Tokyo 2020 has had enough drama to spawn multiple adapted movie screenplays. We have seen star players like Naomi Osaka crash out of the competition, GOAT (greatest of all time) gymnastics champion Simone Biles refused to participate in many events, tennis champ Djokovic had a public meltdown and Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has been at the centre of an international kidnapping controversy involving the Belarusian government!
India sent its largest female Olympic contingent (56) to Tokyo 2020, and they did not disappoint. At the time of writing this, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, P.V. Sindhu and Lovlina Borgohain have won medals for India and champs like Mary Kom have bowed out after an admirable fight. The achievements of our female athletes have generated much cheer on social media.
To contextualise the cyber-celebration properly and understand why the international sporting win of a girl from India is genuinely such an achievement, let us recall what happened on July 20. Neha Paswan, 17, was beaten to death by her grandfather and uncles, and her corpse was hung from a bridge over the Gandak river in village Savreji Kharg in Uttar Pradesh’s Deoria district—all because she was wearing jeans during a religious ritual.
As we cheer the athletes holding the tricolour up above their sport shorts and vests, many of these girls themselves from remote villages, one wonders what misogynist rules and patriarchal boundaries set by the men in their own families did these girls break to be here. The answer can be found in the numerous memes and other internet content that has been generated around the Olympic wins of our sportswomen.
A meme of table tennis player Manika Batra that became popular showed her donning a salwar kameez with a puja thali in hand, juxtaposed with a candid shot of her in a match. The caption said, ‘Marry a girl who can make the nation proud and uphold traditional values’.
Some tweets tried to frame the victories in the context of female infanticide saying loosely—‘If you had killed them at birth, how would India have won Olympic medals today? Think about it’.
And then there was my loyal, consistent army of trolls circulating their favourite meme—the same format each time an Indian woman achieves anything internationally. The top picture of the female achiever, with the caption—‘This is real women’s empowerment’. The bottom picture of me speaking at a protest rally, with the caption—‘This is shit’. This time around I had company. Memes with top half pictures of three Indian female Olympic athletes: ‘Real Feminism’. And the bottom pictures of Taapsee Pannu, Sonam Kapoor and me: ‘Fake Feminism’. And numerous variations of the same thought.
While everyone’s freedom of expression, and right to believe false equivalences and logical fallacies must be respected in a democracy, much of the celebration is basically sexism couched in congratulatory messages. Why must women prove their worth and win an international medal to be allowed to be born? Why must the achievements of a particular set of women in one field be highlighted only by denigrating the achievements of other women in different fields?
Basically to this mindset, the stellar international achievements of women are only palatable as long as there exists the promise that the women achievers will return to some form of authority in the control of men—nation, father or husband.
There are more similarities between the mindset of poor Neha’s murderous grandfather and uncles, and my seemingly harmless sexist trolls—both hate women who refuse to be controlled by men.
And, thus, before we launch into another empty thoughtless celebration of ‘girl power’, let us realise that the real power of these girls is to have broken out of the clutches of a mindset that seeks to control not just their actions and their bodies, but their achievements as well. And so, every Indian woman athlete participating at Tokyo 2020 is, to me, already a winner!
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.