Let's seek more sheroes, not just celebrate a day

Most of the Indian women's hockey team comes from a wide swathe of northern and eastern India. Fred Lee/Getty Images

We know what's going to transpire in sport on International Women's Day, don't we? Homilies to female athletes around the world for their all-around awesomeness. On Monday, moving swiftly on, we will then watch our sporting heroes thoughtlessly reference mothers, sisters and female body parts in a familiar vocabulary of abuse.

Let's forget about them for a bit then, and shift the attention to the relationship between sport and the women who play it, particularly in India.

On Friday, a research study by the BBC about "attitudes towards women in sports" in India, arrived fortuitously in my inbox. The detailed study will be available on the night of March 8 at the BBC Indian Sportswoman of the Year Awards ceremonies, and then online. The study was carried out for BBC by Kantar across 14 states, a sample size of 10,181 featuring both urban and rural populations above the age of 15. The results included both the predictable as well as the unexpected.

The following was familiar:

  • Only 36% of the respondents, male or female, participated in sports, games or physical activity, which drops off after school. (42% of male respondents, 29% of female)

  • Only 34% consumed news about women's sport.

  • The key reasons as to why one or more sports were considered not suitable for women (like boxing, weightlifting, wresting, kabaddi or motor sports) were because - they were "not safe" for women, women were "not strong enough" to play that sport, and they were not able to play the sport "during all times of the month."

Then came the few surprises:

  • Of the people polled, 41% believed sportswomen were as good as their male counterparts. An overwhelming 85% said women should get equal pay. (Would they say the same if they were the ones paying?)

  • The states with the highest percentage of participation by women in sport were Tamil Nadu (54%) and Maharashtra (53%), while in Punjab and Haryana (here clubbed together), the participation numbers were a lowly 15%.

Did the general public not know that the sports considered "unsafe" for women who were "not strong enough" have given India MC Mary Kom, the Phogat sisters, Sakshi Malik, Karnam Malleswari and Mirabai Chanu? World champions, Olympic and other medallists? Haryana is the state that churns out female athletes across sport, each of them, we believe, standing a deeply entrenched patriarchy on its head and creating the path for generations to follow.

"On the field, these every day 25-odd girls from villages and small towns, become force multipliers. Their bodies are weapons, that can absorb and give blows, bruises, sprains, breakages"

Why then, are the findings from the study so counter-intuitive across these aspects?

The engagement of Indian women and sport is not as simple as it seems, containing several layers. How we respond to them as an audience is not even half as interesting as how they respond to sport.

Over the past few weeks, I've met members of the Indian women's hockey team as part of a future story. These women come from a wide swathe of northern and eastern India. From the village of Jodhkan, in Sirsa, Rajasthan in the west all the way to Kolasib in Mizoram in the east, with stops in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Manipur and a single southern detour to Yeravaripallam in Chitoor district of Andhra Pradesh.

Conversations with them about being athletes in a physically demanding sport and at the same time being young Indian women, are revealing. No matter how they arrived at it, hockey to them is a life source - of livelihood, independence, physical confidence and also, escape.

When "in camp," (which is most months of the year), the hockey team lives in the SAI sports hostel in Kengeri, in a western corner of Bangalore. They are at walking distance from a mall and can watch daytime movie shows in their free time, but hostel lockdown is 9pm. (Inside the hostel, not just the vast, sprawling campus). Going out at night needs written permission and a string of formalities. It may not look like freedom to you and me, but to these Indian girls, in the wider scheme of things, it is.

Within the demands of their training and playing regimen, it is here these women can be themselves. They can wear what they want - skirts, shorts, sleeveless (or not), shoulders, thighs and legs bare (or not), their hair up or down. They can sit how they want, can shout on the field, laugh loudly, look a man in the eye and ask a question (the last though has taken a while). It is sport that has given them these identities independent of daughter, sister, keeper-of-honour, wife-and-mother-to-be, women with eyes lowered and voices soft.

On the field, these everyday 25-odd girls from villages and small towns, become force multipliers. Their bodies are weapons, which can absorb and deliver blows, bruises, sprains, breakages. When combining smoothly, the team is a powerhouse of muscle and speed, mass and velocity producing the momentum that runs through and over opposition. During game-time, they become, each of them, their other, larger, more awe-inspiring selves. Goalkeeper, defender, striker, midfielder, drag flicker, first rusher, magician, trick artist, immovable when they need to be, irresistible when the moment requires. Sheroes without capes.

Yet, as the BBC study and its numbers shows us, these are the outliers, the ones that got away, whose parents saw other plans for their girls, who themselves were so stubborn that they couldn't be stopped. It will be the same with the Indian cricket team who play their ICC Women's T20 World Cup final on Sunday against Australia.

For India's female athletes, Women's Day will really acquire meaning, if they find more company - not merely at the top, but from the bottom up.