"So will you write about Sania Mirza in your column?" a young woman asked me. She knew I had commented on women and sport, specifically in the context of women's cricket. So Sania's spectacular achievements in the last two months seemed a predictable subject. Sania as a subject, and as a bubbly teenager, is certainly irresistible and unavoidable as she beams at you from every newspaper, magazine and television channel. Her youthful spontaneity and her grit are admirable. Regardless of how she shapes up in the future, this young woman has already become an icon, a role model for thousands of aspiring sportswomen. It has given them an edge if parents or others raise objections about a future career in sports. "Look at Sania," they can say, "She did it, so why can't I?"
In Coimbatore, the hometown of the first Indian woman who made a breakthrough in professional tennis, Nirupama Vaidyanathan, people still do not approve of women playing tennis or any other sport. And just 25 years ago, according to tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan, it was considered "unfeminine" if a girl ran on the court or played too fast. And this in a game like tennis which is all about speed and mobility on court and strength! He spoke recently of how not enough girls could be found to fill the slots in the national championships. So fictitious names like ball, bat, volley and smash were used to fill up the blanks.
Today, there are no blank spots, nor will there be any in the future. Just as on the sports pages of many publications, we are seeing the bylines of women reporters, women in different sports are breaking through at long last. Sania is the star today, but there are many more waiting on the horizon, expecting to be noticed and determined to excel. Sania has forced the media, and the country, to sit up and take note. Sania and her "sisters" will not be stopped.
There is another aspect of the "Sania phenomenon" that is worth noting. These young women are totally connected with the rest of the world. They are comfortable with technology, they are confident and unapologetic about who they are, what they like, and they make no bones about their ambitions. This is a very, very long way from your self-effacing "Bharatiya nari".
Pictures of Sania on and off the court looking intensely at her cell phone reveal another aspect of the lives of young women, the autonomy that some technologies have given them. Anyone with a teenage child will know the strong, virtually unbreakable bond between the cell phone and the child. If she is not talking on it, she will be sending text messages with a dexterity that few adults can match, or playing games. But that tiny instrument is her space which no one can enter.
So logically, access to technology such as cellular phones, or the Internet, should translate into greater autonomy. But you begin to question that when a young woman, only a year older than Sania, who has access to the internet, has a cell phone, is studying in a professional course, tells you that in the most important decision of her life, marriage, she has no choice, no autonomy.
What advice can one give such a woman? She is educated, is living on her own with five other women, and is about to complete a professional course. At the end of it, she has the chance to get a job and make a career for herself, which she wants. Her parents consented to her following a career. Yet, these same parents tell her that "the world outside is very bad" and therefore it is better she marries someone within the family! In this 21st Century, where both parents, and their only child, are educated people, it seems incredible that there can be this type of discussion.
The last time I touched on this issue, I had quoted the father of a girl who lamented the fact that his highly educated daughter had been reduced to chopping vegetables because the man she married (arranged by the parents) would not allow her to pursue a career. I received a lot of mail from irate young women who asked what was wrong with this father that he should educate his daughter and then marry her off. Some also asked what was wrong with this girl that she could not say no.
I asked the 19-year-old I mentioned above why she is unable to stand up to her parents. She said she had tried. But she was afraid. If she defied them, and things did not work out for her, she would have no one to turn to. Clearly, just education or access to technology is not enough if young women do not have a supportive environment. Sania Mirza has blossomed because she has the unstinted support of her family. But here is one girl who does not. Perhaps her fears are justified. But after a brief chat, she agreed that young women like her should not give up, that there was always reason to try again, to attempt to push the frontiers of the small measure of autonomy that they have.
I have no idea how this story will end. One can only hope that her parents, who are not very old and who also come from a professional background, will realise that giving their only child a career and the ability to stand on her own feet will be the best insurance against the "bad world".