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Less equal than others

Women athletes deal with sport's chauvinism everywhere, every day. Women who must observe hijab by law or custom have the additional burden of demonstrating that their athleticism does not mitigate their faith: switching games, wearing restrictive garments, performing before an all women-audience, facing fatwas and death threats — whatever it takes. Namita Bhandare writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:45 IST
Namita Bhandare

In the photograph they are just numbers: 3, 14, 7. But their headscarves, covered necks and full-sleeved shirts do not mask their cheekiness. The one with #3 on her jersey has her chin up and eyebrows raised. The goofball is clearly #14, the tomboy with a scar on her left eyebrow, the practical joker of this team. On #7, there is a look of passing confusion as if asking, what just happened, how could it?

Moments later, another photograph captured the Iranian women's football team collapse in tears after being banned by FIFA for wearing tight headscarves. The ban came minutes before a qualifying match against Jordan, the outcome of which would have determined whether they would make it to the 2012 Olympics. FIFA authorities say the so-called 'snood', a headscarf that covers head, ears and neck, contravenes its dress code. They say the Iranians were 'informed thoroughly' of this. Not so, says Iran. FIFA had amended its dress code last year and the new outfit had been approved by the federation's Sepp Blatter — a man who had recommended in 2004 that women wear tighter shorts for a more 'feminine aesthetic'.

In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from competing in sport. So, you could argue that the Iranian women, who must observe hijab under law, have it somewhat easier. Women athletes have shown remarkable resilience in repressive environments. In the 2004 Olympics, Nassim Hassanpour, a teenage gymnast and the only Iranian woman to participate in the Athens Olympics switched to shooting because it was one of the few events that allowed her to participate in a headscarf and long coat. In the 1992 Olympics, Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka won the 1,500 metres wearing a pair of shorts, received death threats and was forced into exile. The Muslim Women's Games, allows women to compete on one condition: no men are allowed to watch.

Amazingly, they play on. Yet, regardless of where they live, hijab or no hijab, women athletes face discrimination. They earn less in prize money and get niggardly media coverage, as if they are adjuncts to the main game. Sports writer Rohit Brijnath writes of how in 1970, tennis star Billie Jean King was told by a male player, "No one wants to watch you birds play anyway." Things are better today, he writes, but 'equality in sport is still an idea'.

It is. Last month, the Badminton World Federation with only two women on its 25-member council ruled that women must play in skirts to create a more 'attractive presentation'. Following an uproar over such an obvious attempt to sex up the game, the federation has agreed to 'further study' the proposed dress code.

In India, Sania Mirza, the country's highest-ranked woman tennis player, has been scrutinised nearly as much for her skirt — briefly earning a fatwa for its length — as for her game. Another athletic role model, Saina Nehwal, born in Haryana, which with 847 girls to 1,000 boys has one of the worst female-male sex ratios in the country, counts herself lucky because her parents allowed her to play: "Many Haryanvi sportspersons, particularly women, are not half as lucky," she says. Women's hockey had its moment of shame when players accused their (male) coach of sexually inappropriate behaviour. On TV, Ashwini Nachappa said it was not uncommon for coaches to get women athletes to do sundry chores, including washing their sweaty clothes.

Women athletes deal with sport's chauvinism everywhere, every day. Women who must observe hijab by law or custom have the additional burden of demonstrating that their athleticism does not mitigate their faith: switching games, wearing restrictive garments, performing before an all women-audience, facing fatwas and death threats — whatever it takes.

The photographs don't tell the stories of the Iranian women's football team. We don't even know their names. What battles were fought just to play? What taunts were faced? What hurdles overcome? What now of shattered dreams and hopes? We don't know. FIFA should have been more welcoming, more accommodating, certainly more understanding in order to fulfill its stated goal of helping women overcome 'social and cultural obstacles'. The ban only serves to push them down.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.