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Fair game?

Why do the media go overboard when reporting the success of a member of the minority community, wonders ZIYA US SALAM in the light of Sania Mirza's and Irfan Pathan's success.

AFP

Focus on their game. Why drag religion into sports? Sania Mirza.

THE Indian media looks desperate. Acts desperate too. It is almost impossible to talk of sports today without dragging religion into it. Blasphemous, did one say?

Ask Sania Mirza, now the toast of the country. Or Irfan Pathan who walked the same lane just the other day. We know that both of them hail from orthodox Muslim families, Pathan's father was a muezzin in a mosque, Mirza's parents were on a pilgrimage even as she was taking on Serena Williams. All thanks to an over-eager media keen to tell us the unknown, the unseen.

Yet, it has not always been that way. Not when Nirupama Vaidyanathan became the first Indian woman to win a match at a Grand Slam tournament — the Australian Open in the late 1990s. Nobody wondered in the print or electronic media about her religion. Whether she went to the temple? And just how much of her legs she showed on the tennis court? Did she wear saris off the court? And, by the way, did she consider herself an ambassador of the girls following her faith?

Changing yardstick

At least then the media did not burden you with such inane queries. It gloated over her success. Newspapers went to town with the accomplishments of the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam match. Just the way it ought to be. She was graceful in receiving credit, keen to keep her feet on the ground.

Now, it seems the yardstick has changed. The tournament is the same — Australian Open — the sport is the same, and the feat is similar. If Nirupama was the first woman to enter the second round, Sania was the first to enter the third one!

But this time, we have been saddled with avoidable details, some innocent, others motivated. Some newspapers and channels have actually gone to town wondering how her community views her success? And whether they are appalled at the leg show on the tennis court. Is she regular with prayers? Does she fast in the month of Ramzan? And to what extent does Sania observe purdah?

AFP

Irfan Pathan.

A channel highlighted her religion in a story on her tennis feats, putting the youngster on the defensive. Many newspapers, including those from the Hindi and Urdu press, talked of how she hails from an orthodox family and still has to slip into salwar-kameez off the court. It surely was no coincidence that the media talked of her parents' visit to Mecca and Medina just when the Australian Open was unfolding. It did not strike anyone that the coincidence was just that — a coincidence. Haj is an annual pilgrimage and just happened to be juxtaposed with the Melbourne classic this year.

Little space was devoted to the fact that a sporting success-starved nation suddenly had a youthful role model, an ambassador who could put India's name on the tennis firmament.

Impolite queries

Not many talked of the sweat Sania shed in coaching, the pitfalls in finding sponsors. And the problems of ploughing a lonely furrow. Instead, they talked endlessly of what she wore off court, just what the moulanas had to say about her as a Muslim woman who should be covering her legs and the like!

Incidentally, not half the impolite queries have been reserved for Shikha Uberoi, the other rising star of women's tennis. Incidental? If you must choose politeness over honesty.

By the way, Sania is not the only winner to be judged differently. Just at the beginning of the last cricket season, young Irfan Pathan was pigeonholed in a hotel in Sri Lanka to talk of just how devastating the Gujarat riots were! How it affected the minority psyche and the aftermath. The young man got by with giving answers intelligible only to himself. Thank God the same reporter did not go across to Nayan Mongia or Parthiv Patel asking them to appreciate the politics of Narendra Modi.

Why religion?

Incidentally, that brings us to the point: Why does the media go overboard when it comes to the success of a member of the minority community, particularly so in the case of a Muslim winner? If memory serves one right, we have never been told if Virender Sehwag goes to a temple or Harbhajan Singh to a gurdwara. Or the last time Leander Paes went to church. Or how often have their family members used air services to go abroad.

But we all have been subjected to details of Pathan's life — how he offers prayers after play, how his father still returns to the same mosque everyday. Soon after his best haul in Test cricket, in a live interview on TV, Pathan was asked how much time does he have for religion, and the quote of the young man, almost a reluctant hero, "Praying makes me humble" was beamed all across. Fine and fair, one would say as far as Pathan is concerned but again, why drag religion into a cricket field?

Judge Pathan for what he does on the field. Hail him for the success, castigate him for his failures but, for heaven's sake, do not bring religion into sport.

Ditto for Sania Mirza. Let her play tennis. Let her bring glory to the country. What sundry moulanas feel about her vocation or apparel is unimportant.

Her tennis, not her religion should make headlines. She is the ambassador of New Age India, let not any religion appropriate her. Sania Mirza today is not on the court as a representative of her community. Nor is she answerable for every action of hers in the light of diktats of her faith. Why should they have to carry the burden of others' prejudices?

Sports may be a euphemism for war with rules but it is no crusade. No religion, no faith, just a belief in one's own abilities.

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