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That girl with attitude

The Jwala Gutta episode reflects our intolerance of assertive sportswomen

It takes audacity to hold your own in a crosscourt rally exchange in badminton, standing at the net and beating back the smashes raining down on you at steep angles. It takes some nerve to then turn this skirmish on its head, and attack the man across the net in a mixed doubles pairing, as Jwala Gutta often does, while holding the forecourt.

India celebrated Gutta’s aggression at the 2009 World Championships in Hyderabad and at the Commonwealth Games. It also rejoiced in her World’s bronze medal in 2011. But the threat of a lifetime ban by the Badminton Association of India (BAI), for reasons ranging from her questioning the randomly applied player replacement rules in the Indian Badminton League to her allegedly “outrageous, aggressive and strident behaviour”, has a dark subtext. It reflects just how uncomfortable many Indians still are about sportswomen who are outspoken, assertive and self-confident.

Not too long ago, tennis player Sania Mirza was painted as a brash young woman who didn’t conform to people’s expectations of a humble sportswoman. In contrast, Saina Nehwal was projected as the demure and acceptable badminton star. In truth, both girls were feisty and went on to chart their own successful career graphs. But at one point, it seemed as though Sania Mirza, in spite of her considerable successes, could do nothing to please her fuddy-duddy countrymen.

First, there was the bizarre controversy about her having disrespected the national flag during the Hopman Cup, where, incidently, she notched an impressive performance. Then the Twitter trolls took it upon themselves to upbraid her for not wearing a sari at the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony. She was thrown in as bait when the entire tennis establishment bickered ahead of the London Games last summer, with grown men squabbling over partnerships. It was demanded that Mirza, who had already won two Grand Slams by then, give a written commitment that she would have no say in who she would be partnered with. The most bitter rancour, however, was reserved for her announcement that she would be marrying Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. The nation failed one of its most talented tennis stars by demanding justifications for her personal choices.

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