“I have many brothers,” said Neha Kumar*, a professional boxer from Shillong. “It’s fun, because when you’re strong like me, you get to be one of the boys.”
Kumar began training to be a boxer when she was eight years old. Today, she balances a busy boxing career with flying back occasionally for family engagements to Meghalaya, pursuing a Masters degree at Delhi University, and the demands that come from friendships between the young. Born and bred in the mountains of the Northeast, Kumar has now lived in Delhi for four years, a city that took her a while to call home.
‘To them, you are not an athlete’
Four months ago, when Kumar was training for a championship, her assistant coach along with two other men sexually assaulted her in the bathroom of her training gym. She had just finished training for the nationals, and was on the way in for a shower when they attacked her. One of the accompanying assaulters was a driver at the gym, the third one unidentified.
“You spend your life becoming strong, and you think that’s going to be enough. But some of the men don’t. To them, you are not an athlete, just another woman who is available,” she said, as she begins to describe the incident that took place in her gym.
“They walked in, pinned me to the ground and began to rip my clothes off. There were three men, all on top of me, but I knew that I had to escape somehow.” she said.
“Despite all the training, I wasn’t prepared. I have learnt how to fight opponents, not allies.”
Kumar managed to fight all three men off, after which she ran to the gate of the gym. Once she was outside, the guard helped her get home safe. Her family immediately flew in to help her deal with the attack, and a month later, she was back in training.
“It’s my entire life”, she said casually, as she ordered a second plate of momos. “I wasn’t going to let someone ruin it.”
Women athletes face assault and objectification
Despite Kumar’s immense courage in the face of the situation, sexism and assault in the stadium is not a one-time occurrence. Often, women athletes are condemned for their dress code, high aspirations and objectified in extreme ways in the face of their male colleagues. There is no punishment for these attacks, which usually go unnoticed and ignored, thus forcing sportswomen to accept these circumstances as normal.
In the 2014 Asian Games, two coaches Manoj Rana and Chandan Pathak were arrested for allegedly harassing a female gymnast at the Indira Gandhi indoor stadium. The woman had reported that the two coaches had made indecent remarks about her clothes and continued to harass her despite being warned.
In May 2015, a 15-year-old athlete committed suicide because of harassment by seniors, and in the same year, the Indian national men’s hockey team’s then captain Sardar Singh was accused of harassment and abuse by a female hockey player and colleague. After a few brief reports about these series of assaults, there was silence once again. Voices would emerge for causes of celebration, but the cause for freedoms, and rights against abuse for women sportsperson continued to be ignored.
Shagun Chowdhry, an Olympic level shooter said that when she started out, she was often treated as if she was “on a picnic” when she was, in fact, at work.
“More than anything, it’s stressful and slow to be a professional in an industry that is dominated by men,” said Chowdhry.
Chowdhry, like Kumar, is young, determined, and has followed her dream from the start. But for a woman in shooting – a male-centric sport – it is often assumed that she is not serious about her profession.
“My father was my inspiration to begin shooting. He always took me seriously. But outside, on the field, I realised I had to convince others I was here for good.” she said, indignant but calm as she recounted early memories of her career.
“I’m a shooter, I used to tell people. And then they would ask – so what else do you do?”
The capabilities of women athletes and sportspeople are often ignored as being hobbies or pastimes, constructing terse obstacles in their career paths. Though opportunities for women have opened up in the last decade, a larger narrative of support, a space free of objectification and protective measures in case of violence are still severely lacking.
Sexism in media coverage as well
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, a New York Times article stated that Sarah Grieves, a researcher on a Cambridge team that examined the NBC’s coverage on the Olympics said in an interview that the word “man” has generally been used roughly three times as much as the word “woman” in sports-related coverage, despite the fact that women make up around 45% of athletes competing.
“We found things like men being described as fastest, strong, biggest,” said Grieves. “For women, it’s unmarried, married, references to their age. There is an inequality there.”
In India, sexist undertones give leeway for violation – where a sportswoman is automatically seen as accessible.
“I would change into my suit to get ready for practice, and the catcalls would begin”, said Rashi Tandon*, a national level swimmer. “Some days, I’d just stay home, not ready to be stared at constantly while I practised.”
Kumar, who was often called out for “scanty clothing” during training, pointed out the same.
“When you are a sportsperson, your body is your strength. But as a woman athlete in India, that same body is often a weakness, a sign, a big board that says ‘available’, even though you never said so. But still, it is taken for granted that if you’re wearing a sports bra, you must be up for grabs.”
For many of the same women, these hurdles lead to mental health issues that constitute high stress levels and demotivation.
‘Learn to keep your head up’
“It was just annoying in the beginning, and later it became a real issue. I would be angry, and upset even before I got into the pool, that drained all my energy,” said Tandon.
“It really weakened me as an athlete” she added.
Vrinda Bhandari, a professional lawyer and also a runner, talks about the same. In Jaipur two years ago, she said that she was grabbed multiple times during a marathon.
“Crowds swarmed in and I could feel myself being touched all over. It was more annoying than scary. Something like this can really put you off sport — that requires a lot of drive and determination.”
This year, while the country celebrated its victories at the Olympics, once again, we forgot to ask important questions. While PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar had brought us great pride and celebration, why did we still not have more extensive participation by women in sports? Why still, in 2016, were safe spaces and protective measures for women athletes still lacking? In a nation that wakes and lives with sports, championing its victors as “India’s daughters”, we had settled with victories by women being novelties, and not frequencies. Even today, in India, infrastructure for women to succeed remains harsh, women coaches are almost absent from representation, and no signs for improvement are indicated by the state.
“Slowly, you figure it out. Learn to say no. Learn to keep your head up despite being dismissed and sidelined repeatedly,” said Chowdhry, as she packed her gun for a long training session.
“But the thing is. You shouldn’t have to.”
*Names changed on request