Reveries of a Female Athlete: The Status of Women in Indian Sport

There was once a girl who loved to stay in water. The weightlessness and the serenity of an underwater world seemed to be just the place that she wanted to be in. Soon, she realized that her underwater world was very much like a dream. What’s the most insane thing you would like to do in a dream of yours? Well, whether it be building mountains or chasing rainbows, this girl decided that she would fly in her dream-world of water. That is how Pragnya Mohan started swimming, and once she did there was no stopping her.

As I sat down next to her, I told her that I wanted to know everything she went through, all her experiences that had molded her into the athlete she is today, with numerous accolades and titles to her name in sports like running, swimming and cycling. In the dimly lit setting, Pragnya started to narrate her story as I visualized each scene in my head, starting with her first swimming competition in 3rd grade, where she won first place, beating boys up to 7 years older than her. She then told me how she found solace in running and won her first half-marathon in 5th grade. She proceeded to tell me how she got into cycling in 8th grade, when she started cycling 12 kilometers everyday to get to her swimming classes.

Pragnya with the Eklavya Award and a hoard of other awards
Pragnya with the Eklavya Award and a hoard of other awards

This journey seems to be the stuff of dreams, with a girl finding her passions along the way and excelling at them through years of persistence. At this point, I asked her to take me to the other side of her story the one that radio and television reporters choose not to tread onto. Welcome to the dark side folks(picture the beginning of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”)!Yes, there is a need to go easy here and not get overwhelmed by what you are about to read.

“Practice has been the scariest part for me”, she said as the cigarette smoke rose from my mouth enveloping her face for a brief second, adding to the mystery.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, I used to go cycling or running before the sun rose, when it was fairly dark. That’s when they come along, these men. I have been harassed and verbally abused several times, but the only thing you can do is keep going without getting affected. Trust me, my colleagues in other states have had it much worse, even being physically molested.”

“Shit, how were you able to practice then?”

“The only choice you have is to either go after the sun has risen, or always go in a group. Even then there is no way you actually make them stop.”

In a country where women have to cover themselves up, practice in groups or not be free from stares and weird comments during practice sessions, are we really in a state to encourage and build future prospects for women in Indian sports?

“It gets much worse when it comes to support for women in Indian sport”, continues Pragnya as she talks about the various hurdles and obstacles that women have to go through on this perilous journey that has killed the dreams and aspirations of many a sportswomen who could have been just like her.

The epicenter of the problem starts at home, where parents and relatives are literally perplexed and repulsed at the idea of their daughter being a sportswoman. Comments like, “Why are you doing something that is only for boys” and “She’s just doing it so she can wear those revealing shorts” are not uncommon. Then there are those myriad questions related to whether she can make it in sport, why she should leave household chores for such an unpromising career, and why she is not getting married, that a woman has to go through in order to even get a chance at entering the world of sports.

Thankfully for Pragnya, her family has been a great support for her through the years. Since childhood, her father has constantly encouraged her interest in physical activities and sporting events. Her entire family consists of sport enthusiasts, due to which they understand the importance of letting her follow her dream.

Pragnya during her stint at the Nasik Triathlon
Pragnya during her stint at the Nasik Triathlon

She is quick to point out that not everyone is as fortunate as her, with women from rural areas and conservative families facing much more resistance and obstacles in terms of cultural and gender-based stereotypes. There is always the lingering stereotype that women cannot match men in endurance, women are the weaker race and therefore do not stand a chance in the realm of sports, which they consider to be tailor-made for men only.

Then comes the quintessential question, are these families to be blamed for their narrow-minded perspective towards women in sport? Well, not entirely. The problem actually stems from further up the hierarchy, to the “men” who organize and fund major sport events. Pragnya points out that in any large-scale sports event involving both men and women, the number of prizes reserved for men are much higher than that reserved for women. Moreover, the prize money reserved for women are considerably lower than that reserved for men. Take the average marathon for example, where the men’s category has a total of ten prizes, with prize money up to Rs. 1 lakh. On the other hand, the women’s category has a total of four prizes with prize money up to Rs. 70,000 only. Why the huge disadvantage for women? Well, no one seems to know; rather everyone seems to ignore.

The blame is then entirely put on the lack of government funding for these events. The government in turn points to the lack of participation in the women’s category. This lack of participation can in turn be pointed to the apparent lack of support that women get from their families and relatives when they set off on this journey to explore sport. Why the lack of support from families you may ask? Well, it can be attributed to various reasons like not enough monetary gains, stereotypes related to low endurance and physical ability in women, and the inherent fear that their daughter would be molested and abused by men. As you can see my friends, this is one vicious cycle that women in sport find themselves in.

The only way out of this vicious cycle for now, seems to be something like, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.” Like Pragnya pointed out before, in order to get to the top and achieve something in sports, women have to numb themselves from the hoards of insults, abuses, stereotyping and lack of support that is showered on them by the world.

If you ask me, this seems like the “easier” option, because changing the mindset of people regarding the capability of women in sport is not a piece of cake, especially in India where society has its head too deep into patriarchal superiority and Bollywood fanaticism to actually care about anything like this. But, a glimmer of hope shines through Pragnya as we part ways at the end of the talk. One of the main things that struck me from our conversation is that if one woman can realize her dreams in this overtly narrow-minded society, there is no reason why others cannot. The only thing we can do is make it easy for them on this incredibly perilous road that we ourselves have built (rather broken).

Shine on you crazy diamond!

About Ashwin Ramesh

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