By goddess, it’s that spot again – at once familiar and deeply uncomfortable. Us feminists in the same rage as the patriarchs and religious right, over the same damn thing. For very different reasons, we bellow (cutely), but is anybody listening?
The Badminton World Federation has announced its new dress code that requires women players to wear skirts “to ensure attractive presentation of badminton.” Almost every Indian woman player has objected, saying that dress should be one’s personal preference.
Of course most workplaces have dress codes. So this is about more than simply an infringement of individual tastes. This is about the utter blatant sexism of this particular requirement. Basically, what’s the BWF saying quite shamelessly? That they expect more people to come to the sport if they can see suggestively flying skirts (on women). Even if there are shorts beneath, which they have grudgingly permitted. It’s not enough to show legs, skirts have to fly.
Perhaps the largely male office bearers of the BWF have stored their grey cells considerably lower down? Or is it just some highly individualized fantasy mutating into policy? For the viewers don’t really seem to care. As Saina Nehwal, who wears shorts, said, “They claim more people will come to watch my game if I wear a skirt instead of shorts. But the stadium is always packed whenever I play, even if I’m in shorts.” She added ominously, “When pictures of me and other players in flying skirts come out in the papers, I am sure there will be opposition and then, maybe, the federation will change the rule.”
Now, that’s the opposition the sexist BWF will take seriously – when the religious right jumps in – VHP, Ram Sene, Sunni Ulema Board (which issued the fatwa on Sania Mirza’s skirts) – then, as Saina Nehwal prophesied, there will be a backing off.
There are protests from all the top women players of India; Chinese players too, raise objections (Beijing Olympics doubles winner Yu Yang: “I don’t like wearing skirts. I am not used to them. When I wear a skirt, I don’t know how to play.” ) There’s opposition from Indonesian players (two-time mixed doubles world champion Lilyana Natsir said: “Skirts hamper my movement when I play.”) As Eliza Truitt put it in an article on tennis gear, if skirts were more comfortable or conducive to better play, male tennis players looking for a competitive edge would have adopted skirts long ago, just as male athletes shave their legs and don body stockings for swimming.
For the BWF – comfort, mobility, personal freedom, strongly expressed views of players – none of this counts. What may eventually tip the scales is religious opposition to women being dressed immodestly. Indeed, religious claims have already made their appearance. Badminton Asia Confederation Vice-President Syed Naqi Mohsin said earlier this week that the rule is discriminatory.
Finally, we thought, that crucial word. Discriminatory to women, right? Oh no, to Muslims: “The BWF states that the new regulation will not discriminate against any religion or beliefs,” said Mohsin. “How can wearing skirts not clash with the religious beliefs of female Muslim players?”
The rule, which will now be implemented from June 1, will definitely ensure that Pakistani women wont be able to play at all as they play in track pants. (The question is moot at this point as Pakistan is currently under suspension from BWF because of another reason –two parallel national badminton bodies).
A painful seesaw to be on, ‘between the burqa and the beauty parlour’, as I said elsewhere in a similar context. At one end, pressured to be modest, at the other, pressured to be sexy. There are of course, women who want to be modest, and there are women who want to be sexy (Anna Kournikova, for example, who would be miserable if she couldn’t flash her panties for her fans.) But then there are those who slide off that seesaw, probably quite a large number. In a modest context they don’t want to be as modest as decreed; in a sexy context, they don’t want to be as sexy as decreed. In short, they want to be modest or sexy outside the rules – the fat woman who refuses to tone or shave her legs but will wear mini skirts; the modest believer who insists that women can conduct puja/namaz/service. Or women who don’t care much about being either modest or sexy, but just do whatever it takes to do what they do very well.
The tired notion of ‘agency’ serves us no longer. It can be so broad as to mean any kind of action that is not actually forced at the point of a gun, or it can be so narrow as to mean only that which ‘we’ consider to be progressive. If the subject is at once produced by and subjected to the discourses that form the conditions of its possibility, a Foucauldian notion I am influenced by, then the only way to get off that seesaw is to recognize that life is being lived in the stuff that has slid off it.