The world of sports is a challenging place to navigate, and for women, this world can be downright ruthless. But depending on where in the world women are, the challenges posed in the world of sports can be very different. I attended two theme semester events: one was a documentary of how women are portrayed by the American media, and the other was a documentary about teenage girl boxers in Kabul trying to make it to the Olympics. The women in each respective documentary have drastically different relationships with sport: in the former, women and girls are encouraged to participate in sports from a very young age and practice and compete in safe, sterile environments. In the latter, girls are highly discouraged from competing, and their coach is often threatened with physical violence.
The first documentary, Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete, explores the challenges that women as serious athletes face when the media tends to over sexualize female roles in sports. Think about when you see women during the presentation of men’s sports. They’re usually serving wings while wearing little clothing in commercials, or cheering the men on from the sidelines while wearing little clothing. When women are playing sports, the media lends little attention. The five percent of programming that focused on women has increased in recent years to eight percent, according to the documentary. But what the biggest issue is is how female athletes are treated when they step off the court and into the media spotlight. Instead of being pictured like their male counterparts—fully clothed—women are often photographed in provocative ways, using sports equipment to scantily cover themselves. The point is not that women should be made to cover up their bodies—it’s that women must be portrayed in the same way that men are. Pat Griffin, an advocate for gays in sports, spoke of how women are also forced to “specifically identify themselves with the roles of wife and mother which clearly marks them as heterosexual.” Any deviation from that role, she says, makes audiences uncomfortable because the women don’t fit a prescribed image.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, there are a handful of brave girls who are defying the norms in their country in order to box, and their plight is documented in the film The Boxing Girls of Kabul. The girls’ classmates and neighbors fear for the safety of the girls; after travelling abroad to a televised competition, their coach was confronted on the street for giving girls the right to participate in sports as boys do. One of the girls’ older brothers has a problem with his sisters’ participating in sport because he believes that the girls will be targeted and victimized by the Taliban if they continue competing. With very meager resources to train in addition to the looming presence of the Taliban, the bravery of the girls is not to be understated. While children in America are shuttled into several sports programs by a very young age, these girls are beyond grateful for the opportunity to be a part of something unprecedented in their society, however controversial it may be. The documentary noted that after filming was complete most of the girls went on to pursue an education, and the girls noted the liberal attitudes held by their parents as what drove them to want to be educated and to educate others.
For all of the rights afforded to American women compared to Afghan women, “the history of women’s participation in elite sports has been a slow and bumpy road to more inclusion,” writes Mika LaVaque-Manty in his book The Playing Fields of Eton. What is important is that women continue to realize the rights that they deserve, that they have worked towards for centuries. What is important is that women continue to fight for equal representation in the media. What is important is that we remember that wherever in the world we live, there is always work to be done in the pursuit of equality.