Hurdles of bias

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

Prejudices at the levels of family, society and government make the struggle harder for aspiring sportswomen in Haryana but fail to kill their initiative.


"WE have a sports ground and if we try to publicise our game a lot of taunting goes on. When we play in shorts and T-shirts, women and men in the village ogle at us and say that we are trying to ape Sania Mirza. When we win anything at all, there is no encouragement from the government. We went to the gram panchayat leaders and told them that we had won a tournament and that we should be rewarded. The elders refused us, saying - what if we won each time and claimed a reward?" This is Nisha from Panipat.

Haryana is a region of strange contrasts. On the one hand, girls are unwanted in the prosperous State; on the other, girls, given a chance, have excelled in national and international sport events. Battling almost every conceivable prejudice at the individual, family and social levels and despite a negative sex ratio, sportswomen from Haryana have carved out a niche for themselves over several years. Yet, their potential goes largely unrecognised. Significantly, most of the award-winning sportswomen have emerged from poor families.

Organisations such as the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) have long believed that one of the crucial ways of addressing gender incongruities in Haryana would be to reclaim aggressively the right of full physical development as guaranteed in sporting activities - sport not only in the competitive "medal-oriented" sense but as an enabling factor for the overall physical and mental development of individuals. The only way this can be done, the organisation feels, is by providing to young girls and women facilities that will help them to deal more effectively with structural biases. In a unique public convention organised by AIDWA in the State, aspiring and former sportswomen expressed strong resentment at the prejudices they face.

In one corner of the Sir Chhotu Ram Sports Stadium in Rohtak, a few girls practise the uneven bars as part of gymnastic training. It is late evening and they stand huddled in a cramped corner, a 10-by 7-foot rectangular space, wearing shorts and T-shirts, quite conscious that they are the only women around. They are visible only to the discerning viewer; otherwise, their presence is swamped by the groups of boisterous men practising kabaddi, wrestling and basketball.

The gymnastics coach, Rajbala Dahiya, is a Sports Department official. She says that the "corner" is chosen mainly to avoid attention. She says that children from affluent families do not go to government facilities as they have other options such as private trainers and sports clubs.

"These girls are all from very poor families. They come on their own. Sometimes, sisters from the same family come together. But they face a lot of family opposition because there is a feeling that they lose their morals. Also, parents fear for their safety," Rajbala said. She spoke of 10-year-old Sonu, who was fatherless and whose mother worked as a domestic, but who came regularly.

The gymnastics coach felt that if such facilities were provided in villages, there would emerge a vast talent pool. "There is a problem with the outfits. As of now, it would be unimaginable in villages to have girls in shorts and T-shirts practising the bars. Gymnastics cannot be conducted in track suits," she said. She added that she could easily start a training centre in Nakloi village in Sonepat district, but the residents would not agree.

Priyanka Saini and Monica Saini are training under Rajbala Dahiya. They have played at the national level, but they still function under constraints. They said: "We cycle every day to the stadium. Our parents worry for us constantly. If we are escorted home by a male friend, people look down upon us. If we are delayed because of practice, they accuse us of hanging around with boys."

The Chhotu Ram stadium, which is the only one in the entire district, has no proper tracks. In villages, the only tracks available are the narrow boundaries that separate fields. Jagmati Kadiyan, a physical education teacher at the government senior secondary school in Madina village in Rohtak district, has produced several State-and-national-level kabaddi players. Jagmati participates in athletic events for veterans and continues to win medals. In her teaching experience of 22 years, she has seen only poor children come to study in government schools, and her school is no exception. She said a lot more could be done if elected panchayats took it upon themselves to encourage girls in sport events.

According to her, children from poor families seem to show a natural ability to play kabaddi or kho-kho, games that do not require a ball or a bat or a racket. "They have only their bodies to use and they do it so well," said Jagmati Kadiyan, who is also the secretary of the district Kabaddi Association and a member of the Haryana Kabaddi Selection Committee. She lamented that several of her star players dropped out because of poverty and the pressure of early marriage that usually goes with it.

It was usual for girls to be married off as soon as they were 16 or 17 years old, she said. A woman was seldom allowed to mature as a player. Jagmati Kadiyan believes the sports policy is a sham. As governments do not have to invest in sports such as kabaddi or kho-kho, the players of these games, especially the women, are ignored, according to her.

Jagmati Sangwan, the State AIDWA president, who was part of the volleyball team that played in the Asian Games, belongs to a farmer's family from Butana village in Sonepat district. She was the youngest in a large family and did not have too much attention paid to her. She talked of how, as a growing child, she and her sisters made cow dung cakes and watched in envy as their brothers spent their time playing and participated in village tournaments. It was primarily because government education was free that she was able to study in a sports college. Even now, she said, there were no facilities such as an enclosure or a sports ground for women to practise. Now a lecturer in physical education at Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak, Jagmati Sangwan said she could only start pursuing her interests when as a 11-year-old she came into contact with a volleyball teacher, Phoolmati.

Like most other girls of her background, Jagmati Sangwan was to be married off at 15 when another sports teacher intervened and urged her parents to let her take admission in the sports college at Hisar. This was in 1978 and she was the only girl student who cleared the admission test.

"The administration felt that I would be a cause of indiscipline among the boys and tried to discourage me from taking admission," she said. Then there was another test, and this time two more girls cleared it. The only sports college in the State has been lying shut for the last three years now.

Jagmati Sangwan also said that kabaddi and kho-kho were popular games among the rural poor.

"A class divide exists in sports too," she said. "These games are never given the kind of prominence they deserve by either the media or anyone else, as they are the games of the poor. Instead of giving a star status to some sports and promoting a medal-oriented rat race, there should be a mass sports culture which provides not only healthy entertainment but opportunities for creative expression." It is only recently that kabaddi became one of the games that are played at the national level.

Khelogey kudogey banogey kharab/ Padhogey likhogey banogey nawab. Roughly translated, this means: play and jump, you are destined to a life of ruin; reading and writing will make you a king. This was a common piece of advice churned out to youngsters, as if the two things were in contradiction, lamented Jagmati Sangwan as she spoke of the urgent need for avenues of self-expression for women. She said people's thinking would have to change drastically for women to be able to play in shorts and T-shirts without anyone casting aspersions on their `character'.

The Haryana government has a sports policy, which was updated only in 2004. But Jagmati Sangwan said that though there were a lot of homilies about facilities at the block level, nothing existed on the ground. An AIDWA delegation met the Chief Minister recently, she said, to ask for some basic facilities, such as a common room and an enclosed space for indoor activities, for girls in the common panchayat-owned land. The idea was to float a Mahila Vikas Kendra for women and teenage girls. "Where are girls playing in Haryana?" the Chief Minister reportedly asked the delegation.

There is institutionalised discrimination at the level of the government. Jagmati Sangwan said it was unfair to have two different award amounts for the same championship, especially when it was well known that given the existing realities, women reached those levels of achievement with greater difficulty. The Haryana Kesri is an award given to the best wrestler in both male and female categories. But while the male champion gets Rs.100,000 as prize money, the woman champion receives Rs.50,000. Even when the national volleyball championships were held, the prize money for the male and female teams differed, Jagmati said.

Mamta Kharab won the Arjuna award last year for her performance in the women's Asia Cup hockey tournament. Born in a lower middle class family where her schoolteacher father had six other children to feed, Mamta Kharab's rise is an example of the struggle that women in Haryana have to make to realise their sporting ambitions.

Mamta's mother told Frontline that she was almost named Ram Bhatheri because she was the sixth girl child in the family. This is a common name for girls born in large families that have few sons. Mamta's sister Sushma is a national hockey player. Their mother said that it was because of Mamta's success that the family was finally in a position to build a house of its own.

Hockey players like Kamala and Sunita Dalal and Usha Sharma, a former wrestler and now is a national coach, have similar tales of struggle to tell. Sharma, who was present at the AIDWA convention, said that she was training both her daughters to become wrestlers.

Former Olympian Ram Mehar Singh, who represented India in the 1956 Olympics in athletics, said that the situation could be much better for women in Haryana if the government showed some initiative. He too spoke of the discrimination in award money. At the recently held National Wrestling Championships in Jhojju Kalan, the male winner received Rs.51,000 as prize money whereas the woman got Rs.21,000.

The individual narratives of women coaches and players at the convention reflected social biases. Anita, a trained wrestler and physical training teacher at a gurukul in Jind, said that very few schoolteachers encouraged girl students to take up any serious sporting activity. She regretted that girls were married off early, missing out on opportunities, which are available to most boys.

"Thousands of Kamla Dalals can emerge but only if people want it. We are discouraged heavily," she said. Pradeep, a young sportswoman from Hisar, spoke of the poor diet given to students, of how teachers did not allow much time for practice and how a large number of posts of physical instructors were left vacant.

The revamped sports policy recognises that "women's sports have given good results in the recent years, specially in athletics and games such as hockey, kabaddi, volleyball and weightlifting. Necessary attempts will be made to provide sports hostel facilities at the divisional level exclusively for women". Sport has been envisaged as a mass movement in the policy but it does not take into account the realities faced by aspiring sportswomen. It is not enough to conceive of sportswomen as mere medal producers. Deep-rooted social biases and poverty have to be redressed for any meaningful change to take place.

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