Struggles, successes of South Asian women athletes

With the Tokyo Olympics underway and Indian women winning medals, South Asia’s female athletes have been talking about the struggles they face at home and in society to take up sports as a profession.

From Afghanistan to Nepal and Sri Lanka, women athletes in a webinar this week shared experiences of harassment, discouragement and lack of support, as well as inspiring stories of solidarity and success.

“War has taken away everything from us,” said Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team. “Someone had to take a step. I was harassed, criticised and attacked but didn’t give up. My fight was not just for myself. It was for my sisters and for all other women in my country.”

The interaction of South Asian athletes ‘Women in Sports: Challenges and Wins’ was organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network (Sapan) and South Asia Women in Media (SAWM) on 25 July and came up with ideas for collaboration, including a book project and an association of South Asian women athletes. 

“South Asia is like our home,” Popal said. “Our pain is the same. What is missing is unity.”

Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team.

Payoshni Mitra, a prominent activist advocating athletes’ rights and director of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights athletes, anchored the discussion and said that in a region where even access to education can be a challenge for girls, training for sports is even harder.

Squash champion Noorena Shams, the first-ever international female athlete from Pakistan’s north-western region grew up in a conflict zone. “I can still hear the bombs,” she said, “I expected to die at any moment, and never thought I would play squash, especially at this level. I used to disguise myself as a boy to play cricket in Peshawar.”

Shams adds that it is not about the trophy, or who wins medals. “We have to do it together, be there for each other,” she said.

Bangladeshi basketball player Ashreen Mridha said that the responsibility for getting girls into sports was not with just the federations and sports bodies but also with friends, families, uncles, aunts and brothers, who all need to step up. “Gender inequality is not just a women’s problem to solve,” she said.

The captain of Bangladesh’s cricket team, Ruhmana Ahmed, said female athletes faced greater challenges in fund-raising. Sana Mir, former captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team, agreed:

“Women must prove themselves in order to get funds, while men are financially supported even if they don’t win.” 

Even when women athletes outperform men in terms of medals, as in India, they still don’t get the same share of the limelight or funding. 

Participants also spoke about the importance of breaking gender stereotypes. Olympian swimmer Nisha Millet from India, her little twin daughters by her side during the webinar, urged women to get back into the game even after leaving competitive sport to contribute to raising the next generation of sportswomen through coaching, mentoring and promoting.

Other athletes who spoke at the event included Ayesha Mansukhani, athlete and sports investor, from India, Caryll Tozer, activist and former netball player from Sri Lanka, Bangladeshi cricketer Champa Chakma, Mabia Akhter Shimanto, an award-winning weight-lifting champion from Bangladesh, Indian coach and cricketer Roopa Nagraj, and Preety Baral a national tennis player from Nepal.

Besides the issues of leadership, funding, discrimination and fighting stereotypes common to women athletes around the region, there were concerns about the objectification of women and sexual harassment, which deserve more attention.

Differently-abled athletes face an even more difficult struggle. “No one wanted to sponsor a blind runner,” said partially blind athlete Gulshan Naaz from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Participants at the webinar proposed working on a book project as well as setting up a South Asian women athletes’ association to promote female athletes in the region.


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