In Bangladesh’s sporting landscape over the last decade, female athletes have started to corner a greater portion of the limelight. The age-group successes in women’s football and the significant growth and success of the Bangladesh women’s cricket team on the international stage has been a highlight of the decade if one were to chart the rise of women’s sports in the country over the last 10 years.
There were also names like swimmer Mahfuza Khatun Shila, weightlifter Mabia Akhter Simanta, footballer Sabina Khatun, woman FIDE master Sharmin Sultana Shirin and archer Ety Khatun, who made our country proud on the international stage with their sporting performances.
Their success and heartwarming stories about how they overcame all barriers to bring laurels for the country have led to a newfound belief among female sporting aspirants. Their rise also reflects the general increase in women’s participation in a wide range of sectors in the country. The girls of Kalsindur Government Primary School were perhaps the first to plant the seed of hope, as they collectively overcame the difficulty of convincing rural parents to let their daughters pursue sport.
On the whole, it has been an encouraging decade in terms of creating a positive vibe in the state of women’s sports in the country, although the road to making sure that there is no discrimination between male and female athletes in terms of pay gaps, facilities and safety at the workplace is still a long one.
While progress made over the last decade is encouraging, a big question remains about whether the existing system encourages females to take up sport as a profession and chase dreams through sport. The last decade’s stories of women’s sport have clearly portrayed that the successes have come through the athletes’ self-motivation rather than a well-formed system and many impediments seen in earlier decades have remained. Sexual harassment has been a lasting concern in the overall health of women’s sports in the country.
One big positive has been that female athletes, especially cricketers, have started to express their concerns over the huge pay disparity between male and female sportspersons.
It does not sound good when Ritu Moni, an all-rounder of the Bangladesh women’s cricket team, talks about the same old barriers.
“It was not easy for me to become a cricketer from my area. All of my neighbours started to criticise me when they found me playing with male friends. And I had to struggle with poverty, but I am thankful to my brother because he gave me all-out support,” Ritu said, portraying the struggle of female athletes in the country even in the 21st century.
Celebrated table tennis player Zobera Rahman Linu, who is the only Bangladeshi sportswoman to have her name listed in the Guinness Book of World Records after winning a record 16 national championships, identified successes and barriers while talking about women’s sports in Bangladesh over the last decade.
“We have had some successes in different events, especially in football and cricket. There is some patronisation in football and cricket, though not that much, but it’s not the case in other sports. I must say we could not progress as much as we desired in the last decade. In my view, the main impediment in this regard were the lack of financial support. There is very little opportunity to become self-sufficient by taking up sports as profession, so there is no way one can think of sports as her career,” summarised Linu.
“That was why the female athletes mainly come from poor or lower middle-class families and the members of well-off families hardly encourage this pursuit because of financial uncertainty,” she added.
She was also not ready to judge success through achievements in the South Asian (SA) Games.
“In 1980 I finished fifth in the Asian Games… 40 years has passed but we have failed to achieve even that mark… you cannot only judge on the basis of SA Games these days; instead you have to think about where we stand on the Asian stage. We are still relying on individual dedication and sacrifice because the federations are hardly playing a major role.”
Former sportsperson Parvin Nasima Nahar Putul also echoed the sentiment and placed emphasis on a women-friendly infrastructure so that the country could garner more international success through sports.
“How much are we investing in women’s sports? All they achieved, have been through their self-motivation. Why, when women’s sports have done a good job in the last decade, do we not spend more money on them? Financial problems are a major concern and I think the time has come to think about women-friendly infrastructure where female athletes can hone their skills without any barriers. In this new decade we have to think about accommodating more women in managerial capacities,” Putul explained.
Kashfia Feroz, a women’s rights activist who has the experience of working with female athletes in the country, appreciated the success of female athletes in the last decade but believed that the country is lagging far behind in terms of gender equality in sport.
“Women have had many successes in sport in the last decade. But have we invested enough, or the amount that they deserve? We are yet to ensure gender equality in sport, which means we are still identifying success on the basis of male and female. We have started to think of sports as a career for male athletes, but is that the case for females? Sport is still considered a hobby for female athletes,” Kashfia said.
“Generally, our female athletes have come from families that are not economically well-off. In my opinion, well-off families or even families in rural areas do not think that sport can be a career for a female child. It’s their power of will that has been pivotal in women proving themselves through sports,” she added.
All of the above comments show that women’s sport has been a major success story over the last 10 years in Bangladesh. But they also ask a pertinent question as we face a new decade: is the success sustainable? Another question is whether the system can catch up to the incredible will the female athletes have displayed. If not, past successes could well be the exception and not the norm.