Last year we wrote about the massive changes taking place in the lives of Indian women as they steadily pull ahead of their male counterparts at every level of the education ladder and also emerge as highly effective entrepreneurs in the digital era – see https://marcellus.in/blogs/educated-employed-and-empowered-the-rise-of-indian-women/. The rise of Indian women is a story which will run and run for the next decade. In the context of this revolution the showdown over the past month between India’s star wrestlers and the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is a watershed.
Unlike cricket or even badminton, wrestling is not a sport followed or practiced by the elites of India’s big cities. Instead, all of India’s star wrestlers come from the villages of north India – a place where women are disadvantaged on multiple fronts. Hence the fact that the faceoff between the wrestlers and the WFI was led by a woman from Haryana, Vinesh Phogat, is a turning point for Indian sport in general and for women in particular. This feels like a ‘Rosa Parks’ moment for Indian sport. It is in this context that the Indian Express’ profile of Vinesh Phogat – a double World Champion – assumes significance:
“It has been an unprecedented face-off in Indian sports – never ever had Olympic medallists made sexual harassment allegations against a federation chief, who is also a ruling party MP. Late on Friday, Round One of this battle seemed to have gone the players’ way.
India’s top grapplers called off their stir against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) on Friday following an hours-long meeting with sports minister Anurag Thakur, which ended with the government asking Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the federation’s beleaguered chief, to step aside pending inquiry. On Saturday, the Director General of Sports Authority of India (SAI) also suspended WFI’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar because of “reports about the functioning of WFI”.
At the helm of this players’ movement has been Vinesh Phogat, a double World Championship medallist. She has been the face of the protest.
Besides being at the forefront of meetings and negotiations with the sports minister and SAI officials, Vinesh was the first to allege that Singh and some coaches had sexually harassed junior wrestlers.
Those on the circuit aren’t surprised that it is Vinesh who has taken on the powerful wrestling officialdom. Headstrong and impulsive, the 28-year-old has for long been Indian wrestling’s outspoken rebel, whose career has seen as many lows as highs. She has endured dark moments off the mat as well as shone in the spotlight on it.”
It is worth reading the entire story in the Indian Express to understand the sorts of disadvantaged homes stars like Ms Phogat are coming from, how they fight their way to the top and how, once at the top, they are not willing to put up with the sort of treatment that has long been the norm for many Indian sportswoman.
It is significant that: (a) Viresh is joined in her protest by another star wrestler, Olympic Bronze medallist, Sakshi Malik – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakshi_Malik ; (b) their sexual harassment complaint has been sent to the President of the Indian Olympic Association, a lady who has been India’s only star athlete in the past 50 years, PT Usha – see https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/vinesh-phogat-was-mentally-harassed-wrestlers-letter-to-pt-usha-against-wfi-chief-101674199185341.html; and (c) the Sports Ministry’s 7 member panel to assess the veracity of these complaints is led by six time world champion boxer, Mary Kom.
As Indian women rise, it is but inevitable that they will clash with the patriarchy in a range of fields. Given that Indian women are increasingly more successful than their male counterparts in a multitude of sports, we should expect to see more showdowns like this – which are battles for power and influence – in the years to come.
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