The Rise of Indian Women?

By Anjum Altaf

In dealing with a problem, or a phenomenon in general, three steps are essential: identification, explanation, and prediction. Central to all three are the facts or the data that are employed in the analysis. It is the data that often proves to be the most problematic part of the process and confounds identification, enables misdiagnosis, and generates poor prognosis. And that, I will explain later, is why I care about games.

Identification is important because it specifies the issue one is interested in but personally I find explanations more fascinating. The same set of facts can yield multiple explanations – call them narratives or histories if you will – and it is an intellectual challenge to determine which of the histories is the most robust or the most impervious to criticism. Predictions don’t yield the same satisfaction if only because often one has to wait quite a while to find out which one turns out to be true. And even then, in real life one has little control over intervening factors that can facilitate the right answer for unrelated reasons. Quite often, the prediction itself leads to altered behavior that can lead to very different outcomes in some cases and self-fulfillment in others. However, predictions are unavoidable when there is danger that lack of timely action might lead to a catastrophe as is the case with the issue of climate change today.

Our best efforts are stymied, however, when the data is contentious as is the case with climate change. But even when the variables involved are much less uncertain, agreement on data remains a problem. Take something like the issue of poverty – there are disagreements on the definition of an indicator, its appropriateness in different contexts, its measurement, and its interpretation. The downside of these disagreements is that it enables people to sidetrack the entire process of identification, explanation and prediction. For example, people in country A can persist with their claim that country B has a greater incidence of poverty because they can dispute any data that you might furnish to resolve the issue.

This is precisely the reason why I am an advocate of using the results of games to construct explanations where possible. We can tie up the data end cleanly because the results are indisputable – anyone can go look up a video of the 100 meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics, for example, to verify the medal winners and the times they clocked. Because we remove the ambiguity at one end, we can focus on the more interesting task of constructing explanations or hypotheses based on the unambiguous data.

At the same time, I find it odd that people do not wish to utilize such a rich source of good data for analytical purposes and I suspect that part of the reason is precisely because they are unable to squirm out of the uncomfortable conclusions that such analyses might reveal. I grant that games are not the most important things in life but that is not to say that the results of games cannot indirectly tell us something about things that are important in life.

Not only is the data unambiguous, it captures systematic trends that help with both explanations of underlying structural changes in society and with predictions of where the changes are pointing. I have already used data from the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games to explore a number of hypotheses and in this post I will again use data from the latter to highlight an aspect of possible interest to South Asians.

The one story I felt was the most striking in looking over the record of the Commonwealth Games was the remarkable improvement in the performance of Indian women. The data is indeed striking. Look at the ratio of medals won by Indian women to the total number of medals won by India starting from the 1990 Games:

Year 1990 1994 1998 2002 2006 2010
Women/Total 0/32 2/24 3/25 17/69 16/50 37/101
Percentage 0 8 12 25 32 37

This is a remarkable transformation by any measure given that the upper bound is 50% (using the simplifying assumption that the number of events for men and women is the same which overstates the case because there are events for men, e.g., boxing and wrestling, that have no counterparts for women).

Given that this data is unambiguous and clearly not random, what is the narrative one can construct from it? I can suggest one that anchors the change in the transformation of the Indian economy starting in 1989, the rapid increase in the numbers of the middle class, the aspirations of this class for global recognition, the acceptance of global parameters of excellence and equality, the recognition of sports as one of these parameters, the resolve to be globally competitive, and the resulting reaching out for talent beyond the middle class itself.

This is an instance where a seemingly trivial analysis of games could point to a very important structural change in society that can have far reaching implications for the future.  Of course, this is just one explanation or narrative and obviously some radically different explanations are possible. The point is not to claim exclusivity for any one narrative but to consider various explanations and debate their respective merits. Out of such discussion a finer understanding of the changes in society can emerge.

It is also obvious that the data shows no such change for Pakistan. Not only that, the performance of the men has also declined steeply as shown by the earlier analyses of the Asian and Commonwealth Games. So, it seems quite clear that the structural changes and trends in the two countries are headed in very different directions. Changes in Indian society are enabling its men to improve their performance and become competitive as indicated by the increase in the number of medals won over time. At the same time, and one can put it this way, a whole new nation of Indian women has found its place in society, and therefore in the economy, something that has no equivalent in Pakistan. Under the radar, the competition has become doubly more intense.

Pakistanis can keep quibbling about not being worse off in poverty and malnutrition but these are unambiguous results that are staring them in the face.

It was difficult and tedious to disaggregate the results of the various Games by gender and minor errors are possible in the tabulation. Nonetheless, the trend is quite robust and unlikely to be affected by the errors. I would like to thank Vikram Garg for collaboration in locating and tabulating part of the data.


  • Vikram
    Posted at 21:21h, 31 October Reply

    If a woman working as a railway driver brings pride to her family and village in rural Bihar, there is some indication that the Indian state’s progressive narrative (in this particular area) has penetrated quite deep into Indian society.

  • Sakuntala
    Posted at 01:50h, 01 November Reply

    One important reason for the ‘rise of Indian women in sports’ is the phenomenal spread of television from the 1990s. Every village has a TV set, watched for entertainment (sometimes with just a common community set that several families watch together in the evenings) Watching telecasts of national and international games, foreign women winning laurels in gymnastics and athletics etc, has resulted in even girls from underprivileged families wanting to get into sports – and a simultaneous erosion of conservative prohibitions from elders who also watch these telecasts. At least one editorial comment in the wake of the CWG had noted that many of the winners among Indian women came from non-metropolitan backgrounds (there is a similar spurt in the number of male cricketers from small towns who have made it big in recent years, because of the exposure through TV coverage of matches.) Badminton ace Saina has recalled in a recent interview how, when she was born, the elders in her family were upset about the birth of a daughter rather than a son. In a devious way, despite all the soaps that we bemoan, perhaps we need to give credit to TV for some positive changes towards gender equity.I remember when a serial called Udaan was telecast on Doordarshan some years ago, about a daughter who becomes a police officer and tackles social ills, school groups (especially girls) discussed how the role of the central female character in Udaan carried a very powerful message about gender.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:27h, 01 November Reply

      Sakuntala: Thanks for the intervention. This is a very important factor that, on further thought, seems necessary but not sufficient. I would suggest that three aspects are critical: awareness, social acceptance, and opportunity. In the Indian situation regarding sports, the awareness came with TV as you have described; there were no severe social taboos against sports; and the growth of the middle class and globalization provided the opportunity as mentioned in the post. Contrast this with something like inter-caste marriage where the same awareness through TV has made less headway because of the much more categorical social taboos, at least in the rural areas.

      And contrast the case of Pakistan where the awareness is shared, explicit taboos against sports are also minimal, but the opportunity has been lacking because of economic stagnation.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:23h, 01 November Reply

      There are weak and passive cultural and economic forces at play that are very gradually, at a painful and inadequate pace, affecting the taboos on inter-caste marriages as well. Urbanization is one such force. I can see the effect of that in the little colony I come from. The number of inter-religious and inter-caste marriage are significantly noteworthy. There is something to the mere fact of social interaction between people of diverse backgrounds that breaks barriers. I’m beginning to believe that locking people up in a room together till they resolve their differences works!! This calls attention to prevent the ghettoization of communities in India. That is a phenomenon that demands intervention and must be broken in its march.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 07:33h, 01 November Reply

        Vinod: Urbanization is indeed a powerful force to erode such social barriers. That was the reason I specifically mentioned that the taboos persist most severely in rural areas. Where urbanization cannot help but instead create greater harm is when ghettoization is allowed to take place. We had a post on this about Ahmedabad that mentions the research about the importance of bridging (relations across groups) as against bonding (relations within groups).

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:27h, 01 November Reply

      A Finnish friend of mine expressed his dismay at the backwardness of the United States when it comes to gender relations. He finds it odd that the US celebrates events like sending a woman in a space shuttle. Apparently in Finland, women have always worked; his knowledge in his family on this goes all the way to his great grandmother’s time. I wonder how true this is.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 14:14h, 01 November Reply

        Vinod: I suppose what was being celebrated was a ‘first’. Women have always worked everywhere so if gender relations are different in different places, they must be so in more nuanced ways. One book that I do recall reading many years back was Woman’s Role in Economic Development by Ester Boserup. Based on her field work, she presented an interesting conclusion: women worked everywhere but whatever they did became devalued. Her example was from neighboring societies in Africa both growing yams. In one men did so, in the other women. In the first the work was considered important, in the second not. The example of the profession of medicine comes to mind. In the US till quite recently most physicians used to be men and the profession was one of the most highly compensated in the economy. In the USSR most physicians used to be women and the the situation was quite the opposite.

        Some women have always worked in India, others not. India is celebrating its first woman train driver. We just celebrated the entry of Indian women into the world of sports. From these observations, one can conclude very little about gender relations in India.

  • Hasan
    Posted at 22:51h, 06 November Reply

    Question: Would it be correct to assume that African-Americans are able to excel in sports in the US but not in other professions? If so, why?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:04h, 07 November Reply

      Hasan: The assumption would need to be tested against evidence. It seems to me that a fairly sizable African-American middle class has emerged. However, its visibility is much lower than is the case in professions like sports and show biz. The special feature of sports in the US is that it is organized very competitively and therefore teams scout for talent without discrimination. The active search for talent and its nurturing is missing in other professions like law or medicine, for example.

      To this it should be added that development in the US has trickled down sufficiently so that everyone goes to school and has the means of transport to show up at training camps. This last is important. I know of a number of cases in South Asia where very talented youngsters were identified but could not afford fast enough transport between their homes and the camps to benefit.

  • Charlene
    Posted at 20:24h, 28 February Reply

    A very great article;i implore other women to keep on helping in making the society a better place for us all.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:36h, 09 March Reply

    “The International Food Policy Research Institute discovered through its studies that agricultural productivity increases dramatically when women get the same amount of inputs men get, such as access to education and to labor, fertilizer. Other studies show that when women control household resources they are more likely to benefit children than when controlled by men.”

    What might be the policy implications and what might be their social consequences?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 14:37h, 04 August Reply

    Although the medal tally has come down drastically in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the proportion of women medalists has improved to 45 % (29 out of 64). Whats heartening to see is that even women from backward areas like Eastern UP have won a few medals. The Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab might think about replicating the spectacular success of Haryana in sports given the intrinsic similarities.

  • JJk
    Posted at 06:54h, 13 December Reply

    On a global context, Indian women are in greater numbers in Exec. Mgt firms than 20 years ago but where are the opportunities for them.? They are in multinationals with global offices and local companies with strong corporate cultures and equal opportunity which are mostly western firms or firms with diversified products.

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