Caste, Religion, Marriage? What NOT To Ask When A Sportswoman Wins Big

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Vandana Katariya caste outrage: The Indian women’s hockey team made history at the Olympics this year by going as far as the semifinals for the first time ever. Though the girls in blue could not finish with a victory in the match against Argentina, their hopes for a bronze hang on the match with Great Britain on Friday. But that the sportswomen got this far seems to have changed nothing in the way prejudices command a stronghold in our country.

Indian hockey forward Vandana Katariya’s family, in their native Haridwar, reportedly had to face a barrage of casteist slurs after the team’s semis loss. The abusers – two upper-caste men – allegedly claimed there were “too many Dalit players” on the team. Meanwhile, a quick Google search throws up data of trends on ‘PV Sindhu caste’ charting upwards following her brilliant Olympic win.

No matter how many wins women score or how far they pioneer in their chosen fields, it all comes circling back to a few things rooted in social hierarchies founded on sexism, patriarchy and casteism. Can there be no celebration without the invocation of stereotypes?

Here are 5 things to never ask sportswomen:

1. What’s Her Caste?

The caste of our top athletes has suddenly become important in determining the kind of reaction their Olympic performance deserves. Why should centuries-old oppressive hierarchies take precedence in our estimation of sporting victories? Or in any other facets, situations, contexts for that matter? In doing so, are we not blindsiding the relentless skill they have shown to get to global success? Can that not be recognised without bringing up caste supremacy?

2. Which Faith Does She Subscribe To? 

Also comes tagging along with caste conversation is religion, where bigots find space to pull down certain faiths in the favour of others. Is a woman not more than her faith? Why must beliefs as personal as religion come into play when the game demands focus? Moreover, do the wins or losses of sportswomen come with rights to adjudge a whole religion?

Our sportswomen have gotten far in their journeys, despite gender-specific barriers that hold them down. Do they not deserve a little more credit, more identity than just their faiths?

3. Can She Cook? 

Her hands may know how to wield a badminton racquet like a pro. Or lift amounts of weight that seem impossible to an average person. Or box till her hands bleed, in search of glory. In the end, whether or not they can cook (and cook well) is what will determine their value. The number of medals or laurels sportswomen bring in for themselves and the country with sporting skills, it seems, will never equal the perceived utility of domestic skill every ‘good’ Indian woman is expected to possess.

4. Is She Ready For Marriage? 

Our Olympic sportswomen, all in their 20s, now coming through as global winners are being viewed as marriage potentials. It’s common culture in India to begin prodding, if not pushing, women towards that inevitable checkpoint in life. “When will you ‘settle down’?” was a question tennis star Sania Mirza was repetitively asked when she was still single and knocking shots out of the park. Do sportsmen have to face this gendered line of questioning? Can we begin to see women’s worth beyond marriage and domestic lives?

5. Isn’t She A Better Woman Than Others? 

Talk on the internet has taken a contorted route with an ugly tone that seeks to bring some women down to hail others. After Sindhu’s victory, for instance, she was immediately held up as the ‘ideal woman’ – independent, successful, award-winning, making the country proud. And sure, all these achievements do make her a role model worth looking up to. But is she the only and ‘true’ face of feminism?

Factoring in her profession, caste, religion, trolls have been aggressively pushing the narrative that Sindhu (and other sportswomen) are far more superior than women in art, entertainment, theatre fields. Here’s why that kind of empowerment rings hollow.

Views expressed are the author’s own.