A survey of female participation and success rates in college debating societies uncovers blatant sexism and discrimination
debating has for long been a “boy’s game”. It is a circuit where being assertive and competitive is seen as strong and powerful, whereas for the women in the game, these traits can do more harm than good. Debating societies exist in numerous universities and colleges, where male and female debaters host and attend tournaments. These enclosed debating circuits are often seen as spaces championing the cause of gender equality and representation in public spaces, both often recurring themes on the “most debated list”.
In spite of this awareness, sexism within such spaces is little spoken about. But it is not completely invisible.
To understand and uncover this sexism, Newslaundry conducted a survey of 25 debating societies in prominent colleges and universities across the country. The list is not exhaustive because it covered only a sample of colleges, and within them, only the English debating societies. In a process spanning four weeks from April 13, we reached out to the present and the past members of debating circuits to collate a database of women’s representation over three academic years(2015-2018) in three areas:
(1) number of women holding posts within the society;
(2) number of women core-adjudicators (CA). CAs are experienced debaters with enough credentials to make motions and oversee tournaments, often paid by the host society for their work; and
(3) number of women in winning teams.
The results were appallingly sexist and blatantly discriminatory. To have an estimate of female participation in the activity in the first place, speaker tabs (a comprehensive list of all participants and their individual scores) of 18 tournaments were compiled, and the tabulated result was 36.97%.
Findings from the 25 societies and their host tournaments showed:
• 26% of tournament winners were women
• 21% of core adjudicators were women
• 43% of posts were held by women (a relatively higher percentage because four out of the 25 colleges were women’s colleges)
• To get a better understanding of female participation, over 20 current and past debaters were interviewed, both men and women. Their experiences and views helped us uncover the causes of the problem and its possible solutions.
• Public spaces continue to be unwelcoming to women, and safety is a concern. One reason for low participation is the timing of various debating tournaments and practices. Most students agreed that events at such inconvenient hours make it difficult for women to get parental permission, and it is even worse for those living in PGs and hostels with curfews.
• “Several tournaments end at 8 or 9 pm. My parents were upset when in my first year I had to come back alone from NLUD in Dwarka at 10 in the night. For similar reasons, outstation tournaments are also a problem.” says Ashi Datta, Hindu College.
Biases within the circuit
• Debating, as an activity, holds all qualities that are typically male in a patriarchal set-up and this is mirrored by the debating circuit. Stereotypes about women show them as emotional and sentimental beings, incapable of having an opinion, and even more incapable of expressing it aggressively. An alumnus of St. Stephen’s College highlighted the problem as the failure to recognise women’s opinions as fact-driven instead of emotionally-driven.
• “Right from school and family, public speaking is privileged as an activity for men simply because it forms a part of the ‘public’, whereas women are encouraged and assumed to be better at perhaps art and dance over speaking. Within these societies, there is also hyper-masculinity that privileges certain qualities in debaters. Aggressiveness, both physically and verbally, is appreciated because it shows ‘passion’, Yash Sharma, from Ramjas College Delhi University said.
• The visibility of men in public places, and their ownership of these places, has not left the activity of debating untouched.
• “Women in patriarchal societies are taught to be non-confrontational growing up, whereas men are encouraged early on to form and express opinions. They’re a lot more confident with articulation and speaking in public. A lot of women (myself included) feel intimidated facing all-male teams even if they’re not rude or mean, simply because you fear their confidence,” says Shweta Venkatesan, National Law University Delhi.
• It is difficult to disagree with Anirudh Nigam, a student from National Law School of India University, Bangalore, when he says, “People’s internal biases mean women speakers need to work twice as hard to be recognised as half as competent.”
Instances of objectification
• The biases that underlie the attitude for women are often manifested in casual objectification experienced by women within the circuit. Some of these experiences are shared below.
• According to Shweta,“Women are often simply looked at as hot or beautiful and their talents are dismissed. I’m also aware of instances of sexual harassment women have faced in the circuit. Some have left debating due to this.”
• When speaking to other female debaters, the magnitude of harassment and objectification became starker. Vrinda Sharma from Kirori Mal College said, “The circuit is filled with people of both genders that preach equality, but these are also the same people who would make confessions (on Facebook) about ‘how hot that girl is’.”
• Poorna Mujumdar, co-founder of the Indian Women’s Debating Championship (IWDC), quoted instances she had witnessed during her debating career: “I gave her one mark extra because I could see the red strap of her bra.”
• “Your speech was far clearer and more sensible than your (male) partner’s, but he said stuff with such gusto that it made a lot of impact.”
• “Women winning IWDC is so stupid. There’s hardly any competition there. It’s just another committee for women to sit together and whine.”
• Many debaters found the way the circuit treats issues of misogyny and sexism problematic. Motions debated upon are often not gender-sensitive, and it’s common for casual sexist remarks to be passed as arguments during the course of a debate. Ashi Datta said,“I have at least witnessed four debates where a man has made comments about rape or harassment while completely ignoring the complex nature of these life experiences. These things are shamelessly used as props to win a debate, and I don’t know if these people actually think twice about how layered and difficult these things are.”
• Ananya Bhardwaj from Hindu College also brought to light the ‘hypocrisy’ that she feels the circuit displays:
• “When we are in a circuit where issues like equality, feminism, and liberalism are debated, you hardly expect these people to come and touch you, or pass sexist comments. This is one circuit that claims to be socially more aware and liberal than other people. When women in the circuit face such treatment, it’s kind of a shock.”
• This describes a deep-rooted hypocrisy in the behaviour of students in these societies. While the seven-minute long speeches reek of abstract notions of equality, gender justice and fairness, their behaviour towards women falls short.
• Vibhuti Dikshit, an alumna of Kirori Mal College, Delhi University, agreed: “The more men appear to be woke and socially conscious, the harder it is to call them out, especially if professors join in. However, this is an experience that is not limited to debating. This is something that other forward-thinking spaces like performing arts — particularly the slam poetry culture — are also coming to terms with.”
• These results are more shocking because of the context in which they are reflected. Education, awareness, deliberation and critical thinking are considered the most efficient tools to equip people to challenge patriarchy. The circuit doesn’t lack these. Given the degree of misogyny in this circuit, it is safe to assume that sexism isn’t just existent in our country: it is lived, breathed and normalised. The understanding of the deep rooted inequality within the circuit points out to certain possible solutions.
Change cultural norms
• Dhwani Nagpal from Jesus and Mary College, emphasised targeting cultural norms and expectations that people unquestioningly ascribe to.
• On similar lines, Sharada Srinivasan, CA for IWDC in 2015, said, “Mentoring for women and a lot of encouragement to get them to participate is important. I’ve personally sat down and talked to parents for hours.”
• This mentoring could also be provided by college faculty to show their support and to motivate women to take up the activity with zeal and confidence. A forum could be set up to facilitate the interaction