Modest? Sexy? Or just an athlete?

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.

30 thoughts on “Modest? Sexy? Or just an athlete?”

  1. Well argued, thought provoking and brilliantly sane. Thanks for this. “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. ” Can’t agree more. Shame on BWF.

  2. In an era when everything has become a commodity to be sold in the market – sports being among the most prominent ‘products’ – it is ‘natural progression’ for BWF to ‘sex up’ the sports. Let not the decision be opposed for religious reasons and by the clergy and their spokesmen (no need to use spokespersons, I think!); but by those who think that the move takes away the democratic right of women to wear apparel of their choice and by those who think that the move is prompted by blatant projection of women players as commodities to rake in ads and crowds.
    ” if skirts were more comfortable or conducive to better play, male tennis players looking for a competitive edge would have adopted skirts long ago”. This sentence reminds me of an old banner against Vatican’s stance on Abortion: “If men could get pregnant, the Pope would have allowed Abortion”.
    Clearly the BWF decision is not a one to be cheered!

    1. @Nilanjan, why are you laughing @ “” if skirts were more comfortable or conducive to better play, male tennis players looking for a competitive edge would have adopted skirts long ago”. Your reply“If men could get pregnant, the Pope would have allowed Abortion” is not a good analogy.Why can’t men wear skirt ,let them try.Why do we need to have a gendered dress code… Thanks Prof. Menon for this wonderful piece.
      BMF decision is patriarchal and capitalistic…shame …shame.
      Renny Thomas
      PhD student in Sociology,JNU

  3. Great post. Thanks. Obviously, the pressure of making badminton more telegenic – sexing it up, so to speak, is a huge one and the World Badminton Federation has succumbed in this absurd manner.

    But to add to your comment about modesty and sexiness, I think everyone plays with context: after all, there are different contexts when women (and men) adopt the sexy persona or the modest persona – even sports’women’ or actors… Its interesting how we have photos of a demure P{riyanka Chopra or Sania Mirza, with head suitably covered, when she marries or offers prayers at the Ajmer Sharif (as we saw of Priyanka Chopra recently). Even Sania Nehwal has had a wonderful makeover with gorgeous pictures in advertisements or newsfeatures…

    the badminton federation’s directive is sexist and myopic…

  4. Very good arguments. As much as the society comes forward to criticise Sri Ram Senas and other Moral police, they must stand up against organisations like BWF who are exploiting women. I would extend this to most other games including Beach Volley ball federation which proposes “bathing” suits for both men and women! What’s wrong if a Man sports a tee while playing the game?

  5. ‘“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. ”

    An(other) example of academic acrobatics with words .which one comes first- being produced or being subjected to or if both happen atonce are they two different processes that occur at once and influence the outcome of the other can one that is not produced be subjected to even before it is produced completely. is that something like milking the cow and making coffee from that milk at once or is it something like that exists as that exists not, a heisenberg cat :). If i write like that in my school i will be taught how to write meaningful sentences and how to split a complex sentence into two or more, so that there is clarity in writing, perhaps only to unlearn that in JNU/DU when one gets exposed to (post-modern) humanities/social sciences.

  6. बहुत अच्छा और जरूरी लेख है, हालाँकि आखरी पैराग्राफ सिर के ऊपर से गुज़र गया….

    1. Agree with Iqbal; thank you for an illuminating and lucid piece (until we come to the last para, which had me going ‘huh!’).

  7. very good article. through this decision, here World Badminton Federation target the big business. becoz when women plyere wear the skirt, the many people will come to see this game. by this decision this big mafia (including channels, news papers etc) aiming great benifits. all human being should strike against wbf.

  8. Great post! I was thinking of the Niqab ban in France (on the lines of a hypothetical dictat by France commanding all women to wear transparent micro-minis) when the BWF fiasco butted in. What I wear is my choice and ultimately I alone have the right over my body. But of course BWF doesn’t care. The variants of sexism at all stratification of power never cease to amaze me. :)

    1. When consumerism converges with Sports , the modesty of Sports goes away and the individual(Read, Sportswomen) have no choice over their dress code. They are to be in the arena of “ Play”. But that’s not enough to “PROVOKE” the Corporate who sponsor the Game. So if the GAME is to be on and and on ..then TV channels and BIG Print/WEB media have to broadcast the inner side of the GAME! But we are getting our self habituated to all form and types of open flesh trade. We don’t feel any discomfort NOW –is’ n it?

  9. IBF-BWF is undeniably in the wrong to impose rules that lie outside the domain of improving the game. I’m guessing that they felt that the game needs to be popularised further against the potency of its more glamorous cousin – Tennis.
    There were a couple of arguments though that were used that I felt diluted the sanctity and clarity of the position. If the BWF is wrong in imposing the dress code then so is the Pakistani Govt. Examples of ‘Anna Kournikova’ and ‘fat women’ are offensive and in very bad taste.

    In a lighter vein, the reason why you wont see men in mini-skirts is the same reason that you wont see them in burqas… :-)

  10. Yojimbo, re your argument that “If the BWF is wrong in imposing the dress code then so is the Pakistani Govt. Examples of ‘Anna Kournikova’ and ‘fat women’ are offensive and in very bad taste.”
    The first seesaw (BWF/Pakistan) is precisely what I described as extremely painful to be on – and if you didn’t get that, then one of us hasn’t done our job well!
    As for Kournikova flashing her panties, and fat women – neither is offensive to my feminist eyes. The former can do with her panties as she wishes, and women can be fat, hairy, sex-workers, lesbian, butch…all descriptive terms as far as I am concerned. (And sometimes celebratory). The whole point in my piece was to say that sometimes women choose to be whatever their culture demands of them – modest/sexy, but sometimes they flout those expectations, not by exiting that space completely, but by subverting while remaining inside. One of the ways of subverting the pressure to be sexy is to be sexy outside the rules, which means one refuses to abide by the law that says’ if you’ve got it flaunt it’ – ‘I most definitely do NOT have it, but I will flaunt it right in your sexist face!’ that’s the attitude I was talking about.
    Himanshu, Iqbal – I’m sorry for the cryptic concluding sentences. I didn’t want to go into realms of theorizing that would not interest most readers, but couldn’t resist a hint of how I was thinking about this issue, for those kafila readers who are inclined, like me, to theoretical obfuscations of the postmodern kind :)
    Underdog – how can one be simultaneously produced by and subjected to, you ask derisively. One example – medicine creates a category of illness and subjects you to the cure prescribed for it. Hysteria, for instance, was produced as a disease by 19th c Freudian medicine, and that move simultaneously produced hundreds of women as ‘hysterics’ and subjected them to various kinds of ‘cures’. If you weren’t so dismissive of what you cannot immediately understand, you might have wanted to think about how this is possible instead of immediately dismissing it with such confidence and contempt. If you think the simple sentences you learnt to write for the CBSE exam can help you with getting anywhere near expressing life’s complexity, let alone transforming the conditions of our existence, you must be a very happy person indeed. I envy you.

    1. niveditaji,
      I really liked your piece for beautifully expressing the quandary that feminists have been exasperated by for a while. But I was interested in your response above here when you say “but sometimes they flout those expectations, not by exiting that space completely, but by subverting while remaining inside.” Is it not possible to depart from this celebration of subversion even for a postmodernist feminist like you? Surely in inhabiting a tradition/culture, one takes life decisions which are far more organic than modernists/liberators think they do, and might or might not be subversive. Habitus is not a machine for confirmity or subversion. Can feminists even now not think beyond the ‘weapon of the weak’/resistance/subversion mode and instead think about how people inhabit the world within the constraints they inherit/ encounter? Can feminists stop judging/ evaluating people based on their subversive potential?

  11. Rajeshji, thank you for an engaged response. Regarding your thoughts on subversion, ‘judging’ and ‘postmodernist feminism’ – two ways I’d like to respond in my turn.
    First, your discomfort with ‘judging’ and the implication that ‘postmodernists’ do not/cannot judge and do not celebrate subversion. And a related point here – the conflation of judging/evaluating by you, through that slash between the two words. I disagree with all three. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘postmodern’ but let’s just take Foucault whom I invoked, or the quintessentially ‘postmodern feminist’, Judith Butler. There is in both a very clear and and unambiguous critique of the production/naturalization/fixing of identity through regimes of power/knowledge – in other words, they do ‘judge’ and criticize these regimes, and argue for the need to recognize that the modernist ‘agential subject’ is a myth, that the subject is simultaneously produced by and subjected to the requirements of the discourse through s/he is produced. At the same time, both argue that there is always an outside to every such regime, so that the subject is never stable, and that in the disruptions from these outsides lies the possibility of resistance. ‘Emancipation’ then, remains always as a horizon, not something you reach definitively and conclusively (Laclau and Mouffe argue this way too).
    In other words, both subversion and resistance are completely in keeping with this kind of perspective. But the judging is of the regimes of power/knowledge, not of the people who are produced by these, in the old vanguardist ways (by invoking ‘false consciousness’.) So evaluation is a better term than judging – one can evaluate without judging. And what political project of transformation can do without this evaluative exercise? Mass participation in the politics of Hindutva for instance – you would not (I think?) say, ‘do not evaluate this phenomenon, everything people do is from within the constraints they encounter, so we can only understand it.’ An academic anthropologist should perhaps do this, but any transformative project critical of Hindutva will definitely evaluate these constraints, not just say jaane de, log jo bhi karte hain, sahi karte hain. Or we try to understand but also evaluate the Hazare phenomenon, or whatever.
    Similarly with feminists.
    But this brings me to my second line of response – where in my piece or responses, have I done any judging? You ask, why cannot feminists ‘think about how people inhabit the world within the constraints they inherit/ encounter?’ – this is exactly what I have done, I insist. Women inhabit their worlds in different ways, by conforming to what is expected of them (Kournikova, or a modest well-behaved wife and mother), but women also do other kinds of things within these expectations – rebel completely and exit, or twist the rules of their contexts while remaining within. All of these are about ‘inhabiting the worlds they encounter’. I think that the reverse is happening – that is, I am in fact allowing for many different ways of inhabiting one’s world, while you want me to only acknowledge one kind!

  12. Thanks Zero.
    Below is a link to a story on this. Please note that after establishing that there were widespread objections from women players everywhere, on feminist grounds, the story ends with a line unsupported by any evidence, that the proposed dress code had attracted “particular criticism from Muslim countries” !
    Badminton chiefs shelve skirt ruling.

  13. The best, and very appropriate comment from this article in the Huffington Post:

    What I would really wish is to see male players in skirts,” Sertaç Sehlikoglu, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and author of the blog Muslim Women in Sports told HuffPost. “That would most certainly promote badminton much more than any woman’s skirt can ever do.”

  14. I’m not too sure how one links to external url’s in these comments, since the NYT article (“Badminton Group Kills Controversial Dress Code Rule”) I tried to link to doesn’t show up in my post. But it would seem that the BBC report has got its facts right (or atleast, no less wrong than other news websites).
    The NYT article I tried to link to says that the rule was ” … criticized for being sexist, a hindrance to competition and offensive to Muslim women” while the HuffPost article suresh has linked says that “[badminton] leagues in Muslim countries reject[ed] the rule outright.”

  15. Zero, my point is not that ‘Muslim countries’ did not object, neither in any of my comments nor my post itself. My point is that there were as many or more feminist objections, and on completely different grounds, but the main conclusion derived, or the headline in the public perception via the media, ends up focusing on “Muslim” objections. Thus, whatever the complexities of the debate, it ends up being ‘oh no there they go again, the Muslims’, whereas I for one am quite ready to have people go ‘oh no there they go again, the feminists.’ There are some things we have been saying for a long while too, and it’s maddening to see all debate being hitched to the meaningless polarity of “Islam v modernity”
    (In the particular piece that I linked to in my comment, though, there was no evidence for the concluding line on Muslim objections).

  16. Ms. Menon, I apologize if I misunderstood your previous post.

    I completely agree that the BBC report does underplay the feminist objections and that it could have downplayed the ‘Islam v modernity’ angle.

  17. Nivedita: you immediately reveal the perversity of your own mind when you begin by assuming that “attractive presentation of badminton” means short skirts and the exposure of naked legs. There is nothing like this implied at all by the expression. Shame on you. To most native-English speakers ‘attractive presentation’ means just ‘smart, elegant, and tidy’ – nothing more.

  18. Aruna, whenever you have the time, I’d be happy to conduct a basic course on comprehension for you. Until then, perhaps a more careful reading of my post and the debate that followed might help.
    I suspect it may not.

  19. The BWF’s ruling was undeniably sexist. I’m glad it got shelved. Female athletes are first and foremost athletes. People who only watch women’s sport for perverse titillation can do as they please but they are certainly missing out on enjoying something much greater – athletic ability, grit and glory.
    They could have popularised and glammed-up the game by investing in some clever marketing (for e.g. the Indian badminton league did it well) and maybe a few photo shoots for Vogue!
    At the same time, it is ludicrous to assume that the ruling is discriminatory against Muslim nations! Where does it say in the Koran that women should not wear skirts? And even if it does, lots of religions say lots of different things – there’s no need to kowtow to religion all the time.

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