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Sports, shorts and women empowerment: Perception of the RSS from a female sportsperson

Aren't RSS members too regressive to be okay with women playing sports like tennis and squash?

One of the most frustrating experiences in my life was being called out in front of 200 other students in my hostel cafeteria for being a girl and wearing volleyball shorts. I had just come from practice and was super hungry, but denied food until I came back covering my legs.

Did that really just happen?! 

I’ve played multiple sports all my life at the state, national and international levels. Volleyball is one of them and I was definitely not going to give that up for some jerk telling me that wearing shorts was ‘disrespectful.’ 

When googling RSS, most mainstream articles talk about the organization dis-favouring women working outside of their homes and the lack of roles women carry within RSS. As a young graduate student, having just been ranked third in Europe for volleyball, I was seriously put off. 

This perception changed recently. I met a girl around my age in Belgaum, Karnataka. She walked in with pink streaks in her hair and told me that she played squash at least three times a week. She was also an ambitious person, pursuing her law degree and only interested in getting married when she found the right guy. With all due respect to Belgaum, I was pleasantly surprised that I found my level of progressive thinking in a female hailing from a tier two city in India. I also found that apart from being an active member of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti and the ABVP over the last four years, she hails from a family which closely associated with the RSS over the past three generations.

To this I was baffled. 

‘But aren’t they a bit conservative for your squash and the way you live you life?,’ I asked her.  

Contrary to what I had read about the organization, I found that the negative perception I had of it was not true. In fact, this girl shared with me that there has indeed been a strong internal emphasis to encourage taking up leadership within the organization for over twenty years. And just a few days ago, it was refreshing to see the ABVP (an RSS-supported student organization) put on a women’s self-defence demonstration for International Women’s Day. It was even better to find out that the student-organizer for this event was a young female ABVP member who had not just worked on logistics but had also come up with and implemented the idea. ‘WHEN IN TROUBLE, CALL YOURSELF,’ read the slogan at the event. If that’s not empowering for women, I don’t know what is. 

Back to sports. Not only is sport and exercise a part of my daily life, it is part of my identity. I have grown up playing, competing and even doing my homework on the floors of courts in between matches. It turns out that there is indeed focus on female sportspersons in the RSS. The initiative is called ‘Krida Bharati’ and focuses on building facilities to encourage women taking up sports seriously. To add to that, my Belgaum friend shared with me that there was also strong focus on spreading awareness about legal rights of women (Adhivakta Parishad), for presenting the history of the woman (Itihas Sankalan Samiti) and for women scientists (Shakti). 

After learning all of this from an active, young lady member of the organizations, I saw the clear fallacies of mainstream media’s reporting on the RSS. This is far from an organization that is against women. It in fact supports women empowerment through encouraging sport, academics, economic stability via enabling organizations, policy and laws. Furthermore, the Sangh is aggressively taking up issues in education and empowering women to help change backward social mindsets that I faced while wearing volleyball shorts. Multiple activities are regularly organized to create awareness in families to change this backward thinking. 

In addition to that, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (the parallel organization of the Sangh run by women) has a footprint in over 20 countries and its work is expanding rapidly. All posts are held by women. The Samiti and Sangh often work together to encourage more participation from females. 

I have always considered myself lucky for the exposure I have had. Educated in America. Played sport and competed in multiple cities and countries. A majority of girls in India have not done this, including my Belgaum squash friend. But from what she told me, I am proud that organizations like the Sangh and the Samiti are not just encouraging women empowerment, but also changing the backward social mindsets of people like that guy that called me out for wearing volleyball shorts. 

It is only because of organizations like these that such disparaging mindsets towards progressive women will know better and change for good.

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Priyanka Deo
Priyanka Deo is currently an executive producer and anchor at New India Junction. She holds masters’ degrees from Harvard, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California.

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