South Asia’s women athletes displayed grit and determination to overcome discrimination, bullying and neglect

If sportswomen are treated equally and provided with equitable opportunities, women athletes from South Asia are bound to participate in greater numbers in top international events like the Olympics, writes Sarita Bartaula for South Asia Monitor

Sarita Bartaula Aug 05, 2021
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South Asia’s women athletes

The world’s most celebrated sports event – the Olympics - is underway in Japan’s capital Tokyo and South Asian women representing various countries of the region are trying to give off their best. Of the 165 sportspersons from South Asia participating in the Olympic Games this year, as many as 71 (around 43 percent) are women.

As the games began, Sapan –acronym for the recently-launched South Asian Peace Action Network - (www.SouthAsiaPeace.com) made history by bringing over a dozen South Asian women athletes together at an online event to share their stories of struggle and success. The participants represented a wide range of sports – cricket, football, basketball, weightlifting, swimming, tennis, squash, badminton and yoga to name a few.

The event, Women in Sport: Challenges and Wins, was part of Sapan’s monthly series that kicked off in April this year - Imagine Neighbours in Peace! – a title borrowed from an unpublished volume by the pioneering but now defunct cross-border India-Pakistan interactive platform Chowk.com.

As with all events of Sapan, the online interactive session began by acknowledging the leaders whose vision Sapan is taking forward - pioneers like Asma Jahangir, Dr. Mubashir Hasan and Nirmala Despande. This month’s In Memoriam slideshow included legendary actor Dilip Kumar and Indian journalist Danish Siddiqui, purportedly killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There was the recording of a skit by prominent Pakistani satirist Shoaib Hashmi featuring renowned actor Samina Ahmed. Shoaib Hashmi, who is unwell, was represented by his daughter, author and film teacher Mira Hashmi in Lahore. The skit is a hilarious take on efforts to suppress women in sport in Pakistan. 

Shared stories 

Taking part in sports is generally a luxury for women in South Asia, noted yoga practitioner and athlete Ayesha Mansukhani, a sports investor from India.

Many of the athletes on the panel shared stories of playing football or cricket on the streets in their neighborhoods in villages and towns across the region.

Khalida Popal, the first captain of the Afghanistan women’s football team and the director of the non-governmental organization Girl Power, shared her story of playing football in a conservative patriarchal society. Football is the most played sport in South Asia, followed by cricket (Sports Mirchi, 2020). But in pursuing the sport, she had to face discrimination, harassment, and threat. She used the game to empower women in the fight for their rights and establish bonding with other women.

Another athlete who grew up playing with boys on the streets is Champa Chakma, an Indigenous athlete from Bangladesh. She faced social bullying and had to endure remarks like playing with men will get her pregnant.

Similarly, Sana Mir, former captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team also started out playing in the street. Sportswomen have to come up with excellent results to get sponsors and funding, she said, unlike male athletes who are provided with infrastructure, contracts and funds before they deliver results.
 
Rumana Ahmed, captain of the Bangladesh women’s cricket team, described how her team has to make do without funds and sponsorship.

Dubai-based Indian cricketer Roopa Nagraj said even if they are educated, have family support and have a solid economic status, women athletes struggle to find jobs and opportunities in the sports world.

Not women-friendly 
 
For women in other sports, it is even more difficult, said Bangladesh’s national basketball player Ashreen Mridha. She too highlighted that South Asia's sports world is not women-friendly and pointed out salary discrimination, prejudice towards marital status, lack of female coaches, and female leadership as knotty issues.

In addition to the challenges of sponsorship and funding, there are the difficulties of growing up in a conflict zone and conservative society,  as was experienced by international squash player Noorena Shams from Malakand Division in northwestern Pakistan. "I was expected to die", she said, referring to the bomb blasts in her area.

The story of partially-blind runner Gulshan Naaz from India sent a powerful message that sports can empower those with impairment. Weightlifter Mabia Akhter from Bangladesh shared how she would be bullied and how she struggled financially during the initial days of her career.

Nepali tennis player Preety Baral said being a female, and that too a female sportsperson, are both challenges in themselves in Nepal. Despite financial and all other forms of support from her family, she too faced bullying by her male counterparts. Girls from lower economic backgrounds cannot afford to pay and sustain themselves in the sports world, she rued.

Nisha Millet, the first Indian swimmer to qualify for the Olympics at Sydney in 2000, joined the webinar from Bangalore flanked by her little twin daughters. Despite her success, multiple awards and gold medals, she too had to struggle against sports politics and cope with poor infrastructure. With drowning being the second leading cause of fatal accidents in India, she said, swimming should be taught as an essential life skill in the country.
 
Sri Lankan athlete Caryll Tozer gave powerful insights with her observations that sportswomen throughout the region face similar challenges, like social conservativism, discriminatory attitudes, and the difficulties of patriarchal structures and misogyny. There should be no place for sexism, racism, colorism, homophobia, or any dehumanization in sports. Women athletes, she emphasized, are not only undervalued and deprived of infrastructure and funds but also abused. 

Being a sportswoman is clearly not as glamourous as it might seem, is a message that emerged from the discussion anchored by sports activist Pyoshni Mitra in London and journalist Natasha Raheel in Karachi. The event was conducted by Aekta Kapoor, journalist and editor eShe magazine, Delhi.

Rampant discrimination 

The powerful stories shared at the Sapan webinar show that for many, it is almost like going to war. Many start sports at a young age, but few survive in these male-dominated fields where women are discriminated against on multiple levels, including social and cultural norms, infrastructure, funds, sponsorship, training and job opportunities, and pay.

Additionally, they face bullying, mental and sexual harassment, and bureaucratic and systematic discrimination as prominent journalist Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, Pakistan, detailed in his concluding remarks.

For many women the battle starts at home, staying strong to beat the odds imposed by their family, society, and nation. If sportswomen are treated equally and provided with equitable opportunities, women athletes from South Asia are bound to participate in greater numbers in top international events like the Olympics. 

At another level though, it’s clear that sport is an essential tool for empowering women and building peace in the region.

(The writer is a higher education professional, youth, and women's rights activist from Nepal. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at sarita.bartaula@gmail.com)