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The image of gender

By: Kamila Hyat

How gender is imaged within societies and the ideas attached with this in many ways determine how women are treated and what status they are given.

The recent hype on the social media, and then on the mainstream media, of cricketer Shahid Afridi suggesting women were better suited to the kitchen than the playing field has triggered much debate. Even though the interview dates back some time, the issue is one that really extends beyond sport and into many areas of life.

The ideas that stand behind this notion of ‘right place’ for women discriminate not only against them – men suffer too. In the US for instance boys are largely excluded from dance, notably classical dance, on the grounds that it is intended for girls. Ballet, associated in the popular mind with flimsy tutus and pastel tights is in particular a ‘no go’ zone, even though the art form requires as much, or more, strength, training and skill than most sports.

Documentary films have chronicled the plight of young boys, passionate about dance, who lie about their rigorous hours in the classroom to avoid ridicule from peers. But in Russia ballet, like the demanding sport of gymnastics also associated with girls in the west, is considered perfectly acceptable for boys, with ballet programmes for boys run in schools.

The closing ceremony at the Sochi Winter Olympics highlighted the depth of Russian talent in this realm, and also, if we can free our minds from the yards of sticky tape it is wrapped in, just how powerful, and exquisite male dancers are. The same stereotypes for kathak and other classical dance forms hold true in our country.

The Afridi controversy, just like the one over the women’s kabbaddi team which played recently in Indian Punjab, brings up all kinds of notions about ‘femininity’, ‘suitability’ and ‘propriety’. Of course when discussing these we do not consider the women labourers who heft up heaps of bricks or those who toil in fields, hoeing, sowing and reaping. The luxury of being feminine seems then to belong only to the more privileged.

The idea of women being the ‘weaker’ gender is well rooted in history, and has been absorbed by many of us in one way or the other, perhaps unconsciously. There is really nothing all that surprising about this. When women competed in the modern Olympics for the first time in 1900, they competed in just five events: lawn tennis, sailing, equestrian sport, sailing and golf – all relatively staid, or dare we say ‘feminine’ events.

Astonishingly, till Moscow in 1980, no track race longer than 1500 meters was on the schedule for women. It had been argued for decades that running further than this could somehow damage the participants or that they were not capable of it. The idea may have arisen from very early events in the 1930s when undertrained female runners failed to complete distances such as 400 meters or so.

The battle to include the marathon, run over 42 kilometres, was a far longer and more arduous one. Women had been barred from marathons year after year, and the taboo began to be broken only in 1967 when medical student Catherine Switzer, with the help of her coach, entered the Boston marathon having registered under her initials rather than her first name.

Male officials raced after her as they discovered that one of the participants was a woman – but Switzer, protected by her fellow students, completed the event and became an ardent advocate of marathon running for women.

The battle was won when women ran the marathon at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 although even before this other marathon events for them had begun at many other athletic events. The same issues apply to swimming – considered a ‘non-feminine’ sport for a long time because it was thought it developed broad shoulders and big muscles. When women were first allowed to compete in swimming in 1912, just two events, both short freestyle races, were open to them.

It was not until the late 1960s that the field became wider and today men and women each swim 17 identical events at the Olympic Games, including the 10 kilometre open water marathon.

Indeed, the International Olympic Committee in 1991 ruled there could be no discrimination against the participation in any event based on gender, and the last barrier in this respect was broken in 2014 when women competed in the ski jump, barred to them before this largely for logistical reasons. They are now also permitted to take part in the gruelling Nordic cross-country winter event which combines skiing and ski jumping and is seen by many as the toughest of all Olympic competitions.

So, around the world it takes time to change thinking. We have still a particularly long way to go given the various discriminations women face in all walks of life. In sport, the idea that girls are less capable than boys or that some sports are simply not suited to them still persists.

Astonishing concerns are regularly voiced over risks to health and the ‘danger’ of becoming tanned. The fact that Vitamin D deficiency is a major health concern in our country is apparently not considered.

The central issue is that men – and women as well – would prefer to see the two genders fitted in to particular moulds. Every effort is made to achieve this. When it does not happen, protests arise.

This sort of thinking and mindset will, of course, take time to change, as has been the case everywhere in the world. There can be no doubt that women and men should be permitted to participate in whatever activities they choose regardless of opinions as to suitability or ideas as to where they should spend most of their time.

In some ways, men are as restricted as women. But the fact also is that in many parts of the world including our own, girls and women get far less opportunity to compete in sports than their male counterparts. For this reason, only 50 percent of Olympic participants are women – even though the IOC has upped pressure for more women to be included in every delegation.

Saudi Arabia sent women to the Olympics for the first time in 2012 – even if their veils created all kinds of technical issues when determining matters of safety and participation.

The issue is a broader one. How we see women on the playing fields determines how we see them in society. If we attempt to continue to assign them stereotypical, feminine roles there will never be a change in status. This, of course, translates into the crimes committed against women and the deprivations they suffer in terms of education, opportunity, healthcare and so much more. To change this, we need to alter our perceptions in all areas of life.

A beginning could be made by initiating campaigns that highlight the importance of women’s participation in various varieties of events and create for them a bigger space in the public sphere. At the moment, it is too restricted and this, essentially speaking, means too many women are confined to their houses, as it seems many people would prefer them to be there rather than encouraging them to take a more active part in life in all its dimensions.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.


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