Sri Lanka achieved a spectacular victory of 69-50 against Singapore at the 2018 Asian championships. The fantastic performance of the Sri Lankan team’s power women was very much an example of resilience, in a local context in which women in sport face a range of specific challenges, primarily linked to ways in which patriarchy reigns in the sporting sphere. Most often, women in sport do not receive the same visibility, facilities, exposure, pay and recognition as men in sport. This is blatantly apparent, for example, in the sphere of cricket. Systemic forms of discrimination are so entrenched in the sporting sphere that the secondary position women in sport are relegated to, is often taken for granted.
Women in Sport: Challenging Patriarchy and Claiming Space
Systemic discrimination against women in sport is so extensive that not even the most powerful and most exceptionally talented women are spared. At the US Open finals on 10th September 2018, it was none other than Serena Williams who took the toll of sexist mistreatment.
Williams was handed a series of code violations. The first code collation warning concerned coaching. and to quote CNN, “…that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gave her hand signals from the stands”. The next penalty came for smashing her racket, followed by a game penalty for verbal abuse after she confronted the umpire, Carlos Ramos. Amidst loud cheers from the spectators, Williams branded the umpire a “thief” and later refused to shake his hand.
Some of Serena Williams’s observations at a press conference held after the game provide food for thought to everyone committed to addressing gender-based systemic discrimination in sport. To quote her verbatim:
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’.
For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal — like [Alize] Cornet should be able to take off her shirt without getting a fine. This is outrageous.
I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person”. [Emphasis mine].
The emboldened words above would speak to many, if not to all sportswomen across the world. In the aftermath of this episode, footage circulates across social media of men, especially cis white men, losing it during matches, with next to no action being taken against them. They also do not face the hostility, arrogance, and anger of many people, especially men, targeted towards Serena Williams.
Amidst considerable opposition to Williams from many quarters, the Women’s Tennis Association [WTA] released a statement in support of Williams, claiming that:
“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done last night,”
An Australian media house controlled by the Murdoch media empire published a cartoon of Williams with extremely sexist, misogynist and discriminatory undertones. Given the highly offensive nature of this cartoon, it will not be shared here. Instead, I share the image below which highlights the absolute power of Serena Williams, and her position as a role model and a world-class sportswoman.
Many social media users commented on the extreme levels of double-standards and misogynoir targeted at a black woman in sport, also highlighting that this is very much a shared experience, not limited to the specific incident concerning Williams.
This episode is very much the of the iceberg. Women in sport face major hurdles in securing their agency, in getting the rightful recognition to their talent, and in getting paid. If the treatment of one of the world’s best paid sportswomen [Serena Williams] is still couched in sexism, one could only imagine the hurdles sportswomen with lesser levels of agency have to put up with.
Equality in Sport: A Priority that cannot wait
The sporting sector in Sri Lanka often makes news due to conflicts and confrontations between individuals spearheading sporting federations, and due to a great deal of politicking and bureaucracy in the management of federations. These forms of infighting adversely affect women in sport. Sexism, socially conservative patriarchal perceptions, and discriminatory attitudes that are taken for granted are just a handful of the structural factors that cause additional barriers to women in sport.
In such a backdrop, the national Netball team’s victory is a tremendous achievement. It is a demonstration of courage and resilience, and the power of Sri Lankan women. This victory can be deployed to strengthen the agency of women in sport, by measures such as steps to close off the gender pay gap in sport, ensuring the best of facilities and support to women in sport, and enhancing their visibility as public figures.
Cis-het patriarchal ways: the primary challenge?
Cis-hetero-patriarchal perceptions represent the foremost primary barrier in efforts to address issues of gender justice in sport. Many men adopt a somewhat condescending attitude towards women in sport. Even when they voice standpoints that are apparently “supportive” of women in sport, all too often, such “support” waters down to expressions of their social conservatisms and casual sexism. Social media was awash with such expressions of “support” from men in the run-up to the final match of the Asian netball championship and in the immediate aftermath of the Sri Lankan team’s spectacular victory. By upholding a patronising and overpowering attitude, what they do is in fact reinforcing the very same phallocentric [non]value system that causes the multi-layered repressive treatment of women in sport in the first place. In these expressions of support and solidarity, there is absolutely no inclination to recognise the fact that the root cause of these inequalities lies in a cis-hetero-patriarchal system. Women, if one follows this non[discourse], invariably become a ‘secondary’ subject, whose agency must be ‘manned’ by men [in the context of Sri Lanka, read cis-heteronormative, mostly Sinhalese men].
Repressive cis-hetero-patriarchal attitudes are so entrenched across the board that they are not only apparent in individual men. They are also upheld by many women, whose outlook has been conditioned by a cis-hetero-patriarchal system. To illustrate further, they often credit men as the benefactors, if not the progressive voices that stand for women’s rights. They help add credibility to the kind of “supportive men” mentioned above. Not once do they critically question the male privilege of such men and their reluctance to admit the ills of an inherently patriarchal ‘system’. This is not a problem specific to Sri Lanka or to other places in the global South. It is a global phenomenon. It was Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau who stated on International Women’s Day 2017 that we should use that day – a day that zooms in on systemic inequalities, cis-hetero-patriarchal oppression, and intersectional struggles of women across the world – to praise the likes of her husband Justin, for promoting gender equality!
In commenting about the netball team, one social media user commended the coach, Ms. Thilaka Jinadasa, not for her extraordinary talent, leadership and exceptional mastery of the game, but for ‘protecting the self-respect of a women’s team’. I was among those who commented their post, asking what they meant by “කාන්තා කණ්ඩායමක ආත්ම ගරුත්වය”. Then they lashed out at me, taking an abusive and misogynist detour. This is but a minor example of how socially conservative Sri Lanka views women in sport. Even when such conservatives take a supportive line, it is still couched in a discourse of oppression, marginalisation and denial of agency.
Cis-het-patriarchy in action: media portrayals of power women
The same oppressive discourse is glaringly present in many aspects of the visual imagery surrounding women’s sporting teams, as well as in media presentations of women in sport, which revolve around the “politics of respectability” that women are expected to conform to. It is as if women in sport can only be presented to the public if they are clad in such a way that corresponds to notions of socially conservative respectability politics of women’s attire and external image. Such notions are invariably cisnormative and carry highly patronizing and majoritarian-chauvinist undertones.
This was apparent, for instance, in a television programme aired on the morning of 12 September 2018 on national TV. Trixi Nanayakkara, the head of the Netball Federation and Coach Thilaka Jinadasa were placed at the centrepoint, automatically conveying the impression of an ageist hierarchy between the absolute stars of the day – the players – and netball management. This does not in any way mean that the Chairperson of the Netball Federation and the extremely talented coach should receive less media attention. On the contrary, they fully deserve all the possible attention, respect and media limelight. However, the point made here concerns how the media [especially the state-run media] perceives women in sport. The players, the federation Chair and the Coach are received with flower bouquets at the beginning of the talk show, and they are forced to constantly hold on to the bouquets while the discussion goes on. Refreshments are served live, and the players are still forced to hold on to the bouquets, while holding a plate with refreshments at the same time. It is as if the state media wanted to portray a highly cis [and indeed hetero]-normative “flower bouquet-holding” picture of these absolute power women, international sporting figures and quintessential national sheroes.
This kind of visual imagery is meant for the consumption of a socially conservative and cis-hetero-normative audience. It is also a type of imagery that is aimed at avoiding the slightest “discomfort” to the aforementioned [and ever so fragile] cis-het-patriarchal masculinity.
The problem in this type of representation is evident when this talk show is compared with one attended by victorious sportsmen. In such instances, all the representation and imagery are targeted at zooming in on the ‘power’, sporting prowess and acumen of the men in question. They are also given higher levels of agency, when expressing themselves and in portraying themselves as national figures. When it comes to women, the clearly noticeable feature is an inclination to objectify them before the camera, to scale down their agency, and to reduce their opportunities of emerging as national-level role models and strong voices in public life.
Intersectional challenges: Need for a consistent dialogue and prompt action
The best way to ensure the momentum of the national Netball Team’s tremendous victory and to honour the absolute sheroes who made this happen, is to build a dialogue around a plan of action that focuses on the multiple challenges faced by women in sport. The totality of such problems can be traced to the intersections of gender, social class, ethnicity and a range of related factors, which further heighten the obstacles that highly talented sportswomen are forced to deal with. In terms of public policy in relation to sport, it is crucial to take these intersectional concerns into account.
The intersections of ethnicity, talent and sport require critical engagement. As some commentators have rightly noted, the presence of Thargini Sivalingam, – an absolute powerhouse of a sportswoman and a Tamil woman from Jaffna – is the exception. As we stroll on to the 10th anniversary of the end of the 30-year war, special emphasis on children and young people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, and steps to identify and support young talent, are absolute priorities. In terms of developing the sports sector in the two provinces, there is a clear need for context-specific initiatives that work towards enhancing access to quality sporting facilities, enabling new talent to emerge.
A word about the ethnopolitics of sport is highly warranted. Across social media, quite a few memes highlight the duplicity among many Sinhalese when it comes to talented Sri Lankans who are Tamils.
These memes point at a bitter reality, where ‘talent’ and ‘bringing credit to Sri Lanka’ are appreciated, but if a Tamil person takes a firm stand in relation to their rights and specific issues that especially concern the Tamil community such as missing persons, linguistic equality, post-war gender justice issues or any related matter, they immediately become the foe, the despised, the hated. There is a crucial need to reflect upon these paradigms, and come to terms with the fact that Tamils and all other minorities make huge contributions to Sri Lanka, that they are full-fledged Sri Lankan citizens, and that they have every right to stand for their rights and freely express their views without the constant risk of majoritarian backlashes. As one writer articulately notes:
ඇය දෙමලෙකි [sic]. පට්ට දෙමළෙකි [sic]. යාපනයේ දෙමළෙක් [sic] වූ ඇය ලංකාවටම කියන නමුත් කිසිවකු තේරුම් නොගන්නා කතාවකි. ලංකාවේ බහුතරය අදහන්නේ තර්ජිනීලා සාමයේ හා සංහිඳියාවේ ප්රතිමූර්තීන් ලෙසය. නමුත් තර්ජිනී පවසන ඇතුලාන්තය තේරුම් ගැනීමට තරම් අප සංස්කෘතිකව මෝරා නැත. නැත්තම් අපි කැමති නැත….අප තර්ජිනී ගැන උදම් අනන්නේ ඇය අපට ආසියානු ශූරතාවක් දිනා දුන් නිසා විතරය. අප මුරලි ගැන උදම් අනන්නේ ද ඔහු ක්රිකට් ලොව දිග්විජය කළ නිසා විතරය. එසේ නොවන්නට එදත් අදත් හෙටත් මුරලිලා තර්ජිනීලා බෙදුම්වාදී හැඩි දෙමළුන් විතරය.
Challenging ethno-national prejudices and working collectively towards ensuring the agency of minority communities remains a major national priority. An absolute national shero, Ms. Sivalingam made a very important and highly commendable comment at the very end of a statement to the media upon returning to Colombo after the impressive Asian championship victory. She mentioned that her gratitude went to her parents, family and friends, and to her Tamil people. This is a comment of tremendous importance, as it helps zoom in on ethnonationally-motivated inequalities and multiple intersections that cause specific, and invariably harder obstacles for talent to emerge from the Tamil community, especially in the Northern and Eastern provinces [Indeed. these challenges are also harshly manifest elsewhere, such as in Malayaga Tamil communities, where systemic marginalisation and economic deprivation continue to be grossly under-addressed].
Securing Gender Justice in Sport
If structural factors that affect the sporting sector as a whole are to be addressed, there is a clear necessity to take a player-centric approach that cuts through the thick and thin of sporting bureaucracy. When a player is faced with any form of abuse, ill-treatment, marginalisation due to favouritism or any other factor, an impartial and transparent authority should be in place, where complaints can be lodged and investigations can be carried out, in the best interests of the player. The list of talented players [especially women] who have left national-level sports due to issues of disillusionment is long, and steps towards transforming sport-related administrative and management praxes will be a vital factor in securing the best talent.
Sri Lanka has a sad record of abusive treatment of sportswomen. It was the cabinet Minister of Sports who landed in hot water with allegations of sexual misdemeanour towards the country’s most high-profile woman in sport, Olympic medallist Deshabandu Susanthika Jayasinghe. It was another senior cabinet minister – who is still a cabinet minister currently stands for progressive positions of good governance, and as of late, affirms his support to LGBTQIA+ rights in public – who defended his abusive colleague in Parliament. To set the record straight, it is worth quoting the Sunday Times edition of 23rd November 1997:
‘Mr. Samaraweera said he felt a debate should not have been allowed on what he described or damned as the “hallucination of a deranged woman [Deshabandu Susanthika Jayasinghe].”…Heaping scorn on Susanthika’s allegations that she was subjected to sexual harassment and pressure by an authority in the Sports Ministry, Mr. Samaraweera questioned the sex appeal of a person he saw more like a black American. With the regular din in Parliament many in the House and the media gallery may well have not heard the reference properly. After all American and African especially in Sinhala sound similar.
Even the Hansard reporter appears to have got it confused because there is evidently some deletion and over-writing in the original unedited copy of that day’s proceedings. According to the Un-edited Hansard the wording goes in Sinhala as “for me she looks a black black [sic] American man.” [emboldened emphasis mine].
This was the extent of sexism, misogyny, colourism and abusive language used by a cabinet minister, targeting the country’s one and only Olympic medal-winning sportswoman. Irrespective of the issue that involved Ms Jayasinghe and the Minister of Sports, even a consensual intimate encounter falls within the realm of ‘abuse’, because of the substantial power imbalance between the cabinet minister of Sports and an athlete. Some segments of Sri Lankan media have ever since sought to sensationalise the story, oftentimes referring to Ms Jayasinghe in a somewhat condescending manner.
If you juxtapose this episode with the aforementioned sorry treatment of Serena Williams, it becomes crystal-clear that even the huge task of braving the oppressive patriarchal practices of sport, and climbing to the very top do not shield a woman from mistreatment and double standards.
That women in sport are constantly brought to put up with the challenges of patriarchal scorn and misogyny is a reality that needs a great deal of exposure. It is a destructive reality that has to be promptly addressed through concerted and transparent measures. On that note, it goes without saying that there should be no space whatsoever for any form of racism, sexism, colourism, misogyny, homophobia, lesbophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, intersexphobia or any other dehumanising phobias in the sporting sector. Efforts to enhance gender justice in sport are thoroughly inadequate in the absence of steps to fully ensure the rights of queer sportswomen to live their lives freely, love who they love, and build their sporting careers with dignity, free from any form of intimidation, stigma or discrimination.
Building Role Models: Challenging gender injustice in sport [and in society at large]
In sum, the disparities that sportswomen face should be fiercely challenged. The European Union’s Delegation in Colombo has, in a partnership with the Sri Lankan Ministry Education, commissioned Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to spearhead a gender equality awareness raising campaign. It is unfortunate to note that no sportswoman has been given the same opportunity to share the platform with them. When it comes to initiatives of this nature, it is crucial to highlight the vital importance of the popular hashtag #representationMatters. If sporting stars are to be included in a gender equality-related programme, such a programme should essentially include sporting superstars such as the excellent Chamari Atapattu, who, despite multiple forms of gender-based discrimination, such as the shameless gender pay gap, low access to facilities and less visibility, continue to prevail and bring tremendous credit to Sri Lanka. In fact, the Education Ministry’s gender equality programme would have been a lot more effective and worthwhile had it been entrusted upon leading women in sport, including, for example, Chamari Atapattu, Chaturangi Jayasuriya and Tharjini Sivalingam, with advisory oversight from towering figures such as Deshabandu Susanthika Jayasinghe.
Gender justice in sport should be a constant conversation and mission. The more gender justice is consolidated in sport, the more it will help strengthen gender justice in society at large.
The writer is a gender justice advocate and political analyst.