Being a sports enthusiast, I imagined having a great time playing my favourite games on my university campus, like Table Tennis and Badminton. For my bachelor's, I was in a Women's college. I did not experience discrimination based on gender during those three years. My first year of MA in Women's Studies was online; I didn't experience the campus. However, I always visualised it as a very safe and inclusive space where every person studying or working here believes in gender equality. However, when I entered the Table Tennis Room in Gymkhana in my initial days at the campus, I was angry and disheartened . Three incidents made me ponder the issue of women's inaccessibility to sports on university campuses:
Incident 1: When I asked the person in charge of the Gymkhana to provide my friend and me with Table Tennis rackets, he was dismissive of us. I could easily find the difference in his attitude towards the men and the women.
Incident 2: Since the badminton court at the Gymkhana was being renovated, we would play in the open courts. The men playing on the court wouldn't move even if they played for a long time. Whenever we would ask them to give us a chance to play, they would say that the game was still on.
Incident 3: During the Student Union Elections 2022, one of the candidate's manifestos was about increasing weights in the gym. The idea was to publicise the 'macho-man' image with a fit and muscular body to win the elections for Sports Secretary.
When one looks at the history of sports for women in India, women are restricted to sports as leisure. Women have always been encouraged to involve in activities like learning music and dancing, art and craft, painting etc. Sarala Devi Ghoshal from Bengal encouraged sports for Bengali men in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The objective was to fight the image of the Bengali men as weak, frail and feminine in front of the British. However, she never encouraged the importance of being physically strong for women. Later in her life, she encouraged education for women; however, the need for physical education was still not given enough importance.
For a considerable period, the school and university education for women focused on making them good wives and mothers. The objective was to produce good housekeepers for a better society. Hence, the activities in the educational institutions did not involve sports. The Girl Guide Movement in opposition to Boy Scouts, also couldn’t do much to go beyond the gender stereotypes.
The Female Body
There is a common assumption that women are not involved in sports like running and playing cricket. In Badminton and other games, the objective is to keep them fit. The denial of the female body as a competitor is a common practice. When women are involved in sports, the aim is ‘to lose extra fat and build the right amount of sexy feminine muscle’ is a common perception.
Molly George, in her article, ‘Making Sense of Muscle: The Body Experiences of Collegiate Women Athletes’, says that after the passing of Title IX in the USA, more and more women participate in sports in the USA, but the “hegemonic definition of femininity and athleticism continue to constrict the participation and representation of women”. University campuses involve numerous discussions around equality, freedom and liberty. The obsession with fitting into the right mould leads to body dysmorphia. When one enters the ground to play any sport, there is a feeling of being observed. The female body standards set by the film industry, television commercials and social media lead to many women and queer folks being underconfident in their body image in a male-dominated sphere. Some people end up deciding not to be involved in sports altogether. One of the causes of less participation of women and queer folks in sports is the body image issue.
When women enter the sports field, they are viewed to be challenging gender norms. They show strength and competitiveness, which are attributes associated with masculinity. In the 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kajol, aka Anjali, is a woman who loves playing sports. The initial part of the movie presents life at university, where Anjali is portrayed as a woman with masculine traits; thus, the hero or other men do not seem to be interested in her. Later in her life, when she starts wearing a saree and walks and talks in a particular way, she is desired by Shahrukh Khan, aka Rahul. In real university life, women who play sports and do not possess the attributes that society views as feminine become less desirable. They are either masculine or gay is the preconceived notion.
Making Sports Inclusive
When women enter university campuses, those interested in sports look for a space to follow their passion. However, the low funding of sports by the State and the sports spaces dominated by men restricts them from entering the field. Keeping women out of the fields leads to them playing less well than men. Trying to keep women out of competition is a way of considering them inferior. The lack of confidence to play on the ground and the discomfort around being watched peaks for women on university campuses. Women who have played sports in schools and other places also face the dilemma of being involved in sports at the university level. The feeling of not belonging to sports that women get at different points in their lives breaks the spirit.
University campuses in India need to allow intersectional diversity inside their campuses. The playing grounds and the indoor spaces need to be made disabled-friendly. The exclusion of disabled folks from the sports domain is common. The universities invisiblize their existence in sports.
The participation of all identities in sports can be done by constant encouragement, providing resources and having conversations about femininity and sports. The public spaces need to be made accommodative. To make the spaces more inclusive, a structural shift is necessary. It is important to bring a change in the way people think.
The two most important things that can be done to make sports more accommodative concerning the issues related to gender are – an increase of funding by the State and a behavioural shift. The sports budget for the financial year 2022-23 reveals an increase in the expenditure on sports. However, the use of money for the right purpose needs to be taken into account. Sports for Development need to be prioritised, and more money needs to be allocated to universities and colleges for spending on sports. The three most important things that need to be focused on while spending the money are: nutrition, sports equipment and infrastructure, and professional sports guidance. On the other hand, behavioural changes can be achieved by involving an increasing number of people in discussions about sports, gender, and society.
1. Mitra, Payoshni. 2017. Gendered Difference: The History of Women's Involvement in Physical Activity in India. India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 44. Pg. 140-148.
2. George, Molly. 2005. Making Sense of Muscle: The Body Experience of Collegiate Women Athletes. Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 75. Pg. 317–345.
Aneela (she/her), is a final year Master's student of Women's Studies at Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.