Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes

India’s Rising Female Athletes

Women and girls from a deeply patriarchal Indian state are playing sports, winning international prizes — and crushing stereotypes.

 
In August 2016, after 11 excruciating days without a medal for the Indian Olympic team at the summer games in Rio, female wrestler Sakshi Malik broke the drought and won bronze. The reaction in India was ecstatic, especially in her home state of Haryana, in the north of the country.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

Malik is one of many female athletes from Haryana who today are playing and winning titles in prestigious international sports events like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and Asian Games. But for some observers inside and outside of India, the deeply patriarchal state might seem an unlikely birthplace and training ground for top-flight female athletes.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

Haryana, with a population around 25 million, has one of the most skewed sex ratios in all of India, with 879 women per 1,000 men — an imbalance that is, according to News Nation, in large part the result of widespread female feticide. Haryana is also notorious for discrimination and crimes against women; in 2016 alone, it had a recorded 191 cases of gang rape, the highest in a country of 29 states and 1.2 billion people.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

To find out what motivates women and girls to pursue sports in a place where poverty and patriarchy constrain so many lives, Mumbai-based photographer Karen Dias went to Haryana. She spent time in cities like Rohtak and Hissar, and the surrounding villages.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

“The bigger cities like Rohtak have sports complexes with state of the art facilities, but outside the city, infrastructure dwindles rapidly,” Dias told Foto via email. “There are few proper playgrounds to speak of, and changing rooms, toilets, running water, and healthcare are all bare to none.”

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

During her travels, she met women and girls as young as 7 playing a wide range of sports such as archery, badminton, soccer, cricket, and wrestling. Many of the women came from poor, low-caste families earning as little as $3 a day through farm work and other menial jobs.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

Coaching fees, sports equipment costs, the right nutrition, and healthcare are absolutely unmanageable,” Dias said. “They don't have a doctor or a sports psychologist, all of those things that major international athletes have.”

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

Besides inadequate resources and infrastructure, women often face enormous pressure from family and society. Women, after all, are expected to marry early, after minimal schooling; some estimates indicate that 47 percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

“Many families today won't let their daughters play any sports, because they think it's what men do, or they think that girls shouldn't wear shorts and interact with boys,” Dias said. “These girls are feminists in their own right, and many of them persisted until their parents relented to let them play.”

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

Despite the challenges these athletes face, coaches told Dias that an increasing number of women have been enrolling in sports in recent years. Part of that is due to the large monetary prizes offered by the state government to encourage athletes. A gold medal from the Commonwealth Games can guarantee a cash prize of 20 lakhs rupees, or around $31,000 — a literal fortune in a country where the average per capita income is around $1,800 per year.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

Recognized athletes at the national level are also entitled to government positions, which is critical for people from Haryana, where the unemployment rate is high. “Fame, pride, and big prize money are pushing families to let their daughters play sports,” Dias said.

Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes Karen Dias/Getty Images Reportage

More importantly, sports offer young women a rare path to independence. “It pulls them out of poverty,” Dias said, “and for some, it gives them the freedom and negotiating power to make important life decisions, like whom to marry, and when.”