Earlier this week, Sportskeeda collated comments from the social media handles of various Indian female sportspersons to highlight the daily objectification they have to deal with. The moment they upload images of their matches they elicit derogatory comments, which have a perverse undertone to them.
Indian shuttler and Arjuna awardee Jwala Gutta is by far the most successful doubles player from the nation, having won medals at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Uber Cup. The 33-year-old even represented India in two Olympics editions, including the recently concluded Rio Games. However, these achievements apparently aren’t enough to prevent her from being subjected to body shaming and humiliation on social media.
Bewildered by the sheer number of lewd comments she faces across all social media platforms, we decided to catch up with Jwala herself to discuss how she deals with such behaviour. The star shuttler was surprisingly open about her take on cyber harrassment, feminism and her badminton career, and below are the excerpts of our conversation with her:
Q. Let's not mince words, there is a serious problem with objectification and body-shaming of female athletes on social media. Is that something that bothers you?
To be honest, I stopped reading comments a long time back. If you do a proper inspection, there is a scale in the amount of lewd comments one gets. Facebook has the highest, then Instagram and then Twitter. I began indulging in social media about five years ago, and it’s something that's happening from day one. So over time, you begin ignoring these things, but yes it does affect you somewhere down the line.
The people passing such statements have an advantage, you know; they are hiding behind a mask, to make these comments. I'm quite sure in real life, they will never have the guts to come forward and tell me such things. In fact , they will refer to me as 'Jwala Maam' and even ask for a selfie or something. Over time, I have realised that it's become a sort of entertainment for people, where they make such comments to attract more attention or get more likes, without realising how sensitive it might be.
What they fail to realise is that we are also normal human beings who want to look good. That doesn't mean you add labels or prefixes to our name. We also have families, who might find such comments absolutely deplorable, just like theirs.
In the first couple of months, I used to go and delete those comments because it really bothered me a lot. This was around five years back. The 'dirty' comments that you speak of, have been there for a long time. But then I stopped looking at it, because it made me feel disgusting and made me wonder what people actually think of me. Now I don't care anymore.
Q. Do you think this is cyber harrassment, and has your family ever come across such comments?
More than harrassment, I would go out on a limb and say that it’s essentially cyber violence against women. Not just me, even other female athletes who have done well for themselves on their own and look a certain way, they face this regularly. It's something which has become extremely common, but it doesn't necessarily meant that it’s right. It's disgusting and hypocritical to say the least.
Is there any rule that female sportspersons shouldn't look good? I'm someone who likes to do her hair, nails, etc and want to be presentable. If I look a certain way, it doesn't mean I'm 'fast' or 'active', which are milder comments among the lot. It's just a personal choice. So how does that make me 'easy to get', and all the other prefixes that are being attached?
It's a kind of release that reflects our society and its perception towards women. Sad to say, it also highlights how we are hypocritical about 'how a woman should be'. Also, have you ever seen such comments for male athletes about their various body parts? I don't think so.
In terms of my parents, I'm very lucky to have very liberal ones, who taught me about equality from a very young age. You know, you learn from what you see as a child; my father always suggested things to my mother and never ever forced anything, which is how it should be. So I always had an open mind while growing.
I'm sure my father has seen those comments, but we choose not to talk about it, you know. He's quite protective about me as I'm the first child, so he makes sure I'm always okay. If someone comes and says these things to me in public, I'm quite sure my dad will kill him.
Q. As you highlighted, these comments, which often indicate an indulgence in rape fantasy, are being executed via fake profiles. Have you ever faced such misogyny in real life?
Yes it does, its not that obvious, but you can understand what they are trying to hint towards. I have overheard comments such as 'Yeh ladki waisi hogi' (this girl is probably like that), but they will never have the guts to say it on their face. Even comments such as 'How did she become so famous, look at her, she must have traded something for help'. Guys who are my father's age look at me in a certain way, which indicates something is going on in their head.
A lot of people come up to me for an ego massage. However, what I can tell you is I dress for myself; I don't care how other people view what I wear or how I wear, and most certainly, I know how to shut down such advances. I have never given an ego massage and I never will.
I'm very straightforward, and that's my personality; if I disagree with something, I say it. You will not believe this, people who are in the most powerful places, attempt to make such advances or comments, but I do not entertain them, ever. I have always relied on my achievements, and they will always speak of what I am.
Q. Some people think of you as a feminist. Do you agree with them?
No, actually I don't. I essentially believe in equality, but in a country like India, feminism is definitely needed because it’s a male dominated society. In fact, we need feminism to educate women also. You will be surprised to know that a lot of the misogynistic comments that are directed towards me are from women, where they don't agree with what I wear or make comments about me being available.
I can't blame them because it’s all about nature and nuture, but it’s very important that we are educated from a young age, that these things are not important – what one wears or doesn't wear. It all starts at home.
You know, because of all the 'josh' (enthusiasm) with which we have to fight women's rights issues, we tend to forget there are a lot of good men, who are promoting equality. Feminism should be a tool to integrate them into the movement as well, not just fighting for women's welfare. We are self-destructive that way; when a girl goes out, we tell them be careful. Why doesn't a guy have to deal with the same thing? We should just stop accepting these societal norms and make the decision for ourselves.
Q. Some of the comments you get criticize you for focussing on 'partying' rather than your badminton career. How do you feel about that?
You have a job, right? Do you work from 9 in the morning to 12 at night? Most likely you don't. After a long day's practice, if I go out clubbing like everyone else, what's wrong with that? Does it make me a bad role model? I don't really think so.
The same people who go to these clubs at times say, 'Jwala kya kar rahi hai yaha pe, usse toh badminton khelna chahiye' (What is Jwala doing here at the club, she should be playing badminton). My only reply to that is, this doesn't affect my game at all. It's something I do to unwind like everyone else, so I don't think it is a problem or it ever will be.
It's so easy to label people, isn't it? Just think about it; if someone asks me a lewd question during a press conference, should I get angry? Is there something wrong that I did? I'm not mentally unstable; obviously I was offended by the nature of the question, hence I got angry. However, me getting angry is the news story, not the stupid questions that are being asked.
I don't want to lie, but I look good, and that is where the problem arises in perception. It's not just me as you said; even Sania Mirza faces the same problem. Any girl who tries to be presentable will be discriminated against. That's sadly what our perception is.
Q. You said it doesn't affect you any more, but how difficult was it to get to this stage? You have won medals for the country in Asian Games, CWG and Uber Cup, yet you are labelled with these unsavoury adjectives; surely that does trouble you somewhere?
Just because I don't read the comments, doesn't mean they don't affect me. Of course it affects me; when a guy who isn't even an adult yet or someone who is older than my father comments about my nature and body, yes it does. I ignore them, and that's the only way you can deal with it.
Q. I'm not sure whether you're aware of this, but there are communities on social media which are essentially created just for the purpose of objectifying you. Some of these communities have more than 100,000 members, and they morph pictures of you and what not. Do you think this should be disallowed by the social media sites?
I mean if you're violating the personal life like that, of course it should. But how many can you report? As you said, there are thousands of such communities and profiles. My only hope is that people who are educated don't get affected by such content and the lewd comments. If they do, then it’s going to be a sad state of affairs for our society.
Q. Thank you so much for giving time to such a sensitive issue. What are your future badminton plans?
Right now I'm on a long break and will return to action with the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in January; till then I'm working on getting my fitnesss up to the mark. My new mixed doubles partner Manu Attri is currently playing the Hong Kong Open, so I have my work cut out to reach my fitness peak till January.
Apart from that, I'm looking at doing something for women's sport in India; let's see how that pans out.