In November, 2014, India’s tennis ace, whose Wimbledon Women’s Double’s victory on Saturday night has evoked an outpouring of jingoism, both on and off social media, had this to say, in her speech as United Nations women’s goodwill ambassador for South Asia, joining the campaign to end violence against women and raise awareness on gender equality.
‘I hope one day everyone will say that we are equal and women are not treated as objects. Women face discrimination. They are treated like animals and it is not right. The mentality needs to be changed…’
While Sania’s strong words caused a media flurry, almost instantly, so much so that the star herself took to Twitter, claiming, ‘just to make a couple of things very clear – I did NOT say that there is no respect for women in India. I am the ambassador for the region.’
Chances are she was just playing safe the second time around and was asked to keep her lips sealed by her sports management agencies. After all, being chosen by the UN isn’t a mean feat, in a country that is openly sexist and sexually exploitative towards its female athletes.
In May, this year, four young female athletes attempted suicide at the Sports Authority of India Centre, Kerala, forcing the Sports Ministry out of its self-imposed stupor to launch an immediate inquiry.
One of the athletes, a 15-year-old, expired soon after, while the three others were hospitalized after they ate a poisonous fruit in a shocking suicide pact.
The young sportswomen were undergoing training at the Water Sports Centre of the SAI at Punnamada, with family members accusing seniors of physically and mentally torturing them.
A relative of the girl (Aparna) who expired, issued a statement that the athletes of the SAI hostel were being physically brutalized. “The girl was hit by her coach two days ago with an oar due to which she could neither sit nor stand,” he lashed out in a media interview.
A couple of years back, an accusation of sexual harassment was also levied against MK Kaushik, coach for the Indian Hockey team in 2010 by all 31 players of the women’s hockey squad.
The case that shocked sports lovers and feminists equally, exposed the murky underbelly of the sporting fraternity, where like the rest of the country, women are routinely discriminated against, and objectified as items of male lust, victims of a culturally conditioned, deep-seated, moral misogyny.
‘I don’t know if Kaushik is involved at all, but I do know that many athletics coaches do ask for such favours,’ a senior athletics official, who’d earlier travelled with many Indian teams as manager was quoted in the country’s top dailies, adding explosively, ‘for ages, low- and mid-level officials have offered female athletes a place in the Indian contingent in exchange for a few hours of intimacy. I myself have seen leading athletes walking into a coach or an official’s room, and staying there for hours.’
Honestly, Sania too, currently the toast of our sporting pages, and our latest nationalistic pride, hasn’t quite had it easy herself.
And while we can expect a grand homecoming, with the government leaving no stone unturned to welcome her, in another fake photo opportunity, probably wooing her also with land, cash or even the promise to build a women’s tennis academy.
Even as the champion is sure to win a helluva lot more ‘prize money,’ as the latest face of women’s commercials and is sure to be invited to almost all Women’s Day empowerment awards, and could even be offered a film or two, somewhere deeper, a stifling sense of uneasiness still lurks about the woman she is.
The woman in the short skirt. The one sans a hijaab. The one who shakes a leg at many a Bollywood show and popular comedy rituals, the woman who is glamorous, unashamedly wearing designer (read revealing) clothes, the kind of woman who married outside the staunch boundaries of her country. Her community. The woman who wants to win. And isn’t afraid to say it like it is, when needed.
Let’s look back.
Starting 2005, Sania was subjected to a Fatwa issued by a senior cleric of the Sunni Ulema Board. ‘The dress she wears on the tennis courts leaves nothing to the imagination, she will undoubtedly be a corrupting influence,’ Haseeb-ul-hasan Siddiqui had scathingly commented, even as an entire generation of pimple-faced, adolescent desi boys salivated at our homegrown version of international tennis/sex symbol, the stunningly sexy Argentinian, Gabriela Sabatini, one of the leading players on the women’s tennis circuit in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
With most Indian women athletes never really being known for their striking good looks and body language, conversing in fluent English, blushing and giggling into bright television screens, and rubbing shoulders with leading Bollywood celebrities and sporting gods like Sachin Tendulkar, Sania, in a sense, busted the gender stereotypes of what a woman on the games field should be.
Graduating almost immediately into a poster girl, for a country starved to see thighs, breasts, lips, arms… anything. And yet, sexually squeamish.
More muck followed.
In January 2008, a case was filed on Sania under Section 2 of the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act of 1971, alleging she’d disrespected the national Tricolor by placing her feet towards the flag during a function. It was only natural her allegiance to the nation was thereafter going to be questioned. Hitting her, where it hurt. And how.
The small price of being an Indian Muslim – an uneasy calm.
In July, of the same year, an unknown 28-year-old Mohammed Ashraf, a civil engineering student, was arrested for allegedly making threat calls to Sania and creating nuisance at her residence, demanding she cancel her engagement to Sohrab Mirza. Suddenly, placing the focus back on where it should have been – a woman’s personal life. Her romantic choices.
There was talk of marriage. Settling down. Another one bites the dust?
The easiest way to first preoccupy and then silence a woman – matrimony, motherhood.
And though finally, the engagement was called off, a bitter, professional feud spewed in 2012, when Sania got embroiled in a tu tu, main main with the All India Tennis Association, refusing to play alongside biggie, Leander Paes having originally wished to partner with Mahesh Bhupathi in the mixed doubles of 2012 Olympics.
The tussle coming after both Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna also refused to play with Paes in the men’s doubles event.
Like facing dirty workplace politics, Sania lashed out in a release that she’d been used as a ‘bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis. This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned, even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country.’
Her shrill screams made the right noise, but it wasn’t the end of her agneepariksha, really.
The final blow coming, when in 23 July 2013, Telangana BJP leader K Laxman, labelled her as the ‘daughter-in-law,’ of Pakistan as she married cricketer Shoaib Malik.
Laxman even doubted her credentials as the brand ambassador of the newly formed state of Telangana. An emotional Sania, whose hennaed palms were probably not yet dry, reacted to the taunt, personally, saying on Twitter, ‘after winning medals for India, after I got married, I don’t know why I have to keep justifying that I am an Indian.’
As I write this, I can’t help wonder what Sania’s latest victory meant. Especially as I scanned the top headlines of morning newspapers, that announced almost sounding akin to a proud parent, ‘Sania Mirza, history maker at Wimbledon. Country’s most successful female tennis player has gone where no compatriot had before.’
How long will Sania have to keep winingGrand Slam titles to keep the focus off her short skirt, off her shaadi and off her sex?
How long will we see this palpable sexualization of a female athlete? The invasive, gender scrutiny? How many sporting stars will we lose because they aren’t men? Falling prey to the politics of patriarchy?
For how long will this hostility last?
Isn’t it ironic?