Ever since weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu won silver in the women’s 49kg category and India’s first medal at the Tokyo Games 2020, she has been at the center of an ongoing social media discourse. The 26-year-old who became the second Indian to win the medal in weightlifting after Karnam Malleswari’s historic bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games, has been caught between polarizing viewpoints.
While Indians celebrated her win, a section of social media users unleashed a sexist narrative. Case in point this post from a user sermonizing on how Chanu or the “unmarried girl” was apparently “destroying her fertile years (by being an Olympic champion)” instead of bringing “new beautiful lives to the planet Earth”.
The gender of the user is not known and let us not unquestioningly assume that the user is male revealing our own inherent gendered mindset. In fact, the gender is inconsequential to the import of the tweet as patriarchy is internalized by both men and women. It systemically upholds gender hierarchy. In this case, it reveals a deep-seated misogynist mindset that the ultimate fulfillment of being a woman lies in her becoming a mother. Winning a medal is a wastage. Yes, you heard it right.
Well, this is not to suggest that such posts pinning Chanu to a patriarchal springboard are a deterrent in her way to achieve more glory but the sheer audacity of such writing points to the underbelly of social media.
That’s not all though.
In her congratulatory post, actor Tisca Chopra had tweeted Indonesian weightlifter Windy Cantika Aisah’s photo mistaking her for Chanu. The actor later deleted her post after she was trolled.
Yes, mistakes happen as some users casually clarified saying ho jata hai. Granted actors are also humans and they too can act on the spur of emotions.
Chopra’s post is just a drop in the ocean called Northeast Apathy. Race and region intersect with the barrier of gender when it comes to a woman athlete from the Northeast. Systematically sidelined in national media, the romanticized ‘seven sisters’ of the Northeastern states are often spoken of in terms of a singular entity pitted against mainland India. Underrepresented in politics, cinema and popular culture, racist slurs such as “chinki” are routinely used to refer to people from the frontier states. As some users pointed out, it takes an Olympic medal to prove their “Indianness”. Some pointed to the underlying hypocrisy and hyperbole.
It matters when Saikhom Mirabai Chanu lifts her way through poverty, born and raised in a humble family in Nongpok Kakching village, 20 kilometers off Imphal, Manipur to register a historic win. According to news media reports, the youngest of six siblings, Mirabai would accompany her older brother, Saikhom Sanatomba Meitei, to collect firewood from a nearby hill. And it was during one such trip at the age of 12 that the family became aware of the strength of the girl. It mattered when MC Mary Kom represented India at the 2012 London Games and won a bronze medal, becoming the first Manipur-based athlete to win a medal in the Olympics.
Then there are those appropriating Chanu’s victory to legitimize their warped views of gender empowerment. While upholding a champion like Chanu serving as inspiration for “rural” and “small town girls”, a user asserts why the “Bollywood-types” are not worthy to be role models. While the comparison itself is absurd, such value judgments on what is worthy and what is unworthy when it comes to women is sexism rebounded for social media.
Then there are those who tried to leverage Chanu’s historic achievement and claim her as the brand ambassador of their own ideology. True, the athlete has her own set of personal allegiances as the photographs might tell us, but is it necessary to pull her along the line of ‘us’ versus ‘them’? Is she a prop of political gainstanding?
Ace badminton player Jwala Gutta shared a post, “Indian athletes don't just have to fight their opponents to win at the Olympics. They’ve to fight the system, politics, finances, and sometimes their family too. Every medal whether gold or bronze makes it all that special.” Gutta drew attention to the systemic barriers and biases that ail the Indian athletic ecosystem.
The Mirabai Chanu story doesn’t need any political muscle-flexing, mythological legitimization (case in point the lord Hanuman posts) or patriarchal gaslighting, especially by a set of self-appointed social media guardians. March on, Mirabai!
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)