I had gone to see an Indian Premier League (IPL) match between Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils in 2013, at the SMS Stadium, Jaipur. (Yes, the Rajasthan Cricket Academy was still in the good books of the BCCI and cricket fans in Jaipur were happy.) Morne Morkel bowled a very expensive spell for the Delhi Daredevils. I turned to my twin brother and said, “You know, Morne Morkel began his IPL career with the Rajasthan Royals.” Two boys standing in front of us, looked at each other, shook their heads vehemently and said, “No, no, he was never in Rajasthan Royals.” My brother was infuriated with me as he said, “You’ve embarrassed yourself. Now keep quiet.” This is the main problem with being a female cricket fan; nobody takes you seriously! I was right about the fact, but the boys around me disagreed.
I’ve been a huge cricket fan for as long as I can remember. Maybe, it was because my father is one and my uncle too. I grew up watching these two men going crazy on a match day, dropping everything and remaining glued to the TV set. I saw my father losing his cool after India lost terribly to Australia in the 2003 World Cup final and a family friend tried to calm him down, “Ye Australia wale behtar khele, Iqbal sahab.” (“The Australians played better, Mr. Iqbal.”)
Then there is my twin brother, with whom I not only watched cricket but also played some awesome gully cricket. He was ecstatic when I was selected in my school cricket team, still in the 7th grade, and made it to the district level, having played tournaments for three years. I stopped playing cricket when I was in 10th grade and my parents advised me to focus on studies rather than cricket, because it wasn’t such a lucrative career option, especially for girls. (Indeed, women’s versions of team sports are not a big deal usually anywhere globally unlike women’s versions of individual sports like lawn tennis or badminton, which also have a glamour quotient.)
I really couldn’t argue against that. When it comes to men’s cricket, being part of the international squad is not the only way of being successful because nowadays, and especially since the inception of the IPL, getting into any of the league teams not only ensures that a budding cricketer has the best opportunity of playing with legends and being spotted by the BCCI (talk about Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and even international players like David Warner and Shane Watson, who got his best form back and became the player of the tournament in the first two editions of the IPL and eventually made a stupendous comeback to the Australian squad), but it also pays well. This is obviously not in the least to deny the challenges associated with making it big in men’s cricket with the immense competition even to get into league teams.
Our sports journalists should also do better at popularizing our cricket heroines doing India proud, like not only Mithali Raj but even Jhulan Goswami who is currently ranked the best ODI bowler and ranked 4th as an all-rounder.
A prominent former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar, observing the last ICC ODI women’s world cup hosted in India, wrote–
“As a rule, women seem to swing the ball more than men do, and they also do not need turners to spin the ball – all they need is a 22-yard cricket pitch.”
I’ve stopped playing cricket formally, but still play it occasionally, sometimes with male friends. Once in my college (Ramjas College) in Delhi University, some of my guy-friends were playing cricket. One girl, in a very joking spirit, took a bat from the guy batting and asked him to bowl. She did not know how to hold a bat. She couldn’t properly coordinate the bat with the ball to hit a shot, despite very slow bowling. A few guys who were watching laughed. Then I took the bat and asked my friend to bowl. A guy advised him to bowl a slow, easy-to-hit underarm delivery usually bowled against kids. But my friend, who knew I had played district-level cricket, bowled a proper, fast ball and I hit it well. I think what I saw was an expression of shock on the advice-giving guy’s face.
While there are indeed some girls who occasionally seek to play sports like cricket only in a manner that trivialises the very idea of playing that sport and are entitled to do so if that amuses them, they shouldn’t portray this as a hallmark of femininity, nor should boys stereotype the idea of girls playing sports like cricket on the basis of only girls like those, and there are girls genuinely enjoying actually playing the sport rather than trivialising doing so. Interestingly, a sport like basketball that involves no less physical exertion is somehow seen as more acceptable for women! However, it is heartening that women’s cricket has picked up in a big way in England and Australia.
Also, if a boy may not know how to hold a bat, his gender is not stereotyped when he plays, then why does a girl doing the same thing become a reason to stereotype the entire gender?
How exactly does playing a sport reflect one’s masculinity or feminity?
As female Pakistani cricketer Roha Nadeem points out–
“A major misinterpretation people hold about female cricketers is that they lose their feminine charm. I usually get that as well, as to how can I carry my ‘girly’ looks and play cricket at the same time? To which, I have no answers. I reckon it’s all about how one carries oneself.
On a lighter note, female cricketers can be good-looking too.”
Why do we have such a sexist attitude in sports? Playing sports is just another medium of exercise and recreation (and many otherwise not-so-sporty girls also exhibit the courage to love the adrenaline gush offered by adventure sports). While men may usually may have some natural advantages of strength and stamina, that doesn’t mean or imply that women can’t excel at sports, at times even competing with men.
For example, Sarah Taylor, an English wicketkeeper, had, at the age of 23 years, even been interestingly selected for the Sussex Men’s Second XI team to represent the English county, and she did play a men’s cricket match in Australia, even taking two catches. One of the most important developments in the area of women’s cricket in the recent times has been the story of Kate Cross, the fast bowler from England who became the first woman to have played in the Lancashire league in its 123-year history. There are other precedents to this as well. Arran Bridle had also played in the Lincolnshire Premier League in 2011. She played for Heywood and performed well in at least two matches. She took three wickets in one match and eight wickets in the other, against Clifton and Unsworth respectively. Elysse Perry is an Australian who has represented her country in both football and cricket and was the youngest adult cricketer for Australia (men included). She has also played in Sydney men’s grade cricket and took wickets of men in the same too.
An interesting piece of information with respect to domestic cricket in our country may be cited. In 2010, for the first time, the Baroda Cricket Association pitted its senior women’s team against under-14 boys’ teams in the under-14 DK Gaekwad Tournament and in the first match the girls played against the under-14 boys’ team of the Kiran More International Cricket Academy, the girls emerged victorious. In fact, they won three of the six matches they played in the tournament (the age difference should also, however, be taken into consideration, but would still be hard for male chauvinists to digest). An interesting fact is that in the first such match, the girls’ team comprised Taslim Sheikh, daughter of Mehendi Sheikh, coach of the famous male cricketers, the Pathan brothers – Irfan and Yusuf. And the captain of the girls’ team was Tarannum Pathan, another Pathan cricketer from Gujarat!
In sports other than cricket too, there have been several instances of women outperforming men. A prominent name historically that can be cited is that of American shooter Annie Oakley (1860-1926), who with her remarkable precision, thrilled spectators. At the age of fifteen, she outperformed famous marksman Francis Butler, who was ten years older to her and had laid a bet that he would perform better than her.
Danica Patrick from the United States of America was the first woman to win an Indy car racing event and come 4th at a Las Vegas speedway event competing against men and Laleh Seddigh from Iran, a female Muslim female car racer has been a national champion competing against men, and is even known as the ‘Schumacher of the East’.
And for those saying that feminine beauty and motherhood can’t go together with sport, you have Jodie Kidd from Britain who is a mother, fashion model who appeared on the covers of Elle, British Vogue etc., dancer, chef, horse-rider, car-racer who has beaten men, winner of the Polo World Cup, and also a leading player in international golf tournaments.
Coming back to cricket, there is often a struggle not only when a girl plays cricket, it is also there when a girl is a crazy cricket fan, and there are many female cricket fans.
As far as watching the game is concerned, I’m not a nascent cricket fanatic. It has been a long time. But it’s never been long enough to prove my genuine love for the game, especially to many of my male friends who very strongly believe that girls can never be serious cricket fans! Even though my brother never doubted my love for the game, he did not side up with me during that RR vs DD game! So deep down, he was obviously embarrassed of his sister who claimed to know ‘too’ much about cricket. He wasn’t worried about the fact being correct, but worried because I had been ‘invalidated’ by two male strangers. (Can men never be wrong about cricket facts?!)
If there was ever a big match, I would be sitting along with all the males of the family and watching it. But my cousins could never understand my habit of stating relevant facts about the teams and players. For them, I was ‘trying’ too hard to fit in the group of macho cricket fans. Looking back, I admit they were right and I had indeed tried. I tried to make them stop doubting my interest and start taking me seriously, that I can love and follow the game as closely and seriously as they do. Gender cannot be a yardstick of fandom, but I realised I am not in the least obliged to go out of my way to prove my love of the game to those narrow-minded on this front, just as, much more importantly, I am not obliged to go out of my way as a Muslim (yes, I am a Muslim, a Sunni Muslim, and my surname ‘Chaudhary’, ‘like ‘Malik’, is to be found both among Hindus and Muslims) to prove my loyalty to my motherland India to some narrow-minded people ultra-sceptical of whether a Muslim can be a true Indian, despite the very many Indian Muslim security personnel laying down their lives defending our country.
Speaking of that, I must say that my version of Islam has room for gender equality, even in the domain of sports, and I come from a liberal family. Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) himself is believed to have said that children (he did not specify only boys) must be taught archery, horse-riding and swimming. In fact, a woman, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, fought in his army, just as Hindu lore refers to Arjun’s wife Chitrangada as an ace fighter and how Kaikeyi and Madri were ace charioteers. This article discusses in some detail the freedoms accorded to women by Islam and early Muslim societies, and how they partook in war, diplomacy, business and several other fields of life, and how the veil came in later as a norm in Muslim history. While “ex-Muslims” (like apostates of other religions) are indeed entitled to their views, their critique of the Muslim scriptures, irrespective of its validity, can’t be a rational basis of negatively stereotyping people identifying themselves as practising Muslims (or practising adherents of any other religion in the light of the critique of its texts by its apostates), something many of the apostates have even clarified, as discussed here. And I, like many other liberal adherents of Islam, reject the idea of apostasy from Islam being punishable as a misinterpretation.
By the way, as is the case with Muslims, despite the many impressive figurines in Hindu lore (I culturally identify with Hindu lore, and feel all Indians can), many Hindu customs and practices too are sexist, like karva chauth and several wedding rituals (other than sati having been a major issue historically), and I may point out that my mother is Hindu, whom I obviously love, and I am also very fond of many of my relatives from her side and my Hindu friends, and no, my mother was no victim of any “love jihad” (she didn’t even convert to Islam on marrying my father), with many Muslim women too having married Hindu men, like Katrina Kaif, Sussanne Khan, Zohra Sehgal (formerly Zohra Khan), Neelima Azim (Pankaj Kapoor’s wife), Nargis and leading Mumbai cyclist Firoza, and some have even converted to Hinduism upon marriage, like famous sitarist Annapurna Devi (formerly Roshanara Khan), fashion model Nalini Patel (formerly Nayyara Mirza), Maharashtra politician Asha Gawli (formerly Zubeida Mujawar), South Indian actress Khushboo Sundar (formerly Nakhat Khan) and Bollywood actress Zubeida. Not only in the context of inter-religious marriage, but even an Indian Muslim marrying a Pakistani Muslim is enough for many Hindu rightists to just certify someone as a traitor (though that doesn’t apply, at least as much, to Indian Hindus who have married a Pakistani Muslim, like VS Naipaul and Sugata Bose, and I may mention that I, like many other Indian Muslims, am second to none in being vehemently and vocally opposed to ISI-sponsored terrorism, of which many of our innocent countrymen, and even innocent Afghans and Iranians, have been victims, but that doesn’t justify hatred for the average Pakistani civilian), and such people have accused Sania Mirza of not being a patriotic Indian, in spite of her having done India proud on multiple occasions before and after her marriage. While she has been accused of insulting the national flag by placing her feet next to it once, that way, even Sachin Tendulkar has been accused of stepping on it once and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (of whom I am no fan, but that’s besides the point here) has been accused of insulting our national flag by using it to wipe his sweat on International Yoga Day, and he even started walking in Russia once when our Indian national anthem was being played, and Vajubhai Vala, as Governor of Karnataka, once even walked out when it was being played! However, the patriotism of none of these was called into question by the Hindu right, at least as much.
Coming back to patriarchy in sports, while is indeed universal, it is a fact that many Muslim girls face very serious challenges on this front in India, in Muslim-majority theocratic countries (Muslim-majority secular states like Albania and the Central Asian republics are much more liberal) and even to a lesser extent in Muslim societies in the West, though of course, there is variation in the degree and the picture isn’t all gloomy (not even in Muslim-majority countries), as discussed in some detail here and here. While I have watched a men’s match live in a stadium (as stated at the outset of this article) in my country India, I am aware that a girl would have actually been so much as arrested in Iran for so much as doing so not too long ago! That law has fortunately, some time back, been lifted, Iranian men are speaking up more and more for women’s rights and Iran’s new parliament has more women than clerics, which is heartening – I say so only out of a commitment to human rights, and I would identify any day with a non-Muslim Indian rather than a non-Indian Muslim. While anti-Muslim bigots make gross exaggerations of misogyny and bigotry in Muslim societies, and these exaggerated narratives offered by anti-Muslim bigots do need to be called out and debunked, there is no denying that liberal Muslims, especially in Muslim theocracies, are fighting a tough battle for which they need our solidarity, and in the times we are living in, regressive theology manifesting itself in codified law to curtail fundamental freedoms, especially of women and the minorities, is indeed more prevalent in Muslim-majority countries than elsewhere.
In our Indian context, there were religious decrees given by Muslim clerics against the attire sported by Sania Mirza, an issue which attracted considerable media attention. However, Sania didn’t make any modifications in her clothing. It is also noteworthy that some Muslim clerics voiced support for Sania and condemned the hardliners. But a friendly exhibition game of girls’ football (a sport I have also played at the district level) was cancelled due to protests by some Muslim clerics who criticised the idea of girls in shorts playing in front of spectators as being against the tenets of Islam in the Malda district in West Bengal in 2015 (notorious for the certainly very worthy-of-condemnation damage to public property and attacks on innocent Hindu shopkeepers by some Muslim extremists there in relatively recent times, and this obviously doesn’t mean that all Muslims in Malda can be stereotyped – think of the girls deprived of playing the game who were also Muslim). However, these clerics’ interpretation of a dress code is very controversial in the light of what has been explicitly stated in the Holy Quran. Also, like the Gujarati Pathan girls I referred to earlier, there are indeed very many Indian Muslim girls, even from economically weak backgrounds, empowering themselves through sports, like Gulfia Khan from a slum in Delhi who, among other non-Muslim girls, had appeared on an episode of Aamir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate to recount her story of how she was scared to travel alone and shy of mingling with boys, but football changed her for the better. (By the way, I would request those hating Aamir Khan for his statements on intolerance and supposedly posing with terrorists to read this piece.)
I hope that men reading this article are better sensitised, if they aren’t already, to women interested in sports, and women can take a leaf out of the experiences cited too to not endorse sexist ideas.
Thanks to my friend Karmanye Thadani for allowing me to freely use material verbatim from the book ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: Examining the History and Suggesting Policy Reforms’ he holds the copyright over and which he co-authored with his friends Devaditya Chakravarti and Shweta Sharma.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)