Misogyny on the race track

Misogyny on the race track

Motor sport

As the country shuddered in the aftermath of some of the most gruesome acts against women, there were more than a handful of the fairer sex walking the paddock at the Buddh International Circuit seemingly, and refreshingly, carefree.

Some in racing overalls and some in high fashion, they moved with grace. Only upon conversation, and in one case a first-hand experience, did their battle against misogyny come to light. It isn’t easy being a woman in India, not even when you have privilege on your side.   

Take Manisha Kelkar for instance. She is a famous Marathi/ Hindi actress who happens to be a racing driver also. There was a constant jostling for her at the track, but she was aware that it wasn’t for her being a driver, exclusively at least. She was a novelty. The requested selfies and autographs were because, besides being famous, she chose to do something out of the ordinary. Her skills as a driver were on the back burner. Once again, it was all about the face. 

“It happens everywhere. We are so used to it by now,” she says as hordes of eyes accompany her on every step she takes. “Coming from an industry like mine, I’d say this world (motor sport) is better, but even here it’s tough. There is a constant comparison. I can’t just drive for the sake of driving even if that’s exactly what I got into the sport for. They judge me based on how I fare against the other men and then they scoff at us for being slower.

“I am aware of how far behind we are. But a large part of that comes down to awareness and lack of exposure. That’s why Formula One doesn’t have women drivers. You can’t just say ‘women are bad drivers’. I believe if they cater to us as they do to the men, we can race as well.”

Unabashedly they continue to stare at Kelkar as she smiles richly with her invisible blinders on. Anushriya Gulati, on the other hand, is far more aware of the glances in her direction. While she is ‘used to it’, she still hasn’t grown the callouses. After all, she is a 24-year-old driver and isn’t okay with your everyday ‘uncle joke’. 

“It was tough enough when I started shooting,” she says, darting eyes at every member of the opposite sex when walking the paddock. “I heard a lot of people talk about how inappropriate it was for a young girl to be shooting. Even after I had represented India, I would have to listen to that.” 

Racing as a recreation

Anushriya, who was ranked 50th in the World Junior Ranking for Sports Pistol, had also won a bronze for India in the Singapore Open Shooting Championship. While shooting presented one challenge, racing as a recreation presented another. 

“It is very difficult being a woman in the racing world, but not much more than how it is in the world outside the track. There is so much we as women need to consider. It is especially difficult getting sponsors because they want performances, but the fact is that we cannot perform at the highest level if we don’t get any exposure. 

“My point is that people need to be given drives on merit. Not because they are men or women.

“I will not have any regrets not being included if I cannot match up to the other drivers on the track, but I wouldn’t want to go places only because of a face. I do not want to be a novelty. I want to be a racer and that’s what needs to be highlighted,” says Anushriya. 

Anushriya started riding bikes at an early age after her uncle, himself a biker, got her hooked. You’d reckon they couldn’t judge those behind a helmet, but they do, asserts Anushriya. From Davidsons to Ducatis, she progressed, and all so for the thrill of it. Eventually, she chanced upon single-seater racing, Formula 4 to be precise, through Ahura Racing.

Ahura, started in 2018, fielded an all women’s six-member team in this edition of the JK Tyre FMSCI National Racing Championship in the LGB-4 Formula category. But even before Ahura could come into the fray, Mira Erda was paving the way forward. Erda was the first Indian woman to compete in the highest class of Formula Racing in the country with the Euro JK Championship. At only 19, Erda has already raised the bar for racing - not only for women - in the country, but even she had to face her share of challenges along the way.

“It wasn’t easy at the start. The boys didn’t want me overtaking them, but I was also adamant. As far as I was concerned, my talent would be enough to beat them and it didn’t matter if I was a guy or a girl,” she says.

“Once I began to win races, they let off. They began to take me more seriously. Once that happened, they started to respect me and my space. Now, I am just another helmet on the track.”

Maria Teresa De Filippis, the first woman to drive in Formula One (and there have been five in all), was told by the race director at the French Grand Prix in 1958: “The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.”

Let’s just say, we have come a long way, but it isn’t nearly enough. As for racing, so in society.

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