#SideLinesU23 – Women In Indian Ultimate

Charlie Blair talked to Team India at U23 in London and discussed Women’s Ultimate in India.

The Indian team’s presence at Under 23 World Championships this year was a welcome and wonderful addition to the international stage. Although this was by no means the first national team to represent India, the 2015 Under 23 team is considered the first truly Indian team, after having been trialled and selected on ability alone. Before arriving in London, they had already captured the world’s attention with two short films documenting their inspiring journey: Nicky Smith’s Everybody Plays and the Sundance Short Film Winner, 175 Grams. Thanks to a hugely successful sponsorship campaign and donations from across the world, this team has brought together players from different economic backgrounds, castes and languages, as well as both sexes.

As in most countries, in India the opportunities to participate in sport are largely designed and dominated by boys and men. However, Ultimate’s culture of equality that is part of the Spirit of the Game and promoted by the community not only facilitates an opportunity to provide girls with an outlet for sport where few exist, but is a powerful tool that has the potential to help change attitudes towards women in general.

The ShowGame spoke to Under 23 players Nimisha Vasava, Maitry Archarya and Zahra Kheraluwala to hear about their experiences, in addition to Sangeetha Manoharan, Head of Women’s Committee at the Ultimate Players Association of India (UPAI) about what the future holds for female players in India.

The Under 23 team included ten girls that come from five cities across India: Bangalore, New Delhi, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Auroville. Nimisha and Maitry, both from Ahmedabad, play for the club team Dreamcatchers. A friend at college introduced Nimisha to the sport, and she, in turn, convinced Maitry to have a try. However, after two and half years, they are the only two female members who remain at the club. Whilst at the outset this was frustrating, their continued commitment earned them the respect and trust of their teammates:

It sometimes happens that boys only look at boys and they don’t trust the women enough – the struggle is a lot more as a women player when you start off … . When I started playing, if they threw the disc to me they came back immediately and asked for the dump, but now they don’t pressure me to throw the disc back and let me play my game.

Nimisha now recalls that one of her best tournament performances was quite recently at this year’s Ahmedebad Ultimate Open (AUO), where she received lots of encouragement and support from her teammates to play as a handler for the first time.

Whilst boys initially suffering a lack of faith in girls is nothing new to Ultimate, in a context where at co-educational schools girls are not allowed to mingle with boys (even if they are neighbours), working well together on an Ultimate field is breaking down huge cultural barriers. Maitry explains how at her school, a girl and a boy can talk together for “a max of two to three minutes, any more than that and people would start talking”. But after the pair started to play Ultimate, they …didn’t care what other people’s mentality was as we know there are bigger things in life to worry about”.

As such for most of the girls on this team, many of them have exerted a significant amount of defiance in persisting to play Ultimate. Sangeetha explains to The ShowGame that this is because a culture of women in sport is just not encouraged in India:

Women who do play, step away after college to go into bureaucratic jobs, so sport is not sustainable. Just like actresses, there is an expiry date on sportswomen.

Unfortunately for Indian women, it seems this expiry date is frightfully young. This is no surprise to Zahra, who explains how the formation of such attitudes often begin at home:

At the grassroots level, parents are not OK with the girls going out and playing, and with [Ultimate] being predominantly mixed, especially the girls going out and playing with boys.

Zahra comes from Chennai and plays with her local team Stall7. Whilst  Zahra’s parents were in fact happy for her to be playing sports (her mother being an ex-hurdler herself), they still maintained scepticism towards Ultimate because it is mixed. However, Zahra adds that once they realised how important the game was to her, they always backed her. They may have came to blows over late returns from trainings, “but [these are] all small insignificant things that have no comparison to the fight that these guys have had to get here and be where they are”, she says, as she gazes proudly upon on Maitry and Nimisha.

CB GBR vs IND Mixed (6) (1)
The Mixed team at Under 23 World Championships in London. Photo by Claire Baker.

The commute to training for both of these girls was a two-hour journey each way. In the end, Nimisha’s parents stopped funding her. Nevertheless, she used the money they agreed to give her for fees, clothes and books to continue playing. Zahra explains that since the selection process began back in October, the whole team trained with a blind belief that they would make their target. In actual fact, they didn’t even get their full funding until their main sponsor, KSK, came on board just six weeks before they were set to depart.

For these girls being here in London is not only a dream come true but an incredibly empowering achievement. Both girls’ parents remained convinced they would never make it here; that the money would never come, and that ultimately they were wasting their time pursing something that would amount to nothing. So when the team’s visa initially got refused, Maitry was shocked and hurt that after everything everyone had worked so hard for, they could fall short at the final hurdle. Moreover, having to turn around and deliver the reality to her parents would have caused “a big problem for [her] at home”.

As a result, the girls unanimously agreed that the best part of the whole week in London was the opening parade; realising that they would be playing in the main arena and representing their country. Now, their parents are indeed incredibly proud. For Nimisha, their victory over Ireland on the show pitch, being streamed all over the world, was the first time her parents had ever watched her play in all the three years since she picked up a disc. She recalls that many of the people who had told her to do something with her life messaged after the match to tell her how well she played. Just as they had with their club teammates on the fields of Ahmedabad, they were beginning to transform the expectations of hundreds of spectators watching at home.

Unsurprisingly, their level of gratitude to those who helped them get to London is hard to convey in words, but that doesn’t stop Nimisha giving it a go…

We want to thank every single person who has helped this team to get here from donating shoes and shirts, to our sponsorships and all those who donated money to help us come here, big thank you right from the bottom of our hearts because without them we wouldn’t be here – it was not possible at all. And as a bigger thank you, we will go back and do everything we can. We will try really hard to bring more women to the sport, as well as men, to help the sport grow back home from where we come from.

Whilst it is incredibly exciting to hear how inspired they are to play a proactive part in Ultimate’s development, it cannot go unsaid that the presence of this team alone has already hugely contributed to the promotion of gender inclusion. Maitry and Nimisha talk of more girls at home already taking interest in Ultimate since they got selected for the team. It is also important to note that this team has championed women in positions of leadership, by electing Zahra to be their captain. Whilst she made it clear that it’s not like her club team never allowed her to be a captain, she had never thought of herself being able to take up such a role before. But with the faith of her team behind her, it gave her the confidence to give it a go, adding that: “It feels nice to know that the team has faith in a woman captaining, that is a good warm feeling.

In recognition of the huge impact Ultimate is having on the lives of girls within the sport, the UPAI are working hard with Ultimate communities across the country to ensure that girls continue to have more and more access to the sport. Currently, India has around 1500 players of which 20% are female. Out of the 125 boys and 25 girls who trialled for the Under 23 team, 14 boys and 10 girls made the final cut. With male players already substantially more dominant in numbers, Sangeetha explains how they are wary of encouraging the Open scene in these nascent stages of Indian Ultimate because, as the figures appear to testify, there is “always a market for that”.

However, with participation in mind, it is of course not about going to the other extreme and overtly limiting opportunities for men in favour of women. The whole aim is to lock in equal participation from the very beginning, and not have it relegated to mere ideal that ends up being chased for years to come; and is potentially never achieved. A simple replication of the gender disparity that is already widespread in Ultimate is particularly dangerous in a country such as India, where the barriers to sport for women can be far more acute than elsewhere in the world.

In order for this to occur, Sangeetha explains the ways the UPAI are planning to both incentivise clubs to recruit women more sustainably, and introduce college programmes that can feed the Ultimate community.

Currently India is without a domestic league structure, but their four biggest tournaments (Chennai Heat, Mumbai Ultimate Open, India Hat, and Bangalore Ultimate Open) are all mixed, the latter of which has drawn the highest level of attendance with 32 teams competing last year. With this in mind, and upon the suggestion of the UPAI, a huge step was taken when these events agreed to strictly enforce the rules of the conventional four male to three female gender ratio. It is hoped that such an initiative will force clubs to invest in their female player base, if they want to keep competing at these events, especially international ones.

Sangeetha stresses that these clubs need to recognise that they can’t assume women even want to play in the first place, regardless of whether they have played sport before. Not just because the conventional attitudes of their parents and peers discourage it, but because of the culture of the clubs themselves. She suggests that when the gender split at these tournaments remained loose, clubs would only approach women simply to enter tournaments. The girls are essentially picks-ups and therefore never encouraged to come to practice. They would go to tournaments, but just get incredibly tired, get no disc and have no fun. The clubs with the strongest female contingent thus tend to be those that call upon family members, such as Vijay from Airbenders of Bangalore who has rallied enough cousins to form two mixed teams!

India enjoying WU23 in London this summer. Photo by Deepthi Indukuri.
India enjoying WU23 in London this summer. Photo by Deepthi Indukuri.

Another proposition is to try and encourage these big tournaments to introduce half a day of Women’s division into the event. At this stage, Sangeetha warns that we can’t expect women to attend exclusively female events because both the numbers and the level of Ultimate on offer can’t justify the long journeys. However, she believes women would make the sacrifice to travel far if they could get half a day of both divisions. This would give them the opportunity to get used to playing with seven women on a line, try out positions of responsibility and foster leadership. Later in the day, they could put that into practise in more competitive mixed games.

Another proposition is that if men want to start competing in Open divisions, the same club must also be able to field a Women’s team. Without such a ‘buy in’, Sangeetha fears that the guys would be happy to drop the girls from their clubs.

In all of these scenarios, men and women are incentivised to work together and not to just split off from one another. Simply having a common goal provides a further context for greater interaction, and thus, understanding between the two sexes. These directives are therefore not about limiting the participation of boys but instead channelling their desires to play, whether that be Mixed or Open, into helping women have the same opportunities.

Of course, single gender tournaments such as the upcoming one hosted by BARA Ultimate in Brunei this September exist. In actual fact, all that the UPAI has the strength to do is advise, since they are not established enough to run or endorse any tournaments themselves at this moment in time. Nevertheless, Zahra insists there is enough local level support for what they are trying to achieve:

The guys want to play open of course …. [but] its kind of like an unspoken rule in the community that we won’t develop the Open scene until the Women’s has developed enough because we know that this way is best for the community.

Nevertheless, in order to fully realise the aims of all the above proposals, Zahra acknowledges that these communities have to be supported by a college programme that will be able to feed women into the club scene:

The thing is Ultimate is not actually established at school or college level so all of the girls that would actually be interested in sport already have their own sports that they are playing. So to bring them out of that and introduce them to Ultimate is hard – and they are all girls’ sports so they are more convenient options for their parents. What we are working on now is trying to introduce sport into the curriculum.

This is exactly the process that Sangeetha and the UPAI have already begun in Chennai. After having offered free coaching for women to eight colleges, they currently have five colleges confirmed to compete in the first ever college championships this September. Again, whilst the focus remains on female participation, Mixed is offered at any of the co-ed colleges signed up.

As all of this momentum continues to build, India will finally be sending a Women’s team to the upcoming Singapore Ultimate Open this August for their international debut. This 15-strong team’s first outing, which both Zahra and Sangeetha are a part of, will serve to be a very symbolic moment as Zahra describes it as:

…the next step for women’s Ultimate. Now that we go out more and represent more, we have more women interested in Ultimate.

To make Women’s Ultimate just as important as Mixed in India is not going to be without its challenges. However, it is incredibly exciting and inspiring to see these passionate people, who are applying progressive policies in a context where barriers to participation are plentiful. It is particularly brave to pursue policies that actively overcompensate for difficulties faced by women, leaving oneself open to criticism by sacrificing opportunities for men in exchange. Yet, in a strongly patriarchal culture where men already gain preference to women in many aspects of life, it is truly uplifting that the men in the Indian Ultimate community are seemingly prepared to make such a sacrifice.

In London, Maitry told The ShowGame how she avidly watched as many of the USA’s matches as she could. When describing their female players, she was so impressed with their throws, catches and in particular their confidence, adding: “I feel really good seeing them and I feel that maybe one day we can be like that too.” Now that an environment is beginning to be fostered for her at home to go out and do just that, we cannot wait to see it!

Feature image by Deepthi Indukuri

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