Sports

Where Do We Play: Girls And Women Battle Stereotypes And Lack Of Public Space, Trainers In Pursuit Of Sports

The gendered assumptions of femininity and masculinity often directly impact the ability of girls and women to play in India. For instance, young girls in India are often discouraged from strength- or muscle-training and athleticism as then it's said they would start looking like a man.

Girls are often discouraged from playing and are told they would become 'unladylike' if they pursue sports
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Each day as dusk sets in behind the treetops that line the Islam Nagar area of Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad, a flurry of girls with little backpacks make a beeline for the Mahamaya Sporting Stadium where “Parvez sir” trains about 50 girls in judo and other forms of martial arts. 

Ilma Khan (name changed), who has been coming to the centre for nearly five years, states that the training has greatly helped her gain self-confidence and build strength. She has also managed to inspire other families in her area to allow their daughters to attend the self-defence classes. 

She adds, “It was hard to convince my parents. My family believed that girls shouldn’t play, run, or jump in public as it makes them look immoral and ‘unladylike’.”

The training is conducted by coach Parvez Ali, who has been running the coaching classes since 2013. He started the initiative following the heinous 2012 gang rape in Delhi, committed on a moving bus. The ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case, as it was called, led to stricter legislation and punishments for rape and sexual crimes. Initially, Ali, a professional trainer, only trained students who wanted to take up martial arts at a professional scale. 

He says, “After the rape case, I realised that for women, self-defence training is not just a sport but perhaps an important life skill. Now I train anyone who comes to my centre, even if they come for just one class.” 

For most women, however, training or recreational sports is not as easy. In India, women of all ages face discrimination, lack of resources, and issues of physical and sexual safety when accessing sports and fitness avenues or training. 

Gendering sports

The first layer of restrictions comes from the gendering and sex-typing of sports.

While sports itself does not have any gender, it does mirror gender roles in society and stereotypes about gender, body, race, colour, often play out in the sports arena. Women who play sports defy the schema that defines women as “feminine”. This, as sociologist Amy Jones explains in her paper You Don't Look Like an Athlete: The Effects of Feminine Appearance on Audience Perceptions of Female Athletes and Women's Sports, is “because female athletes often sweat, play aggressively, wear athletic wardrobes, develop muscles”.

While muscularity and physical power are desired attributes for male sports stars, women with similar qualities in similar sports are called “mannish lesbians” or “masculine”. Women in contrast are conditioned to “value a beautiful, slender, and feminine appearance”. Badminton wonder-child Serena Williams, who holds the record for combined major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles among active players in the world today, has spoken harshly about the humiliating and cruel commentary about her body and appearance that keeps showing up on legacy and social media. 

The problems of such gendered assumptions of femininity and masculinity often directly impact the ability of girls and women to play. For instance, young girls in India are often discouraged from strength- or muscle-training and athleticism as then they would start looking like a man. Parvel Ali, who trains girls in martial arts in Noida, states that women who come to train recreationally in cities have a fear of their bodies turning more “mannish”. 

“Such stereotypes are perpetuated by their families and society at large which tells muscular women that they are ‘ugly’ and that no one will want to marry a manning girl. Many women are unable to fight such stigmatisation,” says states, adding that some of his most-talented students are women.

Lack of women in these ‘masculine’ sports —such as martial arts— automatically means shortage of skilled women in coaching or teaching positions in these sports. This further impacts young girls’ accessibility to formal training centres that are run by men. Many young women find male coaches in schools and other sporting arenas intimidating and alienating. Sexual harassment also remains a repeated offence. In 2010, for instance, some members of the Indian national women’s hockey team accused the then-head coach Maharaj Krishan Kaushik and Basavaraj, the team’s videographer, of sexual harassment. While the coach lost his job, he was later reinstated at a cushy post. 

Ahead of the 2019 elections, a Change.org petition started by Delhi-based Snigdha Bhandari, who had faced similar discrimination from male coaches in schools, had sought the Delhi government to make women coaches and PT teachers mandatory in Delhi public schools. 

“I have seen girls around me shy away from sports for the lack of an empathetic mentor and a reassuring space,” wrote Bhandari in her petition. 

Where do we play?

As of 2022, Delhi has about 18,000 parks and gardens, out of which only 500 are accessible to children for play. Parks just for women are a rarity. In 2002, the Delhi Municipal Corporation (MCD) had claimed that it planned to develop one park exclusively for women in all its 134 wards. Yet, most initiatives in this sector have come from the civil society. 

In 2012, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture led an initiative to turn a piece of dilapidated land owned by the Delhi Development Authority in Nizamuddin Basti into a park for women. Called the ‘Zenana Bagh’, the park had become a safe space for the women of the area, which has fewer civic amenities and free spaces than certain other parts of the posher south and west Delhi. Such initiatives are rare and infrequent.

In 2017, a group of women who played for the Delhi state team were refused access to the public football ground in Sarojini Nagar. The women were permitted to play in the ground only after a national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party invented in the matter and spoke in their favour. 

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Unavailability of parks aside, most cities are designed with an ableist point of view and lack inclusivity for gender and other social minorities like women, transgender community, persons with disabilities, elderly persons etc. Research shows that lack of parks and recreational places is a key cause for girls to drop out of regular sports activities. 

Sukanya Roy, 21, a student at a law college living in Vasundhara Enclave in the Delhi NCR, claims that though there is a sports complex located in her neighbourhood, the road becomes ‘sunsaan’ in the evenings when students like her have the time to engage in recreational sports. 

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“My parents insist on dropping me every time I go. But they are both working and it gets difficult to match our timetables,” she states. 

Roy’s father, Sujoy Roy, a Delhi-based artist, agrees that it does not feel safe to let their daughter walk around the streets alone. “We have to ensure that we have a chauffeured car that goes everywhere with her whenever possible,” he states. 

For the majority of city residents, including informal settlers and the unsalaried working class, safety is a luxury. Sisters Meena and Sita Singh, daughters of Rajini Singh, a domestic worker in Sukhdev Vihar, claim they cannot afford to play at a sports complex. Aged 19 and 15, both sisters are kho kho enthusiasts and love to run. 

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“We cannot go out to parks to play because we are always surrounded by men of all ages who usually use the abandoned city parks to do drugs,” she states. 

Women experience cities and public spaces differently from men. To ensure their own safety, they have to develop a different strategy for their jobs and daily commute. Their travel patterns are impacted by several factors, which include household chores, childcare, etc. The 2011 Census reveals that women use public transport more than men. But public transport brings with it a separate set of challenges. According to a study by Jagori and UN Woman, 51 per cent of women in Delhi have experienced sexual harassment in public transport. 

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Thus, making public spaces like parks safe for women has two layers: first is to make the spaces themselves safe and by addressing secondary issues like affordable doorstep-to-venue commute options. According to Avinash Kumar Chanchal of Greenpeace India, safety is one of the major concerns for women accessing public spaces and accessible public transport is the key to increasing women in public spaces. 

“A safe, accessible, affordable, efficient, and sustainable public transport infrastructure as well as promoting non-motorised transport options such as cycling and walking can positively impact the inclusion of Indian women not only in sports but also in the workforce, which is currently quite low at around 20 per cent,” Chanchal states. Greenpeace has been advocating for making cities more accessible for working-class women like Rajini Singh who rely on bicycles and walking to reach their respective workplaces.

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Rethinking cities in terms of women’s inclusion can go a long way in building agency and boosting the confidence of women in all fields, especially sports which requires daily training, sharing spaces with people across genders and other social stratification.

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