We have let our daughters follow their ambitions; we support them in whatever they do: this is the gist of what Lovlina Borgohain’s father Tiken told media that descended after she was assured of India’s second, and Assam’s only Olympic medal ever. Silver medallist Mirabai Chanu’s father had said something similar.
The first match I saw of Lovlina was her pre-quarters. I was gobsmacked at her fearlessness. The way she moved, lowered her arms, leaving her face unguarded in the third round – she seemed to be toying with her opponent, inviting her to hit. It reminded me of Muhammad Ali.
Lo and behold: Ali is Lovlina’s inspiration. She watches his matches before bouts and even has a coach named Mohammad Ali Qamar. But in the quarterfinal with Nien-chin Chen, who had defeated her four times, she changed her game completely and guarded her face. If Muhammad Ali were alive, he’d have said of her: ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, adapts like a chameleon.’
Post her quarterfinal win, Lovlina, talking to the press over Zoom about her improved game, said, “I have stopped caring about what others say, that’s how I became fearless.” I was stunned. A boxer fearing ‘what others say’ more than deadly punches of other pugilists?
These comments – her father’s and hers – to me point at all that’s wrong with Indian society that does not help women excel. If you’re sensitive and have lived in India, you’ll know the exact words that would have been hurled like weapons at her and her family over the years for the choices she made to win at the Olympics. And this, sadly, is a global phenomenon.
Yet, Tokyo 2020 has been a breakout year for female athletes. At 49% female participation not only is it the Olympics with the most gender parity (the first one in 1896 was an all men’s affair), but some nations have made it a point to send more women than men: USA, China, UK, Australia, Canada, and Russian Olympic Committee.
And guess who are topping the medals tally? While editing this (Aug 2, dawn): China is on top, USA is number two, Australia fourth, ROC fifth, UK sixth, with only Canada lagging at number 14. No points for guessing the nations at the bottom: those who have the lowest number of women in their contingent.
India’s performance this year will be a torchbearer moment for women in sports. Not only have all three medals so far been won by women, but the possibility of most others rest on them. The Indian women’s hockey team, in only their fourth Olympics appearance, has also advanced the furthest they ever have: to their maiden quarters.
Indeed, I won’t be surprised – or shall I say I vehemently wish, sexist as it may be against men – that all Indian medals this Olympic be won by her women. Led by her daughters Mirabai, Lovlina and P V Sindhu, India has already bettered its Rio 2016 medals tally.
Yet, these phenomenal achievements have done little to curb the everyday sexism and patriarchy that is the greatest impediment to women reaching their full potential. Even comments to celebrate Indian women Olympians are loaded with sickening sexism. There are thousands of them, but let me quote the most famous one shared thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times on social media: “from marriage to Olympics, Indian women are expected to bring gold home.”
This sounds, and indeed is, witty. But it is also incredibly sexist, enforces stereotypes, and tacitly promotes a regressive and illegal tradition – dowry. Remember that gold in marriage is ‘gifted’ to a woman by her father, mostly as dowry which is illegal. Thus, it belittles the achievements of sportswomen who slog harder than men to win medals.
Don’t men in sports also struggle as much? No, they don’t. Here’s the difference between the struggle of men and women in sports. Sportsmen give their tears and sweat and some their blood. But a woman athlete, every single one of them, invariably, also has to give her blood, month after month, year after year. She has no choice in the matter.
For those surprised men, you have got to check out this thing they call ‘menstruation’; the reason men – and women – exist. But it’s a bloody mess and literally a pain, often debilitating. A sportswoman is thinking of glory as much as a sportsman but she is also thinking of ensuring – by hook or crook – that her periods don’t fall on the days of her most important matches. She trains even through her painful periods not because she really wants to, but because she needs to ensure that in case her competition does fall on a bloody day, she is up to the task.
Since most men don’t get it, here’s a scenario. Imagine giving your best as a boxer in a match while also painfully bleeding buckets from your penis into a diaper. Imagine playing a badminton match with a tampon stuck uncomfortably inside, let’s say, your anal cavity. Imagine not having the time to set it right to ease the discomfort. How many points would you lose to it?
I am not a woman so I can never know what going through these actually feels like. But I didn’t choose my gender. However, I can choose to empathise, try to understand as much as possible, as anyone, not a woman can.
Neither am I one of those idiots who believes that just because your gender is female, you’re an angel. I have known my share of devilish women to know that like all talents, evil is also distributed equally between genders. But I have also known suffering and I know how it helps me focus. Hence, I do believe that at least with many of these women and their struggles, their pain has the ability to focus their minds and to teach them things that privilege and the lack of suffering can’t.
Hence, I also believe that these traits make women better competitors, better at handling pressure in general than their other gendered counterparts. I also believe that it can make them way more ambitious than men can ever be. You’ve seen the ambition of men to make the most beautiful and destructive things: give women equality and equity and you’ll see them excel at both.
Consider just one game: India’s national sport, Hockey. In the last four decades, despite tons of money, the men’s hockey team hasn’t even reached the semi-finals. The Indian women’s hockey team, meanwhile, despite being an afterthought and playing only four Olympics has reached their first quarterfinals this year. The team is full of daughters with iron-willed fathers. One of them, Vandana Katariya – whose hat-trick propelled India into the quarters in a nail-biting 4-3 win over South Africa – lost her father while training for the Olympics. She couldn’t even go to say her final goodbye to the man who fought for her hockey. To me, her pointing a finger to the sky after her hat-trick, was a nod to her father.
Seven of the women in that hockey team were Covid-19 positive during the second wave.
Thus, if we had a wise person helming the Indian Hockey Federation, she/he would put more resources for the over-performing women’s hockey team than the under-performing men’s one. I suggest all sports federations in India do the same. This, I also feel, would mean that when women rise, undue pressure on men’s shoulders would be lifted and they can breathe easy and perform better.
Be it a marriage or the Olympics, do not expect a woman to bring gold home in a sexist way. Understand that a focused, determined woman is gold herself and that like everyone else, she has the right to her ambition and to work towards it without needless hindrance from patriarchal and regressive minds. And the next time you hear a sportsperson having given sweat, blood and tears, let your first assumption be that it’s a woman because every sportswoman does literally give her blood to her chosen game.
And if you want to quote an actual non-sexist, witty comment on Indian women winning medals, I give one for free: “India does not want daughters-in-law to bring gold home but their daughters to win gold for India.”
I leave you with another thought: if four fathers – Lovlina’s, Mirabai’s, Sindhu’s and Vandana’s – supporting their daughters get India so many Olympic medals, imagine what’d happen if every father in India starts supporting his daughter’s ambition? Would we then, truly become the superpower we always wish to be? I not only believe so, I know that this is the only way.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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