Support Wrestlers Because They Are Survivors, Not Because They've Won Medals

We are all bystanders — the survivors have told us their stories, and how we respond matters.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Six years ago, in the quiet town of Forbach, tucked away in the north of France near the German border, I had the opportunity to interview the Indian team of wrestlers, including Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, and Bajrang Punia, who were gearing up for the World Wrestling Championships in Paris.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was the President of the Wrestling Foundation of India (WFI) also at that time. I saw how the Indian team endured an exceptionally gruelling training schedule compared to their European counterparts — a stark indication of toxic work culture rooted in patriarchal authoritarianism.

I vividly recall the discomfort of the women wrestlers when I tried to inquire if they faced any particular challenges.

As the accusations of sexual harassment against Singh emerged in January, I cannot help but wonder if they were facing abuse at that time.

Olympian Vinesh Phogat, one of the leading protestors, recently wrote she contemplated suicide because of the mental torture and harassment she faced from Singh after failing to win a medal in Tokyo Olympics 2020.

Back then, they were silent. But they have found their voices after years. They deserve our unwavering support.

We Are All Bystanders, Our Response Matters

On Sunday, 28 May, in a repressive move designed to break the protest, the Delhi Police detained Phogat, Malik, and Punia. On the other hand, just a few kilometers away from where they were arrested, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was attending the inauguration of the new parliament building.

He is yet to be considered worthy of sanction despite 30 wrestlers protesting against him and seven registering complaints of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a form of psychological warfare, says Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement. "It's meant to degrade and humiliate the victim, to make them feel powerless and ashamed," she has said.

In the context of the wrestlers' protest, the public debate must shift drastically towards acknowledging this and the fact that the psychological warfare is intensified against those who fight back.

We are all bystanders — the survivors have told us their stories, and how we respond matters.

We cannot afford to avoid using words such as "rape culture" or "misogyny" because gender oppression lies at the heart of the wrestlers' story.

Sidestepping this language allows perpetrators to flee accountability.

Not using the correct register — the vocabulary associated with a particular social context — creates chaos. It's crazy-making: manipulative behaviour or tactic that deliberately creates confusion, doubt, and emotional distress.

When individuals, media coverage, and even courts fail to use the correct language for sexual violence, they become complicit in rape culture. Meaning is lost, solutions can't be found, and individuals who have faced harassment are reduced to fodder for sensationalism before being discarded as stale news.

Survivors Speak Up Because They Believe In Justice

It is astonishing to see the lack of awareness regarding the devastating impact of workplace sexual harassment on individuals. Most still conflate harassment with "harmless" courting or flirtation, irritatingly oblivious that the experience is dehumanising and causes anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance, damaging the individual's health and, in many cases, increasing the chances of early onset of chronic illnesses.

Sexual harassment erodes an individual's quality of life. Remaining silent worsens ongoing suffering, enabling perpetrators to operate with impunity.

On the other hand, speaking out can be catastrophic for one's reputation and jeopardise financial stability. Protestors are often branded as dangerous and discredited, making it hard to find alternative employment in their domains.


Many speak out because they genuinely believe they will receive speedy justice. After all, it seems so apparent they deserve it.

They trust their social standing, and the severity of the wrongdoing will lead to prompt resolution. Vinesh Phogat recently expressed this sentiment when she wrote how the delay in justice surprised her:

"We believed it would not take more than two to three days to get justice," she wrote.

She was indignant that the burden of proof was being put on complainants. Sadly, Phogat has discovered, as many others before her, that complainants of sexual harassment are treated with extraordinary contempt.


Support Them Because They Are Survivors, Not Because They've Won Medals

In fact, the criminal justice system regularly fails them, operating within a rape culture, propped up by hostile public opinion. After all, sexual harassment is about exerting patriarchal power and trying to impede it is a dangerous task.

It is incredibly sad to see the protesting wrestlers being degraded every other day on the streets of Delhi. It serves as a powerful reminder of the even harsher realities faced by those who lack support from fellow peers, do not have a social standing that gets them into headlines, or are subject to brutal caste oppression.

Placing exclusive emphasis on national pride or prestigious medals should not be the sole motivation to stand with these wrestlers.

Everyone deserves a life free from oppression. It's not just sports; sexual harassment is pervasive.

Mainstream media is doing a shoddy job of acknowledging basic facts, such as sexual harassment being rampant and powerful men often behaving with impunity in the workplace.

Many high up in the work hierarchy exercise tremendous control, making it easy to subject individuals to sexual coercion or psychological torture.

These are also facts that need to be clearly stated along with numbers and statements. We need more stories about how it is to battle for justice before an apathetic misogynist system.

Journalists should no longer be discussing the case in terms of "claims and counterclaims" and doing vacuous news reports such as the one where Singh announced he is willing to use lie detectors if the wrestlers do the same and then the wrestlers are asked to respond to his claim.

These sensationalist news cycles are all part of the same crazy-making and editors should be held accountable.


A Message Loud & Clear

Since January, the wrestlers have sacrificed valuable training time for the Asian Games in September 2023 and the Paris Olympics in 2024.

It's no mean feat to battle rape culture, which ensnares individuals protesting sexual violence in a complex web of denial and intimidation strategically designed to tire them out physically and emotionally.

No brute force is spared, whether it’s the threat of loss of livelihood or incarceration.

Nevertheless, the images of the protesting wrestlers are truly uplifting because they demonstrate strength in numbers. But in contrast, the images of police brutality against them are not.

They send a louder message about how the country treats not just its wrestlers, but survivors of sexual abuse, who dare to speak out.

(Noopur Tiwari is an independent journalist and the founder of the feminist platform “Smashboard”. She tweets @NoopurTiwari. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Wrestlers Protest 

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