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Saudi, Egypt, Iran and now India: Women at Rio are smashing patriarchy

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 21 August 2016, 0:46 IST

Finally on the Olympics podium, India is basking in the glory of two stellar women. Two self-driven, focused, meticulous athletes who are incredibly good at what they do and have proved it to themselves. I repeat, to themselves. Not to India.

Silver medal winner PV Sindhu and bronze medallist Sakshi Malik may be household names today and that's great. If their victory encourages more Indian girls to embrace sports, it's a job well done. But really, the point of their victory was not to save India's honour. We put that pressure on our girls all the time anyway.

Families' honour, society's honour, country's honour. And those who don't comply can also be killed for that same wretched honour.

Instead of hanging our heads in shame for having being shown our place by these stellar athletes - for removing that blindfold of patriarchy that binds us together - us Indians have the gall to appropriate Sindhu, Sakshi and Dipa Karmakar's achievements at Rio.

Also read -Bollywood biggies hail girl power at 2016 Rio Olympics

Because 'our girls' are saving our honour, we assume we must be a progressive society. We tell ourselves that India must be great to get these women up there. Well, that's wrong. Completely and irrevocably wrong.

Don't misinterpret this. It's legitimate to feel pride for our country when we win medals at the Olympics, but the sort of infantilisation these women have been subjected to - an expression of this 'pride' - is entirely uncalled for. Overnight they have transformed into our betis and behens, their struggle be damned. That they probably have had to look patriarchy in the face and raise a middle finger to it to be able to snatch that much coveted medal is suddenly forgotten.

And if we really do respect their achievement, we must learn to acknowledge their struggle. A struggle our society, and our much talked up culture, has amply contributed to.

Also read - Sindhu didn't lose the gold, she WON the silver. Now on to bigger things

The Rio Olympics have been an eye-opener in that regard, that is, if you're willing to see beyond the inherent jingoism and aesthetic hyperboly being casually thrown about. Especially through those tricolour memes.

While Rio may not have been the best managed Olympics, and barely scratches the surface as far as star value goes, it has, in effect, opened the playing field - quite literally - to women from societies and countries that deny them basic rights.

And that's an incredible feat in itself.

Sweet victory for Iran

Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin grins as she bites into her shiny bronze medal. It's her first Olympic medal. And also the first ever for an Iranian woman, a landmark feat in a country where women aren't even allowed inside sports stadiums.

On 18 August, the 18-year-old taekwondo champion beat Swedish Nikita Glasnovic 5-1 in the 57kg category to win that coveted spot on the Olympic podium.

"I am so happy for Iranian girls because it is the first medal and I hope at the next Olympics we will get a gold," an elated Zenoorin said right after the win.

The taekwondo uniform is liberating for girls like Zenoorin. While the ideal garment for most sports is bare minimal, that isn't the case with taekwondo. It provides breathing room for Islamic women to comfortably ace the sport. Zenoorin's victory stands testimony to that.

Egypt and her many firsts

Egyptian women have been on a winning streak this Olympic season, and that's commendable for women from a nation that was ranked 'worst for women' among 22 Arab nations by the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

With the unflinching grit that team Egypt has shown, especially in the face of self-proclaimed "progressive media", they most definitely deserve every opportunity at a medal.

On 7 August, Egypt debuted in women's beach volleyball. And the photographers in the stadium went crazy.

Dressed in full bodysuits, Doaa El-Ghobashy and Nada Maewad became the first women from Egypt to participate in beach volleyball at the Olympics since 1996 - the year it was introduced.

El-Ghobasy, who proudly wore her hijab while smashing at the volleyball court, told The Associated Press, "I have worn the hijab for 10 years. It doesn't keep me away from the things I love to do, and beach volleyball is one of them."

While the women ultimately lost to Germany, they won a moment in history. A moment that would perhaps help us rethink our priorities about beach volleyball and the voyeurism that plagues it.

Interestingly, of the three medals Egypt has won so far, two were taken by her women.

On 10 August, Sara Ahmed became the first ever Egyptian woman to win an Olympic medal. Hedaya Malak caught up to her eight days later.

Ahmed, who's only 18, won the third spot in weightlifting in the 69kg category. She lifted a combined weight of 225 kg and grinned while dropping it, having realised the weight, both literal and otherwise, that had been lifted off her shoulders.

"I was the first to be on the podium," were her iconic words to Channel News Asia moments after the victory.

Hedaya Malak on the other hand, shared the Olympic podium with her Iranian counterpart Zenoorin; both women breaking through multiple socio-cultural barriers, smiling through their hijabs, with bronze medals around their necks.

Malak, also a 57kg category taekwondo world champ, on Friday beat Belgian Raheleh Asemani to clinch the title.

Much like Indian wrestling victor, Sakshi Malik, 23-year-old Malak, who scored nothing in the first three rounds, won by a golden kick in the fourth. And just like that, Egypt had another medal under its belt.

Also read - Guts to glory: Snapshots of wrestler Sakshi Malik's way to Olympics bronze

Saudi runs against patriarchy

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its regressive attitude towards women. So, when a female Saudi athlete, sporting a sombre black full-body kit takes her place at the starting point of the women's 100m sprint at Rio, she takes a political stance.

Saudi Arabia's Kariman Abuljadayel may not have won a medal, but she sure banished all signs of patriarchy.

The 22-year-old is part of a small female contingent of four from Saudi. Four women who would never have made it to the Games had the Olympics Committee not threatened to ban the country for not sending its women until 2012.

Abuljadayel and her colleagues, as per Saudi laws, would have been allowed to train in long abayas and hijabs in a hot country like Saudi. For her to embrace an outfit that allows for movement and lets her finish a race that the whole world's watching is momentous, for her country wants her to be hidden. To be a non-entity.

Abuljadayel, Malak, Ahmed, Sindhu, Malik, Karmakar and Zenoorin; all embody the might of a woman by exercising her agency to choose what's best for her, without compromising on her personal beliefs.

And that's the beauty in what every single one of them has achieved - a complete rejection of the society that pulls them down, and sweet success. In participation, in visibility, and in victory.

First published: 21 August 2016, 0:46 IST
 
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.

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