Sexist Sports Uniforms Underscore Why Feminism Needs a New Language

If you think this is 'not a big deal', let me remind you that such sexualisation of women has real-life impact.

4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>If you think this is 'not a big deal', let me remind you that such sexualisation of women has real-life impact beyond the sporting arena.</p></div>

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 began with Mirabai Chanu winning Silver in Weightlifting for India. Congratulations to her and this medal-starved country!

Mirabai's achievement reminded me of Karnam Malleswari, who became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal when she bagged Bronze in the same sport at the Sydney Games in 2000. Her historic win was what got me interested in Olympic sports early on.

So, I want to take this opportunity to talk about women's sports, though not about the usual our-women-have-talent-but-lack-opportunity problem as you may expect.

But I want to discuss a slightly offbeat issue of sports uniforms, as I think it's one of the most revealing of the hazards of the current reductive discourse on gender equality.

When Athletes Battle Conventions

On 25 July, the German female gymnastics team wore full-body leotards instead of the usual bikini-cut leotards – which have been prevalent for decades.

It was a statement against 'sexualisation' of women gymnasts as their male counterparts get to wear comparatively body-covering clothes of loose shorts or long pants.

If you think this is 'not a big deal', let me remind you that such sexualisation of women has a real-life impact, beyond the sporting arena.

In 2018, Larry Nassar, a former US Gymnastics national team doctor, was sentenced to prison for 176 years for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts, including some of the well-known sportswomen.

At his sentencing, athletes made a point that the sport’s culture allowed for abuse and objectification of young women.

Earlier, in July, the Norwegian women's beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts instead of the bikini bottom uniforms prescribed by the International Handball Federation (IHF).

These women had deliberately broken the rules to highlight the double standards in the uniforms. While the IHF requires women to wear bikini bottoms no longer than four inches on sides, the men are allowed to wear shorts as long as four inches above their knees.

Welcome Gestures, But We Need More

Popstar Pink has offered to pay the fines handed out to the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, saying that she is proud of the team for protesting 'the very sexist rules' about their uniform.

Beach handball isn't the only game with discriminatory uniform rules. Women are required to wear more revealing outfits in several sports, including track and field, beach volleyball, badminton, and tennis as well.

In a similar move a few years ago, Rachid Nekkaz, a French-Algerian businessman and activist, announced that he would pay fines issued in Denmark for breaches of the country's 'burqa ban' law that had outlawed face-covering garments.

Heartwarming as these gestures are, it will require more than a few altruistic champions of freedom to put an end to the rampant exploitation of women.

What's the Rationale Behind This Disparity?

So, what's the rationale behind this disparity? When asked, an IHF spokeswoman said that she doesn't know the reason for such rules.

However, the real intention behind this discrimination was laid bare when the Badminton World Federation in 2011 decreed that women must wear skirts or dresses to play at the elite level.

The stated reason: To create a more 'attractive presentation' and make female players appear more 'feminine' and 'appealing' to fans and corporate sponsors.

How did we reach here?

Here's a short primer: Women joined the workforce in droves to fulfil the labour requirements generated by the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Soon enough, the men, who dominated the workforce, discovered a different sort of potential among women for the market – sex appeal.

However, it wasn't possible to exploit women's femininity and sexuality for male libido and wallet, without them first shedding their natural inhibitions.

Thus began an effort to encourage women to 'liberate' themselves from social and gender norms. A value was created in the deliberate acts of sexual rebellion, including risqué clothing.

These efforts managed to find resonance with the feminist movement.

While first-wave feminism was primarily about granting equal rights and status to women at workplaces and elsewhere, second-wave feminism used the language of breaking the shackles of patriarchy and stressed individual choices, giving a much-needed home to the sexual liberation agenda.

Consider the irony: Women who fought for their dignity in society, by demanding equal wages and the right to vote, were losing their dignity in beauty pageants, advertisements and cinema – where men continue to dictate the terms and women don't have much of a choice. And all of it happens in the name of women empowerment.

That's also the reality of women's sports. The feminist movement did get women to compete in spectator sports, but they are as much about athleticism as they are about their sexuality.

Shifting Focus: More Athleticism Than Aesthetics, Please

Google the names of some of the famous sportswomen and you'll get a large number of search results that have nothing to do with their sporting exploits and are only in service of male sleaziness.

And this aspect of female athletes is as valuable to the sponsors and organisers as their prowess on the field.

And since the usual male uniform was proving to be a hindrance in the way of complete objectification of women, they changed them to skimpier outfits that have no relevance either to weather conditions or the sport itself.

Why isn't there much outrage over this naked exploitation of women?

It's a challenge for the proponents of feminism to not let their ideals be hijacked for the commodification and exploitation of women. It requires a much forceful denunciation of all the forms of discrimination.

It also requires them to acknowledge their complacency in consciously and unconsciously enabling the degradation of women.

And above all, it requires a new discourse beyond the language of rights and personal choice.

(Musab Qazi is National Secretary at Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO). He has previously worked with the Hindustan Times. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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