For India’s female badminton champion Saina Nehwal, newly crowned world number one, it’s been a tough climb to the top in a patriarchal country that has long neglected women athletes. Although badminton is keenly followed in India, cricket has long been the national obsession, overshadowing all other sports and whose male stars command eye-popping sums.
“It’s difficult to play any other sport in a cricket-mad country, especially if you are a woman,” said Nehwal on the sidelines of the Indian Open in New Delhi, a title she clinched on Sunday night after downing Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon. “But I’m glad mindsets are slowly changing. Girls have started saying that if boys can do it, girls can do it as well,” Nehwal, who becomes the first Indian women to reach the number one spot this week when the latest rankings are released.
With the defeat of India’s cricketers in the World Cup semi-final last week in Australia, Indian media have been quick to hail the 25-year-old, who has battled injuries and a string of defeats by the dominating Chinese, as the country’s new sporting hero.
She joins a series of women – from boxing’s Mary Kom to tennis star Sania Mirza – who have succeeded on the world stage, outperforming the men who have long received the lion’s share of attention and resources back home.
A new advert showing on Rupert Murdoch’s Star Sports urges viewers to “check out” the skills and determination of these women, who include shooters, hockey players and five-time world champion Kom.
The one-minute video, produced this month for International Women’s Day, also takes a swipe at male chauvinistic attitudes, with the women sweating through gruelling practice sessions and defiantly asking: “You wanna check me out?” “Then check out my serve, my bull’s eye, check out my black eye, check out my medals (pause) my Olympic medals”.
Although women say their successes are being increasingly recognised, they still struggle to make a living – in contrast to the country’s cricketers who were showered with gifts including luxury cars and hard cash when they won the last World Cup in 2011.
When the glitzy Indian Premier League kicks off next month, cricket’s flamboyant all-rounder Yuvraj Singh stands to make $2.6 million after being bought at a player auction for the event.
“In India you can’t make a profession out of sport unless you are a cricketer,” said Heena Sidhu, who last year became India’s first world number one pistol shooter, although she has since fallen to 16 in the rankings.
“When I started out seven, eight years back it was really tough to break through,” added Sidhu, saying Indian society still has traditional expectations of women.
“It’s not as if people come marching to your house (demanding you quit) but what society thinks affects the parents and eventually it trickles down to the children,” she said.
Sports writer Prem Panicker said slowly changing attitudes have given rise to a generation of successful women on the sporting fields.
“As we moved into the 2000s, disposable incomes increased, parents were more willing to allow their daughters to engage in (sporting) activities. As demand increased, so did coaching facilities,” Panicker said.
“I don’t think it is any one factor as it is an indication of a progressive attitudinal shift, aided by external factors.”
The likes of Nehwal and Mirza, who has racked up 24 doubles titles including the Miami Open this month, have also inspired girls to take up sport, according to experts.
A Bollywood movie has been made about Kom, who overcame grinding poverty and an initially disapproving father to win her titles including an Olympic bronze medal.
But Geeta Phogat, India’s first woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, in 2012, said she and others have had to overcome hurdles men simply do not face.
“When I started wrestling my family had to face a lot of criticism from community elders,” Phogat, 26, said.
“People said I would bring only shame to my family, no one would want to marry me,” said Phogat, who as a young athlete trained with men in northern India because there were no women wrestlers. “I was told wrestling is a man’s sport. But I have proved that women can wrestle and win medals as well,” said Phogat, who won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. “You can’t ignore women any more.”