Social Stigmas and Biases Attached to Women’s Participation in Sports

Women, throughout history, have been constantly battling for equality and although sports have existed for ever, this has been considered a masculine domain where women have been subject to a legacy of prejudice, ridicule and primarily exclusion. Upon hearing “female athletes”, people tend to label them as being sensitive or weak, which has completely impeded the social acceptance for females to become athletes. Even in the Olympics, women were restricted from participation as they were deemed unfit for competing in sporting events. In football, the world’s most popular sport, there was no female inclusion till the first FIFA Women World Cup Championship (football) held in China in 1991, unlike their male counterparts’ tournament that had commenced in 1930. 

Sections of our society demand that males and females should and must comply to the established gender roles and domains where males are expected to be independent and athletic, while females are expected to be submissive caregivers. Stereotypes, especially with regards to women’s sports have subsequently led to a decline in female athletes. Receiving the short end of the stick for treading into the ‘male-dominated’ field of sports is not a new subject for women. Our females do not get as many opportunities as males; even when they happen to avail the chance to play sports, they are treated with partiality and expected to behave ‘gender‐appropriately’. Stereotypes such as delicate, incompetent and ‘playing like a girl’, or simply giving a bad name to the family, in addition to there not being adequate sports facilities for women, have resulted in many talented girls not adopting sports as a career in addition to mental health issues for several female athletes. 
Fortunately, the stigma around girls being athletes is slowly and gradually diminishing with more recognition for our professional female athletes as we witness massive strides that have been made in the last few years by our female athletes at all levels. Prominent female athletes like Samar Khan (an adventure athlete, a mountain biker, former Goodwill Ambassador for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a gifted motivational speaker, paraglider and a snowboarder), Tehreem Fatima (Pakistan’s first woman tent pegging player, as well as a CPCAB Psychotherapist, USA certified Montessori Coach, and a life coach), Rabia Shahzad (youngest Pakistani weightlifting champion) and not to forget Shahida Abbasi (Karate champion bringing the first gold medal for Pakistan in the South Asian Games), are modern-day icons who have been using their voices, substantiated by their stellar national and international performances, to make a difference. 
There have been major breakthroughs in women taking positions of authority in sports in Pakistan, the most prominent exemplary position and inspiration being the first female in the Board of Governors of PCB’s (Pakistan Cricket Board) Human Resource and Remuneration Committee, Ms Alia Zafar. PCB’s decision of inclusion of a woman as a member of BoG serves as a step in the right direction for our Women’s National Cricket Team. 
Undoubtedly, female sportspersons are blessed with a proven high level of performance but societal stereotypes and biases are inhibiting them from participating in sports to an extent that their mental health is also put at stake. There is no better person to talk to about sports stigma and bringing awareness than Samar Khan who defied all the odds and continued her journey relentlessly despite harassment, workplace discrimination and gender bias by sports officials. Speaking to Hilal for Her, she shared how she has been facing criticism and stereotypical behaviour of cyber trolling and bullying for years throughout her journey. She could not handle the severe mental trauma that she had to go through initially when she took up adventure sports and slipped into depression. Samar Khan also stated that there was a lack of proper resources and support. She feels infuriated at the discrimination towards female sportspersons: “I realized that any individual who wishes to advocate for change in the society, be it a sportsperson, a politician, a media person, especially female, criticism is a part and parcel. I started ignoring all these negative remarks and focused on my work by learning and improving through positive criticism and simply blocking away negativity because there are better things in life to achieve and for that I need to be more disciplined and determined.”
Female sportspersons often feel that their skills and talent are overlooked and they are mistreated in terms of their training, coaching, medical treatment, media sponsorships and coverage, as well as their salaries. Even though they achieve more in certain sports, they fail to get the warranted acknowledgement, thus diminishing their efforts and hard work. It is the need of the hour to get rid of these biases attached to women’s sports because it is extremely unfortunate to see how our female athletes are victims to the predetermined standards that our society has set for them. Effective ways to get rid of the stigmas and biases around women playing sports is to have media coverage of professional women’s sports because an increased media exposure will accordingly lead to more visibility, further creating opportunities for the girls to garner deals with sponsors. 
Considered to be the physically weaker sex, women have been stigmatized as being too feminine, resulting in being discouraged from indulging in “masculine” activities. The primary reason for this dissuasion is to pressurize women to not exhibit masculine characteristics. Talking to Hilal for Her, Rabia Shahzad, Pakistan’s youngest weightlifting champion, mentioned how everyone till date gets surprised that she is a powerlifter/weightlifter: “The stigma people have attached with weightlifting is that you can be a lifter only if you are bulky. Almost everyone I meet has asked me if I really am a lifter as I am quite thin.” 
Talking about the challenges and obstacles Rabia had to face on the way, she said: “So weightlifting and powerlifting is considered men’s sport. The obstacles I faced were in the ladies’ gym where only baby weights were available. I tried to get a few heavy weight plates from the gents’ gym but failed in doing so as women used to get scared, which was quite demotivating for me. Unfortunately, there was no set up for the weight that is thrown from overhead to the ground after the lift finishes. With my father’s support I set up weightlifting at my home by converting our dining room into a gym.” Rabia also discussed another major difficulty that she had to endure during her training of weightlifting–the hurdle of not having a coach: “No one in Karachi does weightlifting so I figured out majority of the sport from Google, and from my failures. I suppose in Pakistan, especially for a girl to excel in the field of sports, she needs huge support from her family, especially from her father or a male member.” The more accepted our women athletes become, the more room there is for the younger generation of female sportspersons to progress and achieve a great name like Rabia Shahzad.
Despite progress, the problem of discrimination predominantly persists based on apparent gender identity of female athletes. Girls in sports experience mistreatment, social seclusion, negative performance assessments, or even the loss of their careers. Sports not only helps one in growing stronger physically, but athletics also provide one with various prospects of development of other psychological skills. Tehreem Fatima, Pakistan’s first woman tent pegging player, and a role model for every female who aims to be a go-getter in life says: “Stigma is attached only because of the capitalist system and defined roles have been assigned to both men and women where men are supposed to be the breadwinners while women are solely responsible for reproduction. Even in the western society, women were supposed to act “feminine” during industrialization and have been objectified since. In Islam, there is no restriction for women and their talents; we have exemplary women like the very intellectual Hazrat Ayesha and the first businesswoman Hazrat Khadija, or Hazrat Khawla, a warrior who was extremely good at archery and fought alongside her brother in the conquest of Levant.” Commenting further, Tehreem opined that women tend to prove their mettle by challenging the conventional mind-set and sometimes have to ignore their moral and ethical roles due to the lack of acceptance in the society.
Tehreem is apprehensive to go back to the ground after becoming a mother only because tent pegging is supposed to be a very masculine and wild game and there is no system that treats women as women and the arrangement mostly is primarily dedicated to men. 
In response to how she coped with the difficulties through her journey, she said: “I did not face challenges before marriage because I knew how to manage the system as well as deal with men. It is a very risky and lethal game for a woman, especially for a woman in Hijab. The men had no reason to objectify me, in fact, they appreciated my courage. I faced the real challenge after my marriage because now I am not only Tehreem Fatima who is a tent-pegger, I am also a wife, a mother, and I have a family. Once you become a mother then this system would never acknowledge your passion. Therefore, I recently got training from a female and realized that we need more female trainers in Pakistan for our women tent-peggers who can deal with them in a womanly manner. This is my ongoing struggle and I will overcome it by understanding my problem and realizing my potential. I will give time to myself and be passionate towards my goal. Realistically, you only overcome a challenge when you make a better relationship with your own self. I will only be able to handle this system once I learn to handle the chaos within it and have enough strength to fight against it. I am blessed with a wonderful support system to help me through my journey.”
Many females are fearful to attempt a sport out of the ordinary owing to the stereotype that only males can play certain sports and females can only cheer for them, but sportswomen like Shahida Abbasi, a Karate champion from the Hazara community, followed her passion and did not get discouraged by the opinions of the society. Shahida has the honour of being the first female in Kata Karate to bring an individual gold medal to Pakistan. In order to know her tough entry in the male-dominated sports of Karate, Hilal for Her, enquired about the challenges she confronted. Shahida responded: “If I have to answer for myself then I would say that a female has to face a lot of hurdles while entering the field of sports in comparison to males. I developed an interest in Karate and wanted to learn the sport when I used to go to my brother’s Karate academy. My interest in Karate soon transformed into passion when I saw senior girls doing Karate there. I used to face harassment of every sort on the way to the academy. My neighbours and relatives would go up to my father to ask him to stop me as I was a girl but he did not pay any heed and told them off clearly. My achievements are an answer to the harassment and discouragement that I faced and whoever I am today speaks volumes about how I had to fight like a warrior against a stigmatized mind-set.” At the end of the conversation with us, Shahida wished to inspire girls through her message of encouragement for all the girls who aspire to take up sports to gain trust of the parents and make them realise that they have the potential to achieve their objective.
In numerous sources, male athletes are associated with qualities such as ‘fastest’ or ‘strong’, whereas female athletes are associated with ‘aged’, ‘married’ or ‘pregnant’, which evidently reveals a bias. If girls can ignore these typecasts, they will become more dynamic in a number of sports. Irrespective of all the negative assumptions, female sportspersons all around the world are fighting against the stigma that women are inferior in sports. They are proving with their abilities, and accomplishment of goals and medals that not only men are good at sports but females are at par with them. HH   

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