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The Disturbing Hypermasculinity of Indian Sports

Content warning — this article contains mentions of rape and threats to sexually assault children.

Saying that India is big on cricket would be a vast understatement.

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj does an entire episode about Indian control over the International Cricket Council — the governing body of cricket — and the vast amounts of funding that back India’s predominant position within international cricketing. At home, too, cricket is one of the most sensationalized and watched events. The most-watched match ever, during the last world cup, drew 233 million unique viewers in India out of the 273 million watching. All of this means that cricket is crucial to an understanding of Indian culture and ideas of masculinity since the men’s team receives so much more attention than the women’s.

Due to delays because of the pandemic, this year’s IPL (Indian premiere League)  a set of 20 over matches between various Indian clubs that draw international players like Pat Cummins and Chris Gayle finally began on September 19th. A couple of weeks in, on October 10th, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) lost a match to Kolkata Knight Riders. CSK’s captain (and former captain of the Indian team) Mahendra Singh Dhoni was criticised for what viewers saw as “poor performance,” a reaction we have seen from sports fans around the world when their favourite players fail to meet their expectations. What was, however, despicable but — unfortunately — not altogether shocking was the sudden influx of rape threats across social media targetting Dhoni’s wife, Sakshi, and even his 5-year-old daughter, Ziva. 

As despicable and out of proportion as this reaction is, it is not unusual in the realm of Indian cricket. Anushka Sharma, a Bollywood actress and the wife of Virat Kohli who is the captain of the Indian team, has been subjected to harsh attacks ranging from rape threats to being blamed for his poor performance by the likes of cricket commentator and former Indian team player, Sunil Gavaskar.

These are just a few instances, but time and time again, the wives, daughters, and significant others of Indian cricketers have been blamed and threatened simply because the cricketer in question did not play well enough to satisfy the people. This sort of behaviour puts on display the hyper masculinised field of cricket. It is, most likely, not the case — as in most cases — that these cricket fans (mostly men) are threatening to rape children because they are somehow sexually attracted to them.

Like in most cases, rape is about power and it is about connotations of property. The worst thing you can do to a person is threaten to rape them or the people closest to them, especially those (like wives and daughters) who are they seemingly bound to protect. This brings into the conversation ideas of property and propriety, what it means to exist in a marginalised body in the public sphere and the way cis het men have always felt entitled to accessing such bodies, however violent this idea of ‘access’ is.

All of this is made far worse for someone like Anushka Sharma who, as an actress, is already someone who lives an extremely public life. The scale at which she has been targeted is one that has almost never been witnessed before and displays the deeply misogynistic thought processes of the Indian public. When someone like Anushka Sharma is being targeted far more than any other cricketer’s wife, despite the fact that details about all of them are available to the public, it is because she is being maligned and punished simply for having the audacity to be a woman in public space.

Cricket and Bollywood have set the stage for the nation’s thought about masculinity and it is no mistake that both of these fields are filled with such deep misogyny and toxicity. If cricket continues to remain integral to the Indian populace the way it has for so long, something must change so that it does not simultaneously become a field that normalises the idea of violence against women.

Photo: Mathrubhumi English

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