When a 15-year-old girl from Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh comes back with a gold medal for, of all sports, boxing, there must be reason to celebrate. In a week dominated with grim news from around the world, the success of young Nikhat Zareen in the Junior World Championships in Antalya, Turkey in the 50 kg category of boxing was like a welcome ray of sunshine.
“As a Muslim girl, it was a tough choice to make as everyone questioned what I was doing in the boxing ring,” Nikhat told a journalist. “There were almost no female boxers where I trained in Hyderabad, and I was often alienated.” But she got past this and now joins a remarkable group of Indian women boxers led by the redoubtable Mary Kom from Manipur.
Despite all this, it is remarkable that an increasing number of women are making a name for themselves in sports. Women like Saina Nehwal, who has become the face of women's badminton alongside the equally accomplished Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa. But Nikhat is more fortunate than these women in some ways. No one is telling her, yet, what she should wear when boxing. Women badminton players, on the hand, have been slapped with a “skirts only” rule by the men who head the Badminton World Federation (BWF). Why a compulsory dress code only for women players? The BWF, apparently, decided on this course following advice from the sports marketing giant, Octagon. They wanted to make the women's game more “attractive” and “marketable”.
In other words, the BWF wants women badminton players to look more attractive on court. This, they believe, will draw more eyeballs to the game. What about their skills as players? It would appear that does not matter as long as they catch the male gaze. It seems incredible that someone can seriously contemplate such a rule, and that too for these reasons.
But what is really troubling about the decision is the blatant effort to use women's bodies to sell the game. And for this, the cue has been taken from women's tennis, where glamour has played a big role in drawing an audience. But there is a big difference. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) is managed independently and women players have a say in its decisions. Thus, what women wear is decided by women players and not imposed by a male club. If women tennis players choose to be seen as fashion statements, it is their choice. But it has not diminished the power of their game. Maria Sharapova might look like a model but no one can question her skill as a player. Ditto Venus Williams. While those like Anna Kournikova, who drew attention only for their looks, have fallen by the wayside because their game was not up to the mark. People come to watch good tennis, not to gawk at women players who are fashion statements.
It is tragic that at a time when more opportunities are opening up for women, they are told they must “sell” themselves, make themselves “marketable” if they want to get financial backing for their chosen sport. Men too face the pressure of finding sponsors. But they are not asked to dress in a way that shows off their well-toned bodies and attracts female fans. While it is true that there are both men and women who go to watch football, cricket or tennis matches because they find the players good-looking, surely they will not persist unless they also enjoy the game.