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Girls in training at a tribal village near Ranchi, Jharkhand. Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times
Girls in training at a tribal village near Ranchi, Jharkhand. Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times

No country for sporty girls

Why do the School Games Federation of India want girls and boys to play in separate arenas?

Globally, girls are embracing what were previously more masculine sports. In Australia, for instance, more girls now play football than that traditional favourite, netball. A recent study of sporty childrenfound that boys don’t outperform girls until puberty. Babyjaan believes what the husband has always told her: Girls are stronger than boys.

Sure there’s lots that’s depressing about women and sport across the world. Most people continue to prefer watching men play team sports rather than women. Media coverage is much less for girls’ teams. There’s a huge gender pay gap in sports. Sponsorship amounts are also different. Access to team sports even as a teenager is dramatically less for girls than boys in high school. More girls than boys drop out of playing particular sports at this point.

But in the hamlet of India, where sports is still perceived as career option guaranteed to make women unmarriageable, gender debates are often bizarre. We invest incredible amounts of energy to find new ways to travel back in time.

Remember the time Sania Mirza told us how so many well-wishers advised her parents not to let their daughter play tennis because, god forbid, she would get that dreaded T-A-N? Or the time a tribal football team of teenage girls was made to sweep the office floor of a local official as they tried to get birth certificates to travel abroad for a popular Spanish women’s tournament? They won a bronze in the Gasteiz Cup.

Our latest brainwave is that girls and boys should not play in the same arena at the same time.

The School Games Federation of India (SGFI) indicated in its calendar released recently that athletic events for boys and girls will be conducted separately (boys in Nashik later this month; girls in Pune in January). Maybe it should be renamed the School Games Shakha of India. Athletes could throw a discus or long jump to devotional music. All those who fail to qualify for the finals would get an extra dose of moral values. Please stand on the podium only with your head bent and right hand on your chest.

Why should our officials worry about petty matters such as the Olympic Charter that this country signed and that obliges us to “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women"?

This time the games are due to be held in Maharashtra which has cited infrastructure issues as the reason. That’s clearly hogwash because Balewadi in Pune, which hosted the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008, is as good as it gets. Besides, school games have never been about infrastructure. I went to several district and state athletic meets in the 1980s where nobody focused on the shortage of bunks on grimy trains that ferried us to dusty venues; the basic accommodation (sometimes we slept in school classrooms); or the sub par food. We were too busy collecting medals.

P.T. Usha, the first Indian woman to reach the finals of an Olympic event and now one of India’s best known coaches, was appalled when she saw the SGFI calendar and immediately dashed off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Whatever be the reason behind the decision, it is totally undemocratic and condemnable to the maximum extent possible," she wrote, urging him to do something to reverse the decision. “Separate competitions for boys and girls or men and women were held only in very olden days."

The same benefits of co-educational learning extend to sport. Girls and boys learn from each other. Watching girls compete as vigorously in sport as boys surely breaks down some of the misconceptions of gender roles and rules in the minds of a future generation of Indian men. It may make the spectator parents of boys realize that athletics is an option for their daughters too. Seeing muscular, driven girls in shorts competing and on the podium may make boys realize that women are entitled equal access to public spaces dressed in whatever they deem appropriate. Imagine the confidence girls—who are still commonly told in this country that they are less than boys—gain when they achieve something in a stadium where both sexes are watching and cheering. At the inter-school level, most girls and boys train together anyway. What purpose does it serve to introduce segregation at the competition?

What are our great officials so worried about? I emailed Rajesh Kumar Mishra, SGFI secretary general, more than once but never got a response. Surely the burden of organizing two separate tournaments is more than if it were just held in one venue, at one time. So it’s clearly not about logistics. Men and women spend a lifetime interacting with each other—why take away what’s natural on the field of sports? So what if some young athletes fall in love at athletic meets held far away from home? It’s called growing up.

I ask Usha what gender pep talk she gives the 17 girls who board and train at her Usha School of Athletics in Kerala and she is incredulous. “There is no need to tell my girls such things now. It’s normal for girls to think that whatever boys can do they can do," she tells me over the phone. “They all have that attitude."

It’s difficult to reconcile this blatant gender segregation with the case of champion Duttee Chand who recently took on the International Association of Athletics Federation, backed by a battalion of experts and government officials, and won a landmark case in an international court of arbitration resulting in the scrapping of an unfair rule about her hyperandrogenism (her body produces more testosterone than the average woman).

So why are we going back to the BC era, as Usha wrote in her letter to Modi and an assortment of other concerned ministers? We’ll know when someone bothers to reply.

Priya Ramani will share what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

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