India, a country which attained independence 73 years ago, hasn’t been able to deliver the fundamental right of equality to all its citizens till date. Just like the real world, sport has been dominated by cisgender heterosexual males. It is hardly surprising that the greater percentage of success, facilities, opportunities and recognition goes to the binary gender that has always been considered superior, the male.
There is blatant disparity in the treatment meted out to persons in the sport sector, based on biological differences. The condition of women in sports in India is deplorable. From controversies involving skirt lengths to differing penalties, the influence of immediate societal norms is rampant. Be it media coverage, prize money, facilities or awards, women have always gotten lesser advantage compared to men and this continues even today.
Sania Mirza was criticised for wearing women’s tennis attire which is not suited to Islam. The gymnast Dipa Karmakar was not allowed to take her personal physiotherapist to Olympic Games at Rio, before qualifying for the finals. The Squash Rackets Federation of India didn’t recommend Dipika Pallikal for the Arjuna Award, even after she became the first Indian in world Top 15 rank. Dronacharya awards, which are meant to recognize quality coaches, are one of the most biased awards with less than one in 25 of them having gone to a woman.
Sania Mirza was criticised for wearing women’s tennis attire which is not suited to Islam (Image: Sania Mirza/Twitter)
Another factor detriment to women in sports is the lack of media coverage. Currently, in the world, only 4 % of sports media content is dedicated to women’s sport and only 12 % of sports news is presented by women.
Of all the challenges women face in sports, wage gap is most predominant. For example, women cricketers in the top brackets earn only 7% of what their male counterparts do, a comparison worth discussing is between what Virat Kohli and Mithali Raj earn. The top bracket in the men’s cricket team receives Rs 7 crore annually while the top bracket in the women’s cricket team receives Rs 50 lakh annually.
Moreover, they are neither afforded sufficient facilities and opportunities to enhance their sport nor given an incentive to grow into the sport. In the SAF (South Asian Federation) games of 2016, the Indian relay women’s team was put up in a local institute 20 kilometres away from the stadium while the men were accommodated in a close by the four-star hotel.
Indian sportswomen have also unsurprisingly been victims of sexual harassment, and one of the most controversial cases was that of the Indian Hockey team. In 2010, thirty-one members of the squad had filed sexual harassment charges against their coach, M.K. Kaushik. In another case, Karnam Malleshwari, Sydney Games bronze winning weightlifter was criticised by P.T. Usha for not bringing up the sexual harassment complaint at an earlier stage. But is it really right to blame her? The list of such unfortunate incidents of sexual harassment is endless. This problem is so deep-rooted within every level of the sports system that many female athletes are reluctant to reach out to competent authorities to seek help. Moreover, there are chances of their career being hampered with by those in power. Eventually, they end up accepting this ill environment as their fate with no proper mechanism for seeking justice.
Karnam Malleshwari, Sydney Games bronze winning weightlifter was criticised by P.T. Usha for not bringing up the sexual harassment complaint at an earlier stage. (Image: Karnam Malleshwari/Facebook)
The reasons for existence of persistent biases in each gender can largely be ascribed to the sociocultural constructs in a given society. The immediate societal norms dictate the way the sport culture functions in a given place. While there have been lots of movements and attention drawn to this discrimination, and some work in play in order to improve the conditions and representation of the subdued gender, an entire section of the society is still stigmatised, or maybe even ignored. How often does one hear about an LGBTQ+ athlete? Any open expression that is non-heterosexual is a rare spotting in the society, and even more rare in the sports community.
Fortunately, after years of socially opted brutality, the bench in Navtej Singh Johar upheld the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, laying down the first step in their tall ladder to equality. In a historic moment of justice, the conformity of genders was extended beyond the binary. It is pertinent to note that Justice D. Y. Chandrachud, in his obiter dicta, highlighted that this judgement must be instrumental in allowing the members of this community to freely navigate through public spaces. But reality isn’t such. Proper facilities for their needs haven’t come into force yet, and even today, there are not a lot of forums for them to showcase their skills, in almost every sector. However, each sector has its own intricacies and these, when acted upon, may help close down on the otherwise unequal society.
Sport is a unique and important connective that binds people together, both within and across societies. People with a wide range of differences between them come together to cheer and support a team, setting aside all their other differences. That is the beauty of sport. This beautiful intricacy can definitely be used to bridge the gap and rewrite the narrative of this community. Hardly any news of an LGBTQIA+ athlete makes the headlines, and when it does make headlines, it is accompanied by a plethora of negative comments and hurtful remarks. However, it also acts a source of courage for many and inspires them to come out and start living their differences.
Dutee Chand, who is India's first athlete to openly come out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. (Image: The Hindu)
Take the case of Dutee Chand, who is India's first athlete to openly come out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. When she spoke about being in a same-sex relationship in 2019, she faced a severe backlash from her home village after her decision to come out. Even though she is an individual who conformed to a binary identity, she faced severe trouble because most of our sports policies ignore the specific problems faced by people because of their sexual orientation. While such individuals with different sexual orientation face no discernible barrier to sport, softer forms of exclusion such as bullying, fear and confusion still play a vital role in their careers.
Chand is the same woman who was previously suspended from sport due to accusations of hyperandrogenism. The IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism, or high natural levels of testosterone in women, was suspended following a hard fought battle in the case of Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) & The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, decided in July 2015. This effectively removed the suspension of Chand from competition, clearing her to race again. She has been more fortunate than peers like South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, an Olympic medallist, who recently lost her case against the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) on a similar case.
Santhi Soundarajan is an athlete from South India. Her chromosomes were tested when questions about her sex arose and that was followed with a hormone test, a gynaecological exam and a psychological evaluation. Shortly after, Soundarajan was watching TV when she saw a news report that she had “failed” a sex test. Rejected by the local sports federations, stripped of her silver medal, tormented by ongoing scrutiny and unbearably embarrassed, she attempted suicide, reportedly by swallowing poison.
Santhi Soundarajan (Image: Indian Express)
Another example can be Pinki Pramanik, who is an Indian track and field athlete. A rape allegation by Pramanik's female friend led to medical tests to determine her gender, whose results said she was a "male pseudo-hermaphrodite", incapable of having penetrative sex. She stated in an interview that she has always been female. As part of her training to compete in international athletics, she used to be regularly administered testosterone injections like other female participants. She also said that she was manhandled and kept in a men's cell in jail. According to her, she did not consent to any testing, and was drugged and unconscious for the examination.
These examples are but a few. But they clearly show how the treatment of female athletes, and intersex women in particular, has a long and sordid history. Not only are the tests extremely humiliating, they also discriminated against those whose anomalies provided little or no competitive edge and traumatized women who had spent their whole lives certain they were female, only to be told they were not female enough to participate. They clearly shed light on the lack of sensitivity the society has towards stigmatised communities. Although the law now provides them freedom to exist in the public sphere, their acceptance by the majority of the society is questionable and tolerant at best.
The most vital concern today is the invisibilisation of the LGBTQIA+ cause in the Indian sporting narrative. In fact, Trans and non-binary gender identities rarely feature in our sports policies. Most sports policies limit their language to just men and women. Karnataka Sports Policy can provide a much-needed starting point for the rest of the country for it replaced this normalised phrase with “diverse genders”, laying down a foundation in sport for representation of all. Language of our sports policies aside, our sporting infrastructure blatantly ignores the existence of non-binary individuals. Public spaces such as stadiums and fields lack gender-neutral changing rooms or restrooms, leading to their marginalisation. Moreover, training for various sports restricts accessibility to those belonging to non-binary gender. In order to reduce exclusion, more efforts must be taken to include people of all genders and furthermore, providing a gender-neutral space has to be a prime aim.
Kerala hosted India’s first ever transgender sports meet in 2017. (Image: BBC)
The country can also follow the path taken by Kerala, who hosted India’s first ever transgender sports meet in 2017. It is an excellent initiative which works towards uplifting the third sex. Further access to diverse segments of society must be provided by introducing specialised events, training camps, free coaching and outreach programmes to the people from this community. They must be converted into responsibilities of the state, and accountability must be ensured.
With the gender binary and heterosexuality having been normalised over the years, sporting structures cannot afford to further this normalisation. Efforts taken towards bringing about acceptance of intersectionality in the society must be given utmost priority. There must be active efforts of sensitisation and education aimed at both fans and players, in order to change people’s colonialism set mind. Equality in all fortes of sport should be made a priority across federations. Sport can rewrite its narrative for the better, and in a much more inclusive manner. There is a lasting influence that sportspersons have on their immediate society and this must be used to spread better and utopian ideals. There is urgency for Intersectional diversity in the society, and this must be highlighted and inculcated in day-to-day sport activities as well as the big tournaments and events. More efforts must be drawn to promote equality in opportunity, treatment, pay and every other section of sport, irrespective of differences in gender and sexuality. It the end, it is upon us to shape sporting culture and decide what we want to reflect via sport.