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Women and girls playing sports get a raw deal in India, due to social and physical restraints, and mostly administrative apathy. When will this change?
I loved playing outside in the sun as a child. The street by our home was probably the noisiest lane in the entire colony. All thanks to my friends and me. Everyone from the sentry to the neighbours and evening walkers knew my parents by my name. To this day, my friends from college and work refuse to believe that the dark-skinned little girl in the skirt in my family album was me. So, what happened between school and college that I looked fair all of a sudden? No, I didn’t use any fairness creams in the market or the ‘home remedies’ for light skin that aunties are quick to suggest.
I stopped playing. That’s what happened.
With high school came more study time and less time to cycle and play street-badminton. I am quite sure that I’m not the only one to have lived this story. After all, one of the first things in the life of a woman to fade into oblivion is her space to play, both in physical and social terms. (Of course, our system ensures that even boys are deprived of this right lately, but I’d like to save that for another day.)
While in my case, it was just life happening a certain way, for countless girls, the freedom to play outdoors is short-lived for various reasons.
In my grandparents’ ancestral village in Tamil Nadu, one won’t find girls above the age of 11 playing on the streets. Being a year older than 11 means that you are too close to puberty and being seen often on the streets could invite unnecessary attention. During one of my visits to the village several years ago, I distinctly remember how Lakshmi (name changed), a sprightly little girl all of eight, hated not being allowed to play outside. When I asked her mum why she wouldn’t let her play, her mum responded with, “The company here is not good. The other kids here are not of the same family background as us. They’ll only spoil her.” Obviously, one can’t argue with a mother on what’s right for her child.
In many parts of India, sports is still perceived as a male domain that girls ought not to enter. From ‘You’re not a real girl if you are running around like this’, ‘Have some shame and stay at home’ to ‘Nobody will marry you if people see you outside like this’, the scares that are thrown at girls to make them fall in line and not play are numerous and very real; so much so that India is one of the countries with the least women’s participation rates in sports.
But how different is it for a girl who grows up in an urban environment? Not much. If social stigma destroyed shots at a normal life for rural women, it is lack of public space that does it for urban women.
Even in cities like Delhi, public spaces for women are few, much less, recreational sports. Women simply stop having access to playgrounds outside of school or college. In March last year, a group of women who played for the Delhi State team were refused access to the public football ground in Sarojini Nagar. It was only after the intervention of Meenakshi Lekhi, National Spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, that the women could finally start using the ground.
However, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. Thanks to some good work done in this direction by some NGOs.
Yuwa, an NGO that works with girls from socially and economically backward families in rural Jharkhand has set up a soccer club to empower girls through team sports and education. It provides girls from the region with world-class education and leadership training.
Isha Yoga Foundation, the Indian spiritual NGO founded by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, has been using the power of sports to empower and unite the people of rural Tamil Nadu for over a decade now. Through Isha Gramotsavam, a festive celebration of life in rural Tamil Nadu, the NGO conducts state-wide inter-village sports tournaments. Isha Gramotsavam has become a transformative tool that brings women outside the confines of their homes, helping them break social, gender and caste barriers and bolstering their pride as individuals and a community.
Similarly, the Salaam Bombay Foundation provides support to underprivileged children in the slums of Mumbai through programmes that engage them in sports, art and leadership skills. These programmes boost the self-esteem of the children and inspire them to stay in school.
So, yes, we do have some thoughtful people going the extra mile to create a more equitable society. But this just isn’t enough.
We need a paradigm shift to happen within each Indian home and individual. A game is when you’re most alive. Why must the release of endorphins be restricted to a treadmill in the gym? Why must our efficiency be judged only by how quickly we can cook? It’s time for each of us to change our attitude towards sports and recreation.
Ladies, let’s reclaim our space. Let’s play.
Image source: pixabay