“Sport has the power to change the world” – Nelson Mandela
True to the legendary South African leader’s words, sport has the magical power of invoking inspiration, providing hope to the hopeless and even changing the social structure.
And for women, sport is a panacea that has helped them to rise above the societal rules. Liberating themselves from the shackles of the patriarchal society through sport, women have not only moved forward but have also brought about a change in the mindset of many.
In a country like India where female foeticide, skewed gender ratio and child marriages are still a harrowing reality, the rise of India’s sportswomen is a story of courage and self-belief. Mary Kom, PT Usha, the Phogat sisters, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, Karnam Malleswari are shining beacons who are a source of great motivation to the countless girls in the country.
Entering the male bastion: the Phogat sisters’ inspiring tale
It takes a mightily gutsy effort to change the perception of people. In a state like Haryana where the sex ratio is 837 females per 1000 males, the Phogat sisters’ defiance of the societal norms to enter the male bastion of wrestling is laudable.
Girls grappling in the mud is unthinkable in a place where they are married off sometimes even before they attain adulthood. But sheer determination is what emboldened Mahavir Singh Phogat of Balali village to fight the khap panchayats and herald a change. Overcoming the odds, he nurtured the girls – his daughters Geeta, Babita and Ritu; brother’s daughters Vinesh and Priyanka – into wrestling champions.
When Geeta Phogat clinched the gold in 2010 Commonwealth Games, the village finally shrugged off their scepticism and basked in her glory. Babita and Vinesh too brought in medals from the 2014 Commonwealth and Asian Games. Now the Phogat sisters are revered and they have empowered the women in the state to dream about making the impossible possible.
“Village elders and even my grandmother used to say that no family will want their daughters-in-law to play such a sport. But now, we’re heroes,” reveals Vinesh Phogat.
Mary Kom – a hero for India
Heroes – that’s what these women are. From running a family to bringing laurels for the country – boxing queen Mary Kom has set an example that every girl should look up to. Her path to the top, though, was fraught with many a challenge.
‘’I was the David who took on the Goliaths in the boxing ring – and I won, most of the time,’’ Mary Kom tells in her autobiography, ‘Unbreakable’.
She indeed was so and not just in the boxing ring. Coming from a family of landless agricultural farmers from Manipur, Mary struggled to even have a proper diet but her indomitable spirit never left her. Boxing was a taboo and so her decision to pierce into a man’s world was met with vehement protests and even ridicule.
Today, the five-time World Boxing Champion and Olympic bronze medallist is one of the most famous figures in women sports all over the world. Today, the mother of three has taught little girls to dream about boxing, about winning and showing the world the power of women.
Rise in Indian women’s participation at the Olympics
India’s results at the 2012 London Olympics proves the emancipation of women and how things have been evolving with time. It was the first time when women earned multiple medals.
The number of Indian women participating in every Olympics since the 2000 Summer Games has been consistently increasing unlike just five at the 1996 Atlanta Games. This further validates the revolution in the Indian sports scenario and the active participation of women in sport.
The 1984 Olympics – PT Usha and Shiny Wilson
Empowerment of women in sport did not happen overnight. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics would perhaps be one of the best examples of setting things in motion.
It brought the country’s female athletes to the forefront. PT Usha’s missing the 400m hurdles bronze in a photo-finish became one of the most-talked about sports stories for years. In the 800m race, Shiny Wilson became the first Indian woman to reach the semi-finals of an Olympic event. Besides, the women reached the 4x400m relay final as well.
The country found new role models – PT Usha and Shiny Wilson. Both went on to achieve legendary status which would eventually revamp the Indian sports model. When Wilson became the first woman flag bearer for India at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, it showed that India had started treating its fairer sex with more respect.
Karnam Malleswari – the first Indian woman Olympic medallist
The 1990s were significant in delivering the idea that breaking away from the stereotype was possible. Even though change was slow, the floodgates were opened after Karnam Malleswari’s historic achievement at the 2000 Sydney Games.
The bronze-winning weightlifter who came from a very humble background, etched her name in record books as the first Indian woman Olympic medallist. It was a staggering feat!
That women had started to carve out their own niche in the male-dominated sphere was evident.
Sania Mirza – the ambassador for empowerment of women
The bold and daring doyen of Indian tennis – Sania Mirza – then became one of the true ambassadors for empowerment of women. It has been 10 years since the three-time Grand Slam champion made the breakthrough but her passion for her sport still remains the same.
Relentless criticism and religious fatwas – Sania Mirza had to face it all but never gave up. On the contrary, every time she came under the fire, she answered back with her monumental achievements.
Sania’s rise to stardom was partly aided by the media who had started diversifying into sports other than cricket. The Hyderabadi was instrumental in forcing a change in the thinking process of middle class families. Quite deservingly, last November Mirza was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia by UN Women where she would focus on empowerment of women.
Saina Nehwal – One of the most influential athletes
Another pathbreaker for Indian women has been Saina Nehwal. The dedicated and diligent badminton star has many firsts to her name and has been one of the most influential sportspersons over a few years now. Nehwal along with Mirza and Kom are the only three female athletes to be featured in the latest Forbes India Celebrity 100 list, thus stamping their dominance.
The Olympic bronze medallist believes in a simple principle – “Snatch your rights by excelling in your pursuits. Do maximum for the distinction in your field.”
And that’s how the current world #3 has made an indelible mark in a sport that has been under the Chinese hegemony over the last three decades. Most importantly, she has made a cricket-loving nation sit up and appreciate her efforts.
Sports thus have been a mighty weapon for empowerment of women. It has paved the way for equality, respect, recognition and financial freedom for women. Far more vital is that it is enabling young girls to stand on their own feet and have a voice of their own.
Even though it will still take time to completely alter the conventional rules, it is heartening to see schools making sports mandatory for children and many NGOs joining in this movement as well.
On International Women’s Day, we salute these brave and undaunted ladies who made all this possible. May they continue to inspire generations!