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The invisible citizens: are Indian women ready to reclaim the playgrounds?

Indian female athletes challenging the gendered perceptions of the playgrounds Photograph: (Getty)

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Aug 24, 2016, 09.08 AM (IST) Sanhita Chatterjee

Growing up in India as a girl child can be great as long as you remain inconspicuous, and strictly abide by the unwritten codes of patriarchy. The moment you step a toe outside your permitted limit, you will either be ridiculed, defamed, or better still, get violated. It seems even the permitted limit is actually an endless list of don'ts, with the occasional dos, which are actually disguised don’ts.

Personally, the moment I realized I was not an equal was when I was a five-year-old. My aunt was pregnant and everybody was telling her “Oh, you are surely going to give birth to a boy”. I thought to myself - "But I am a girl, there is nothing wrong with being a girl." In my young mind, I failed to understand why my aunt shouldn’t give birth to a girl child. 

So as all children do, I spoke my mind. In return, I was slapped on the cheek and was made to swear that I would never utter such a repulsive thought again. However, the punishment only made me more determined to find out, why I was hit and what was so terribly wrong with what I said.

 Over the years, there have been countless experiences where the society, comprising of so-called "well-wishers", tried their best to dictate my choices, clothes, and diction, even my lifestyle, as well as my very existence; no matter what I achieved through merit, it was never good enough. There was always some mistakes that needed to be corrected. This is the stark reality a girl child goes through before she either gives up or decides to fight back. 

From adolescence, girls are brainwashed to believe that their true calling lies in being a good wife, a good mother, and taking care of the household. This mindset comes out clearly when Rajdeep Sardesai, a veteran journalist, asked Sania Mirza, one of the top tennis players in the world, as to when she was getting a family and settling down. Sania, understandably, snapped back at this "sexist" question. Rajdeep immediately apologized, more importantly, he confessed he would have never asked such a question to a man.  

The most pronounced demonstration of gender divide between boys and girls happens on the playground. After a certain age, girls hardly venture out. The playgrounds across the country bear witness to the fact that the first rule of patriarchy is to make women invisible. If you notice carefully, the neighborhood playgrounds are occupied, even dominated, by boys and men. 

No one ever notices the absence of the other half of the population from these grounds: the invisible citizens.  

During my teens, when I went to the playground, I invariably ended up playing with the boys because there was no other choice. Over time, I realized why this was so. Once, I overheard a friend’s mother scolding her daughter that no “self-respecting” woman played sport as it will spoil her complexion. The most important question for an Indian girl happens to be, who will marry a sun-burnt sports fanatic?

In Indian families, the complexion of the girl is protected like a fortress right from the time the girl is born. Playing out in the open sun is a cultural taboo for women.

Girls are discouraged from embracing the culture of sports from another ground of apprehension: she may lose her “feminine” features. Playing sports demands one to be aggressive. However, the patriarchs fear that such attitude can spill out of the playground and destroy the “peaceful” family structure that they have constructed with such care. 

Becoming “macho” or “aggressive” undermines the marriage prospect of a woman, so the society does everything to nip the desire of being an athlete in the bud.

Now that women are proving their mettle in the Olympic arena, the patriarchs resort to fault-finding and mansplaining in asserting their power and dominance. For instance, the US gymnast Simone Biles, the winner of four Olympic gold medals, said that the Produnova Vault is not something she will ever try and insisted that it should, henceforth, be named Karmakar Vault after gymnast Dipa Karmakar from India. However, very many Indians, including sections of the media, went all out to criticize Dipa Karmakar’s landing. For them, it was not enough that, Dipa achieved the singularly most incredible feat by an Indian sportsperson, it was the landing that needed to be dwelled upon. 

In another instance, certain sections of social media actually went to the extent of getting pictures of the Olympic silver medalist PV Sindhu performing a religious ritual; this was done to demonstrate that, Sindhu is first a “traditional” woman, and then anything else.

The page sharing the picture proudly proclaimed, it is the Indian tradition that needs to be upheld, there is no such thing as feminism. In fact, the picture garnered one of the highest numbers of "likes" on the Facebook. From their point of view, feminism is in direct contradiction to the values set by the Indian culture.

Diverting the glory of the achievement to the coach or the husband of the athlete is another tactic to steal the thunder away from the achiever. Most definitely, coaches and husbands contribute to the achievement, but as one headline read “Gopichand makes a champion out of Sindhu”.  By every sense of the term, it is a disguised sexist statement. The implication of such a statement is, how can a woman be the champion without the man making her one.

Even though the invisible citizens of our country have time and again tried to gain their rightful place, but there is still a long way to go before girls play sports for the fun of it, without being ridiculed, prohibited, and scrutinised. A process towards gender equality can be initiated by reclaiming public spaces, such as playgrounds, for use by participants of all gender. Undoubtedly, it will be a good way of hitting back at the fortified walls built by the patriarchs.

My hope is, a day will surely come when parents will think twice before gifting a Barbie to their daughter and a macho toy to their son. At the end, the silver lining is that these women Olympians have given hope to millions of young girls and, if not right away, but someday the second sex will cease to become either invisible or secondary.






Sanhita Chatterjee

She is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Journalism and Mass Communication, Visva-Bharati (A Central University in India). She is an academic with keen interest in media criticism, gender studies, film studies and political communication.

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