In 2004, Sepp Blatter, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) president, made an offhand suggestion on how to boost the popularity of women’s soccer. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes, like they do in volleyball,” he said. “They could, for example, wear tighter shorts.”
Fans still remember those remarks as an illustration of how sexism is embedded in most sports. Last month, when the Badminton World Federation (BWF) decided to glamorize the sport by mandating that women players only wear skirts on court, it reminded many observers and players of the same attitude.
Any mandate, cultural or legal, that restricts women’s choices in clothing is arguably a sexist one. In sport, more than most areas, it also happens to be outright inconvenient. This is why global pressure from women badminton players has currently led the federation to delay the enactment of the rule until 1 June, overturning the original decision to bring the no-shorts rule into effect from 1 May.
Under wraps: Jwala Gutta (foreground) is indifferent to what she wears on court. Photograph by PTI
“I don’t think the rule is fair,” says badminton player Jwala Gutta. “If you’re not used to it, then having to change from shorts to skirt might really affect your focus, and when you’re out there, you need to give 100% of your focus to your game.”
Gutta herself is not affected by the rule. She has always worn skirts or sports frocks to professional matches. And to her, the federation’s desire “for more attractive presentation of the sport” (as the words of the ruling state) is justifiable. “Shorts are casual,” she argues. “You might wear them when you’re running or stretching. If you want to have some kind of uniform for women, then a skirt is it.”
Players’ reactions to the BWF ruling have ranged from Gutta’s ambivalence to the strident criticism of Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, who won the Yonex Sunrise India Open Super Series in New Delhi last week. “Why do I have to wear a skirt?” she asks. “I know it is going to hamper my movement on the court.”
A month’s delay allows only a slim grace period for athletes to change long-accustomed clothing preferences. Buranaprasertsuk recognizes this too when she displays the matter-of-factness that has largely accompanied players’ complaints. “Even though wearing a skirt will feel strange in the beginning,” she says, “I will have to get used to it.”
But if everyone agrees the ruling is flawed in principle, why don’t more players refuse outright to comply with the rules?
The truth is that almost all sports encourage a respect for rules that requires athletes to surmount discomfort. Women athletes whose sport mandates some form of “feminine” clothing quickly develop a familiarity with the “uniform” they are asked to adopt. It’s not unusual for women to wear shorts to training, and skirts on the field. Ask Dipika Pallikal, currently ranked 24 in the world women’s rankings and India’s highest-ranked squash player, or hockey international and Arjuna awardee Mamta Kharab, both of whom are required to play professionally in skirts.
“I’m used to it,” Pallikal says. “The problem with the badminton ruling is that you can’t suddenly make it mandatory to change the way you dress. You have to recognize that different things work for different people.”
“Yes, we do wear shorts to training sessions,” Kharab affirms. Hockey federation rules require women to wear skirts on the field in international as well as intra-national games. At that level, no athlete who is discomfited by a skirt can afford to let it influence her game. Shorts, Kharab says, suit the demands of workout regimens. A workout need not resemble a match in flow, after all. To train for a hockey game, an athlete must run, jump, stretch, flex and bend, not just play for practice.
“I agree that a player shouldn’t be made uncomfortable,” Kharab says. “But I also say this: Someone like Saina Nehwal is not going to be thinking about what she’s wearing when she’s on court. Once the match begins, what you are wearing is the last thing on your mind.”
In other sports, more freedom to choose kit allows women to set the boundaries of their physical and cultural comfort. “I’ve played in both skirts and shorts,” says tennis player Kyra Shroff, who recently entered the WTA rankings (world No. 953). “I’m comfortable in both.”
Sticking together: Members of the Indian women’s hockey team have to wear skirts during matches. Photograph by Hindustan Times
Tennis allows Shroff the liberty to choose the sort of kit she wears, and the cultural pressure to wear “feminine” clothing is present, but not suffocating. Icons such as Martina Navratilova played in shorts; today, strict rules about skirts may distinguish tournaments such as Wimbledon, but there are players such as Daniela Hantuchova who choose to play in shorts at other tournaments.
What would happen if, one day, women’s tennis also set blanket rules on what players could wear? “You’d have to suck it up, right? There’s not much you’d be able to do,” Shroff points out, practically. “I’m not a Roger Federer, who might have the power to change things.”
It may be instructive to ask whether, in that case, a Venus or Serena Williams would have the power to “change things”. Over the years, the Williams sisters have drawn as much attention on the international tennis circuit with their costumes—always skirts or frocks—as they have with their tennis. Their sartorial flair is a statement of purpose: a way of controlling media attention that their excellent tennis might not have otherwise drawn.
Perhaps that is the sort of personality that the BWF is hoping will draw eyeballs to the game. In its hurry to ensure badminton’s “attractive presentation” though, they might have done well to pause a moment and remember the backlash to Blatter’s tasteless joke—and the reaction of Marieanne Spacey, then manager of England’s Fulham women’s football club.
“Surely it’s about skill and tactical ability first and how people look second,” Spacey remarked at the time. “Ten years ago, we did play in tighter shorts. Nobody paid attention then.”
Anupam Kant Verma contributed to this story.