When a 29-year-old Billie Jean King faced 55-year-old Bobby Riggs for an exhibition tennis match titled “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, it was hardly a contest on the field. King won the match without breaking a sweat in three sets.
The real battle, however, was off the field. King had an eye on the battle women in sports have to wage just to be able to play, which is of course a microcosm of the larger inequalities that permeate society as a whole.
44 years later, Syeda Sadia, former goalkeeper for Pakistan’s women’s national hockey team, posted a video message to make public her accusations of harassment and assault against head coach, Saeed Khan. According to Syeda, after the conclusion of trials for the national side in Lahore, on the night of October 8, Khan “tried to enter her room forcefully, gagged her and held her hand”. This is in the context of an alleged series of advances by the coach.
These are extremely serious allegations, and emblematic of the larger issues that women have to face in sports. The institutional apathy that allows this harassment to continue, and in some cases thrive with impunity, often punishes the very women who report these cases. In Syeda’s case, her roommate and teammate, Iqra Javed, tried to intervene to stop the assault and later corroborated Syeda’s claims. These were denied by PHF Women Wing Secretary Tanzeela Aamer. In the immediate aftermath of the allegations, both Syeda and Iqra, have been “indefinitely banned” without citing a law or the disciplinary code of the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF).
There is something particular about sports that it finds gender at the very core of its constitution. In many ways, gender in sports brings to bare the fundamentals of gender inequality—the body. Professional sportsmen are considered the pinnacle of athleticism, testing the boundaries of what the human body can endure and achieve. Stripping back the off-side rules and the LBWs, sports boils down to human biology. This is why we see the social constructions of that biology play out in sports so starkly. The female body, so central to gender exploitation, is immediately treated as suspect when it enters the sports field.
Sports is thoroughly a man’s world. The very archetype of the athletic body is ‘masculine’. Women in sports have to conform to the standards set by the men’s game. On the other hand, women with muscular and athletic bodies are chastised as “not female enough” and otherised within their own gender. They routinely fall short of unrealistic standards stacked up against them. Women in sports often challenge the notions of women as frail and dependent, while at the same time asserting their female bodies in a space where hyper-masculinity is the norm.
This is perhaps why the entrenched mechanics of sport and its regulatory bodies react so callously when sexual harassment allegations come to light. Maybe this is why most administrators shrug and move on. The notion is that women inevitably pay a price when they enter the workplace, street or sports field—a man’s domain. A certain level of harassment is normalised as the price of admission.
Sexual harassment does not have to be visibly sexual in nature. Sexual harassment is harassment owing to the fact that it creates a hostile work environment because of the employee’s sex. As a legal category, it is not a criminal wrong, nor a strictly tortious wrong — it is sex discrimination. The law also recognises that sexual harassment is a product of power, and the power imbalances that exist. This is particularly pertinent in working relationships such as teacher-student, mentor-apprentice, and, relevant to sports, coach-player. These power relations are exasperated by the socio-economic position of the employee in relation to the employer. This is not to say that women from privileged backgrounds do not get harassed, but some women—given their positionality—are particularly vulnerable to harassment and abuse of power by the patriarchs in charge.
Pakistani law has come to recognise sexual harassment as an actionable wrong with the passage of the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010. It defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature, or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply with such a request or is made a condition for employment”.
As per section 3 of the Act, an Inquiry Committee is required to be constituted in every organisation to investigate allegations of sexual harassment. In Syeda’s case, the secretary of the Pakistan Hockey Federation’s women’s wing, Tanzeela Aamer, waived the need for an inquiry—going as far as to state that the accused is a “thorough gentleman” and terming the entire incident as a “drama” in a press conference on October 20, 2017.
The Federation is not only under a moral duty to take allegations of sexual harassment and assault seriously, it is obligated under law to do so. The day after the incident, Syeda wrote to Punjab Sports Minister, Jahangir Khanzada. On October 9 instructions were ostensibly issued by Khanzada for an inquiry into the matter to be completed within 10 days. However the date has lapsed with no sign of an inquiry, which is what prompted Syeda to approach the media in the first place.
The duty of employers does not end with simply conducting an inquiry. If the Federation is to be galvanised into action, it is required to ensure that the inquiry is not only fair and unbiased, but also to make sure that women who bring forth allegations are protected and insulated from pressure. Furthermore, retaliation by employers as a direct result of allegations, even before they are formally investigated as is the case with Syeda, is sex discrimination and constitutes unlawful termination under the law.
However, one does not have to look farther than Pakistani women’s sport to realise the repercussions a botched inquiry can have. In 2013, five women cricketers brought sexual harassment charges against Multan Cricket Club chairman Maulvi Sultan Alam and selector Mohammad Javed.
In the aftermath of the allegations, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) set up an inquiry committee to investigate the claims. A two-member Inquiry Committee was formed which included Ms. Ayesha Ashhar, then Manager Women Cricket (currently interim head of the women’s wing) and Mr. Mauhtashim Rasheed, then-Coach National Women Team. Section 3(2) of the Workplace Harassment Act, on the other hand, requires that the Committee be constituted of three members. The Committee, in its order dated June 7, 2013, concluded that the allegations were “false” and it recommended that Seema Javed, Hina Ghafoor, Kiran Irshad should be severely reprimanded and Saba Ghafoor and Haleema Rafiq who appeared on a TV programme but failed to appear in front of the committee should have “the same censure.”
In October 2013, the PCB banned the five players from any form of cricket for six months, while directly citing the recommendations of the Inquiry Committee in its press release. The Multan District Cricket Association, on the other hand, was merely “censured” through an official letter. The players were accused of recanting on their complaints, despite the fact that, also reflected in the committee’s own findings, some players indicated that they were threatened not to pursue the complaint. Section 4(3)(d) stipulates that no adverse action be taken against the complainant; while section 4(3)(e) posits that the Committee is under an obligation to ensure that no “hostile environment” is created and the complainant is not “pressurised”. In addition to the penalties by the Board, defamation suits were also filed against the players by the accused.
Nearly a year after the inquiry and days after the defamation suit, 17-year-old Haleema Rafiq committed suicide.
Women’s sports suffers from institutional challenges that are grounded in gendered terms. Women’s wings of all sport bodies receive markedly less funds than the men’s departments. Female athletes are paid pittances compared to their male counterparts: the women’s cricket captain Bismah Maroof gets a monthly salary of PKR 100,000, as compared to the men’s captain Sarfaraz Ahmed’s PKR 500,000. These are all manifestations of both explicit sex discrimination and internalised attitudes about the place of women in society.
While the sexist barriers to entry in sports, like most professions, might seem insurmountable, it is important to use the law to press claims of harassment. Legalism might not be the panacea to problems as entrenched as patriarchy, but every time a woman files a sexual harassment complaint the institutions creak into action, to varying degrees of success.
If enough women engage the system, the dress rehearsals will get better and might result in a reliable institutional check some day.