial days of her training.
“I woke up at 4 am every day and would come back home before sunrise so nobody would notice me running,” said Chand. (quote from the citizen.in)

Gender disparities become evident when we look at the pay gap in sports. Compared to their male counterparts, female cricketers are paid much less. As per BCCI’s pay structure, top women cricketers earn only 7% of what average male cricketers earn from the game.

Final Thoughts

Achieving greater participation of women in sports will require the eradication of existing social, economic and psychological hurdles.
Indian women are fearlessly battling the prejudices that have held them back for ages. Their efforts are growing stronger with every passing day and the achievements in Tokyo Olympics are a testimony to this. It’s time that we as a society realize this and pave the way forward for women’s participation in sports.

To read more on Indian sportswomen, click here. 

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