International Women's Day 2017: Sania Mirza to Sakshi Malik, top stars on what it means to be a female athlete in India

They’ve grappled with patriarchy. They’ve fought prejudice. Being a female athlete in India isn’t exactly easy. From being told that their choice of sport was too masculine for them to being perceived as just a pretty face, female athletes often face regressive mindsets.

Despite this, many of our athletes are world beaters.

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On International Women’s Day, Firstpost asked six women athletes — from Olympic medallists to Commonwealth Games winners to Grand Slam champions — a simple question: What does it mean to be a female athlete in India.

Here are the tales of their fight against prejudice and their victory over mindsets, in their own words:

I feel women athletes in our county are slowly getting the respect they deserve, especially after the Olympics where all the top performers were female.

Personally speaking, in Haryana, where I come from, there are a lot of female wrestlers – there is not a huge gap between the numbers of male and female wrestlers. As for the facilities, a few years back the men used to get preferential treatment in terms of their requests – be it protein supplements or the conditions of the wrestling centres. But now it is a different story. Yes there is still gender bias, but the situation is improving. I feel privileged to be a female athlete in India. I hope each of my victories give belief to girls across the country. I am a girl just like anyone else and if I can make it this far, so can anyone.

– Sakshi Malik, wrestler, Olympic bronze medallist

A lot of people were surprised by my decision to pursue a career as a shooter since I was also a qualified dentist. Shooting is a risky profession. In India, it’s a big challenge being a female athlete as the perception in society is that men are better at sports. I’ve met quite a few gentlemen who, just because they’re into hunting or guns, think that they know more than me about the sport. The thinking is that girls and guns don’t go together. But over the last few years, we have had many torchbearers and women heroines from the country in various sports, who have achieved a lot on the world stage.

– Heena Sidhu, former World No 1 shooter and Commonwealth Games gold medallist

I grew up playing football with boys in my village as there were not too many girls who played back then. The mindset back then was why are girls playing? Even my family faced questions from all quarters why I was playing with guys. I was told by the villagers, ‘padhai karo, ladki khel ke kya karegi?' (Focus your attention on studies, what will a girl do playing sport?) But those same villagers started looking at me differently when I played for my state football team and then for India.

A lot of things have changed for female footballers now. There’s finally a football league which has started from January. We (the Indian women’s national team) used to travel in buses, now we travel in flights when we’re on India duty and have five-star accommodation each time, just like the men’s team.

– Bala Devi, Indian football player

I have always said this, being a female celebrity, an athlete in this part of the world is difficult. It’s very difficult. It’s not just difficult being a tennis player, but also becoming an athlete. It’s dealing with the other things around you. Being a woman athlete is probably the toughest thing you can do. It is very difficult. The margin of error is very, very small. If you let your racquet do the talking, that’s enough.

The problem in India is that there are certain questions asked of women without thinking that there is anything wrong with them. At some point in our lives, we have always been asked to not go play in the sun because you will become dark, and you won’t get married. We have always been asked when we are going to have kids. Once you have a kid, the question becomes when you are going to have the next kid. That’s the way society in this part of world looks at “settling down”. To change this, it’s a process that’s going to take all of us women to fight against together. That is something that we will have to do time and again, on every single day of our lives. But we are going to have to fight it as a unified voice.

(But) I think the situation for women athletes in India has improved. Now you see PV Sindhus, Saina Nehwals and Mary Koms on hoardings – or movies being made on them. I don’t think 25 years ago we would have seen that at all. We used to just seeing cricketers and only three-four of the star cricketers, and that’s it. That was the extent of sports brand endorsement that existed. It has become better. I don’t know if I have played a part in that or not. When I was growing up, it was only PT Usha – the biggest woman athlete that we had heard of and that was someone we always looked up to. Then it became much more commercial by the time I came in. So I would imagine that it has become better and I hope it continues to do so.

– Sania Mirza, multiple Grand Slam champion and former World No 1 tennis ace

There is a mentality in many girls that wrestling is a man’s sport. This prevents them from taking up the sport. They’re also worried about facial injuries. Reasons like these are particularly why I take excessive pride in being a female wrestler from India. Whenever I take the mat, I want to inspire girls to take up the sport. I don’t think women are inferior to men in any way. Not just sports, look at any profession right now. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men.

– Vinesh Phogat, Commonwealth Games gold medallist wrestler

The best part about being a boxer is that I don’t need to depend on a man to protect me. I can do that myself. Taking up the sport has helped me always be equipped to handle any untoward situation. Unfortunately, boxing is largely still considered a man’s domain. Female representation is very limited in the sport.
But things are improving: Women’s boxing was included in the Olympics from the London Games in 2012. There, when Mary Kom won a medal, it changed everything for the sport and its female practitioners. We get as much recognition as our male counterparts now.

– Nikhat Zareen, Youth World Boxing Championships silver medal winning boxer

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Published Date: Mar 08, 2017 11:41 am | Updated Date: Mar 08, 2017 01:22 pm