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Women wrestlers' protest at Jantar Mantar
From left: Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia & Sakshi Malik

Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik brought immense pride to India through their wrestling triumphs. Sakshi in 2016 Summer Olympics was the first Indian woman wrestler to win a bronze medal. Vinesh became the first Indian woman wrestler to win gold in both the Commonwealth and Asian games. Since January, this year these courageous winners have entered a new arena – Jantar Mantar.  These sports luminaries are unexpected crusaders in the fight against sexual harassment.  Practicing their throws, literally and figuratively, they are drawing attention of the nation to sexual harassment in sports. An unusual array of supporters is backing them in their fight marking a transformative moment that shifts the domain, discourse, and constituencies to challenge sexual harassment.

As ‘Dangal’ (2016) captured our attention, the Indian public is familiar with the courage and determination that Vinesh and Sakshi and women wrestlers had to overcome to enter this male bastion.  The internationally acclaimed women are role models for many young women in India who seek to break gender barriers and excel in fields of their choice. Their courage and grit are again on display as they challenge sexual harassment in the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) at significant risk to their careers. They are demanding accountability and the removal of WFI President and Member of Parliament, Brij Bhushan Charan Singh. Multiple allegations against him by top women wrestlers, including harassment of a minor, have been supported by their male counterparts. Sakshi, in her interviews explains she is grappling with sexual harassment to protect young women entering the sport from a culture of impunity.  

The MeToo Movement in India (2018) was widely critiqued as a white-collar movement against sexual harassment that started in the film and entertainment industries. This protest is grassroots led and based and watched across the nation. There has been widespread media coverage of the protests, videos with the wrestlers talking about their concerns are in wide circulation, giving the issue of sexual harassment public visibility and attention.  Cordoned off by battalions of police and treated with disrespect, the women are leaving the protest ground and taking their movement to the streets of Delhi. In doing so they are further expanding the conversation on this critical issue.   

Due to their protest, an Oversight Committee was appointed headed by Mary Kom. The findings of the report have not been made public. Midway through the year the protesters’ demands have not been met. The wrestlers went back to protesting at Jantar Mantar in April.  In the scorching Delhi heat, they are camping out at the site and are training under heavy police presence as the World Championships and Asian Games are around the corner.  There have been accusations of scuffles between wrestlers and the police.  

The wrestlers’ demands have been ignored despite the very forward-looking laws on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (POSH) of 2013. POSH builds on the 1997 Vishaka guidelines, that mandates employers to take steps to protect female employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, and to provide procedures for resolution, settlement, or prosecution of offenders.  In May the Supreme Court closed the plea made by the three wrestlers against the President of WFI, after noting that their First Information Reports (FIRs) were registered, and the complainants had been provided security. These setbacks have not deterred the women in their struggle.

Also read: Humour: An Invitation

The MeToo Movement in India (2018) was widely critiqued as a white-collar movement against sexual harassment that started in the film and entertainment industries. This protest is grassroots led and based and watched across the nation. There has been widespread media coverage of the protests, videos with the wrestlers talking about their concerns are in wide circulation, giving the issue of sexual harassment public visibility and attention.  Cordoned off by battalions of police and treated with disrespect, the women are leaving the protest ground and taking their movement to the streets of Delhi. In doing so they are further expanding the conversation on this critical issue.   

Leading men wrestlers, also from similar rural, working-class backgrounds are integral in this struggle. Bajrang Punia being the most notable. He is the first Indian wrestler ranked world number one in any category, and the first to win three world championship medals.  His father was a bus conductor and his mother a supervisor in a health clinic. The husbands of several of the wrestlers are alongside their women demanding justice. These young men from the conservative Hindi heart belt are improbable but remarkable as change agents. They set an example for other young men across India to stand in solidarity with women to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace.  A few other stellar male athletes have spoken in solidarity and include Neeraj Chopra, Abhinav Bhindra, Harbhajan Singh, Kapil Dev. Sania Mirza, and Nikhat Zareen have also lent their support.

sexual harassment
The protest is giving the issue of sexual harassment public visibility and attention

A handful of Bollywood stars have spoken up, but the real support has been from trade union movements, farmers, Catholic nuns, and a khap mahapanchayat that gathered in May at the protest site. Khaps, made up of ten to fifteen villages are rural ruling bodies in Western UP and Haryana. These traditional village leaders supported the wrestlers and raised slogans against the WFI, marking another unexpected ally in the fight against sexual harassment.

Whatever the outcome, the women wrestlers have galvanized attention to sexual harassment in sports. It demonstrates that the issue of sexual harassment is not a white collar and elite women’s issue.  It emphasizes the power of grassroots women leaders and the role that men can play in this struggle. The wrestlers have shown that working class men from rural India, are champions against sexual harassment.  Its allies have been diverse bringing new constituencies to the ring.  Sexual harassment is no longer confined to being only a women’s issue or an issue of the women’s movement, that for decades has worked to address sexual harassment and to ensure laws and policies have been formulated to protect women.

Images courtesy: https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/legal06/s/sexual-harassment.html

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