Women's Day 2023: Trolling, harassment, sexist questions - all in a year's work for Indian sportswomen

Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

Women's Day is an opportunity to look past the tokenism and evaluate how far Indian sport has come in the effort to make it a truly level playing field. This year, ESPN India takes a deep dive into the year that was for India sportswoman; both the highs and the lows, what are the big challenges they face and what more is needed.

Last year at this time, we were looking at the stark difference in opportunity between India men's and women's team sports. Already, with the Women's Premier League and the new AIFF roadmap, there are winds of change in this direction.

But there is a parallel narrative running through; the rise in reported cases of injustice and discrimination against women in sport.

Just look at the gender-coded obstacles Indian sportswomen had to jump past this year. A number of instances of sexual exploitation by men came to light, some of them high profile, but little to no action took place. To top this general systemic apathy, there was merciless online trolling by fans as well as insensitive and invasive questions by the media.

Here's a glimpse of just the kind of non-sporting challenges Indian female athletes had to go through in just the last year. Have a look and take a minute to think: Would a male player have to go through this?

May 2022

A 19-year-old national-level runner filed a sexual harassment complaint against P Nagarajan, a renowned athletics coach in Chennai. She alleged he would touch female athletes inappropriately on the pretext of helping them with physiotherapy and stretching. Two months after the first complaint, seven more athletes, including some who have represented India, came forward with similar allegations. Nagarajan was arrested and is facing charges under the IPC and POCSO Act.

Gymnast Aruna Budda Reddy alleged that her coach Rohit Jaiswal had videographed her without her consent during trials in March 2022. However, the Gymnastics Federation of India did not penalise Jaiswal, which prompted the Sports Authority of India to form a three-member panel and launch a probe. Despite this, Jaiswal was named as a coach in India's Commonwealth Games contingent, before he was replaced at the last minute.

Nikhat Zareen had just come home from becoming a world champion and one of the questions she was asked was what she thought on Muslim women wearing a hijab on the background of the protests going on in Karnataka over the hijab ban. Nikhat took it in her stride and that it was a personal choice. But as cricket legend Mithali Raj once said, would someone ask a male player that?

June 2022

Alex Ambrose, the assistant coach of the Indian women's U-17 football team was suspended and sent back from a training camp in Norway for sexual misconduct. Ambrose, who was also the All India Football Federation's head of scouting, denied the charges and served the federation a legal notice. All this while India was preparing to host the FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup. A case under the POSCO Act was filed and a Delhi court recently issued an arrest warrant against him, but there has been only silence on this from the Indian federation.

A cyclist accused national team head coach RK Sharma of sexually inappropriate behaviour during a training-cum-competition trip to Slovenia. Days after the initial complaint, three more cyclists alleged that Sharma had harassed and threatened them for years. The Sports Authority of India terminated Sharma's contract and launched an investigation.

August 2022

When India was banned by FIFA, the biggest losers were the Gokulam Kerala FC's women's team. The Indian Women's League champions and the undisputed top women's club in India had travelled 1500kms to Uzbekistan to compete in the AFC Women's Club Championship tournament... but couldn't even compete. What's worse is that they were left to fend for themselves with no proper communication from the AIFF.

September 2022

Vinesh Phogat was heavily criticized online after she lost in the opening round of the Wrestling World Championships. Vinesh had won gold at the Commonwealth Games in the build-up to the Worlds but slipped to an early loss. She did end up winning bronze via repechage but was still targeted online and asked to retire. This, just a year after she opened up about mental health struggles after the Olympics.

November 2022

India cricketer Yastika Bhatia guided the West Zone to a win over the South Zone in the Senior Women's Inter Zonal T20 Trophy. Within six minutes of her posting a tweet appreciating her team, prompt came a comment "Are bhen..mat khel T20 (Sister, don't play T20s)." Yastika swatted away the troll with a sharp reply -

January 2023

India's top wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, Ravi Kumar Dahiya sat in protest in New Delhi alleging that Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was sexually harassing female wrestlers, along with several other charges.

After three days of protests and little redressal, the Sports Ministry finally met them post-midnight to end the dharna and then formed an oversight committee, which was to investigate the charges and submit its findings in four weeks. The committee has now got an extension and is due to submit a report on March 9.

February 2023

Shafali Verma led the Indian U-19 women's team to the World Cup title in January and was one of top picks at the Women's Premier League auction for Rs 2 crore. The teenager was actually asked by a journalist if she felt like she deserved the amount she got.

Earlier, at the Women's T20 World Cup, Shafali had a few colorful words to say in celebration after taking a catch in the semifinal against Australia, after missing one earlier. This also came under the scanner as people couldn't digest the fact that a woman athlete had displayed aggression.

Indian tennis icon Sania Mirza was ridiculed after she was named as Royal Challenger Bangalore in the WPL. The comments varied from "she knows nothing about cricket" to "I will never watch the WPL because of her connection with Pakistan."

March 2023

In India, the female partners of male players also come under attack from online trolls, for something they are not even a part of. In just the last few weeks, Indian cricketer KL Rahul's wife Athiya Shetty was blamed for her partner's poor form and Sunil Chhetri's wife faced vile abuse after his controversial goal for Bengaluru FC saw Kerala Blasters walk out.