Documenting Haryana's sportswomen: Patriarchy and feminism in the land of Dangal

Physiotherapists, psychologists, good hospitals, and sports medicine are difficult to access in Haryana, if you are a sportwoman who cannot afford them yourself. Haryana is also one of the states where the sex ratio is the most skewed in India. Despite these factors, it manages to produce a considerable number of sportswomen, such as the Phogat sisters — Geeta and Babita (and Vinesh), and Sakshi Mallik. Photographer Karen Dias wanted to find out for herself what this dichotomy was about, and whether her preconceived ideas about Haryana and the status of sportswomen living there were borne out on the ground. Armed with a grant provided by the International Women's Media Foundation, she decided to document the sportswomen of Haryana.

With some variation in their schedules based on the particular sport that they play, most of these girls (Dias' subjects) wake up at 4 or 5 am, and are ready for training on the ground by 6 am. After training for roughly two to three hours, they go home and attend school, only to return to the ground by 4 pm. With the exception of the weekend, they train every day for five to six hours.

This is what makes it alarming to know that every coach spoke to Dias about how the girls struggle with their diet and maintaining their health. Because a majority of the girls comes from poor families, they cannot afford to eat the foods that are imperative to building stamina, such as fruits, nuts, lentils or meat. "They find it hard to recover from injuries when they are anemic or cannot eat healthy. Their parents don't fully understand how good nutrition will help them play better. There were some governmental schemes where kids would get milk and some fruit delivered every morning to their academies or get some financial help for healthy meals, but these schemes would mysteriously stop or funding would be cut without reason," she says.

 Documenting Haryanas sportswomen: Patriarchy and feminism in the land of Dangal

Image © Karen Dias

But the health and diet of the players is not the only looming concern; Dias says that all the places the girls trained in lacked good infrastructure. "They have good days and bad. Sometimes, they win championships or tournaments, they get cash prizes or new equipment. But, the thing with sport is that it needs constant upkeep; nets tear, mats crack, shoes get old. All the places I went to, they struggle to maintain the equipment they have, if they have any at all. The situation is far from ideal," she explains.

What would otherwise be considered basic necessities, such as proper functioning toilets or changing rooms are missing. All the coaches she spoke to were troubled by the fact that they couldn't afford better hockey sticks, or nicer shoes, or new balls. She reports that the funds towards the upkeep of equipment and infrastructure is low, and there isn't as much government support as there should be. And this becomes apparent when girls from the state compete at international competitions; they simply don't have the opportunities that are afforded to their western counterparts.


Image © Karen Dias

A lot of the families weren't supportive of the girls at first, but over time, they grew more accepting. Now, they go out of their way to help their daughters participate in sports, with fathers dropping their daughters off to practice, letting them move out of the home to the cities to continue their training, mothers making meals for their daughters, and some even coming to watch and support games. There are still a considerable number of families who don't want their daughters to play, whether it is because they don't want then to play with boys, or to wear shorts, or purely because it's just "not a thing girls do".

Some families save as much as they can to help their children to continue playing sport, and some girls leave abruptly because they can't afford to buy new shoes or pay for tournament fees. Dias says that many girls used to come barefoot or in slippers to the football ground, and sometimes, they would stop coming because of the lack of proper shoes. "Some coaches pay out of their own pockets, there are many local donors who help out, the kids who are better off help the poorer ones, some people donate old clothes or shoes. I noticed in every place, everyone helped each other out with what they didn't have," she says.

Haryana was as patriarchal as Dias expected it to be, but it also surprised her in a lot of ways. "It made me realise that there are many different types of feminism. A lot of these girls very intelligently navigate extremely conservative families and societies to get what they want. There is a lot to learn from these girls about how to challenge patriarchy without completely upsetting their social structures. The girls understand that at the end of the day they will have to do what their families say so when the time comes, they will have to give up the sport and get married unless they are lucky to have in-laws who will support their sporting careers," she explains.


Image © Karen Dias

Still, it didn't really alter her perception. She believes that there is a very long way to go for women's rights in the state, but that sports is definitely one of the best ways to achieve equality. Notably, Dias says that there was no mention of any kind of sexual harassment from any of the girls. She refuses to believe that this is the case, given the state's reputation. "I think they don't speak about it for fear of losing their sports careers and to avoid bringing shame to them and their families," she opines.

Dias says that there is markedly more encouragement from families of these girls to pursue sports now, but this is not the case everywhere. She says that certain schools or institutions in Haryana get more attention and funding than others, while the rest just fall by the wayside. "On the other hand, seeing the success of Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters, there is also a sense of greed among some families in Haryana who think that their daughters will bring them out of poverty, and thus they put undue pressure on them," she adds.


Image © Karen Dias

She says that she also heard stories of some families taking their daughters' prize money and using it for their own benefit. "The good thing is that most girls playing sports and participating in tournaments have to have bank accounts that only they can access so that their prize money is transferred directly to their accounts. A lot of them have to have passports too, to be able to travel outside the country for tournaments, so things are slowly changing at the administrative level, which can be empowering."

Dias narrates to us some of the most striking stories she observed and heard of during her visit. One of these stories is about the ground of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School located in the village of Mangali, which is 30 minutes outside Hissar. Roughly 130 girls play football in this ground, which the coaches and villagers claim used to be a burial site overrun with shrubs and weeds. The ground had to be cleared out for the girls to play, and certain parts of it sink every now and then where the graves are; it has to be filled with dry soil to level it.


Image © Karen Dias

Another story, which is troubling to say the least, is of a coach who also trained his daughter, and decided to stop her from attending school. This decision was taken to prevent her from being badly influenced or having boyfriends. He told Dias that he avoids coaching women for the most part because 'they do shameful things' and 'run after boys'. "He also casually mentioned that he wouldn't hesitate to kill his daughter and her to-be boyfriend if she brought shame to the family. It was unnerving to hear someone talk about honour killings so casually," she says. Dias did not wish to mention the sport the girl plays, because she says Haryana is a very 'small' place.

Updated Date: Aug 14, 2017 15:48:56 IST