I find that sports spaces demand that all athletes, irrespective of their gender, ‘play like men’. I was recently coaching a beginner in badminton, and I repeatedly told her to hit harder (even asking her to imagine that she was hitting someone she did not like). I later wondered why I was asking her to behave more aggressively (in fact, I wondered if I was asking her to behave more like a man), and then I wondered why I even thought of aggression as masculine. I often question how I am forced to juggle gender roles on and off the court. Before I started to jot down my experiences and thoughts, I had a chat with my mother who was a State level hockey player for Karnataka during the 80’s. She said, ‘To be the best player in the women’s team you have to play like a man; anyway we can’t compete with men as they are physically stronger and thus we have women’s teams for all sports.’ When I asked, ‘Do you really think they are?’, she replied, ‘Yes, of course! We are cursed with a monthly menstrual cycle, we give birth to children… and all that makes us physically weak and so we can’t compete’ I am sure many of us would question this, but instead of looking for answers I would like to talk about how I experience these questions of sexuality in sports myself. I was an athlete and participated in district and state level badminton, throw ball and volleyball championships. I ran the marathon, participated in athletic events like long jump, high jump and javelin. Currently, I play badminton at IIT Madras, where I am a PhD student.
Traditional gender roles have always fuelled the construction of sports. It is true that a space that was exclusively for men has gradually shifted to accept women, but this shift has given little space for women to construct themselves independently. For example, we ‘sex-up’ the sport by proposing that female badminton players wear skirts, as if the skirts would somehow make sure that they retain their femininity. So, I question how far we have occupied this space, how we as women struggle to hold this space and how we negotiate traditionally defined gender roles within this space.
For me, sports spaces in their very nature reflect masculine ideals. For example in schools, when players for a sports team are selected, certain physical features like good height, good build and stamina are desired. Outside of sports spaces, these would be considered as masculine traits. Traditionally, women are required to have ‘feminine features;’ be not too tall, not too strong, not too heavy and not too tanned. Within sports spaces, these ‘feminine features’ are rejected in favour of the ‘masculine traits.’ Thus to squeeze into this sports space we women have to strive for masculine features, by building our strength, height, weight etc. I still remember during my school days, all girls, myself included, who were into sports especially kabaddi and volleyball were seen as and called tomboys, by boys as well as by girls. Not many girls played volleyball, and so I ended up playing with the boys and once again got categorised by them as a ‘tomboyish’ girl. While playing volleyball with the boys, my opponents used to tell my teammates not to make me stand in front or in the middle because they couldn’t smash a ball at a girl. They were also sure I couldn’t withstand the hits. In response, I was eagerly waiting to show my power to the boys and play the sport at the same level as them. In a spirit of competitiveness, I tried to repetitively prove myself strong by hitting hard at the opponents, hoping that I would be allowed to give up my space at the corner.
To show how we as women strive to enact this masculine role desired and demanded by sports spaces, let me share a recent experience. I was playing badminton with men at my institute. Unfortunately I got smashed in the face by a male opponent, and my spectacles broke. My teammate asked, ‘Did you get hurt? Please take a break’ Immediately I said, ‘No problem’, gathered the broken pieces, kept them aside and continued playing the game. Right away I heard the voice of a teammate (also a man) chastising the opponents’ team saying, ‘Yeah guys! Don’t play a manly game’ His statement had me thinking: Is ‘smashing’ an expression of masculinity? Do I have to play ‘a manly game’ in order to play the game? The way I behaved (keeping aside the broken pieces of my spectacles and continuing to play the game) made me wonder if I had gotten hurt in a place other than a sports space, would I have reacted differently? Would my reaction be ‘feminine’ if I had cried, sought attention, talked about my pain or quit the game at that point? Why are our reactions gendered differently on and off the courts? I can share many such similar experiences that I have gone through, where I have many a time been in the vortex of an existential crisis and tried to overcome it by acquiring the role of ‘a man’ in sports spaces.
In order to meet the vigour demanded within sports spaces, women struggle to deviate from a socially prescribed ‘femininity’ on courts (and sports spaces). Outside of sports spaces, we are forced to compensate by over-sexualizing ourselves in order to prove and perform our gendered social roles off the court. But, to play a sport, should I be ‘masculine,’ or even shift between gender roles on and off the courts? Should my performance in a sport be gendered at all, and particularly, should it always be compared to that of a man?