Madame Speaker

Alex Downie and Sarah Mourney spoke to Sharada Srinivasan about organising India’s first ever womens-only debating tournament.

The proposal to set up a women’s-only tournament polarised the Indian University debating circuit. As Sharada Srinivasan told us,  “the first question people asked was—why do you need one? The second question was—what is role of men in this tournament? The third question was—do you really think this is a circuit that tries to systemically discriminate against women?“

The move to create an Indian women’s-only tournament started in earnest at the beginning of 2014, with a series of conversations between senior female debaters. The tournament was conceived as a response to the structures that prevent Indian women from accessing the same opportunities as their male competitors.

As Sharada explained, the best debaters frequently travel to other universities, within India and internationally, to compete at intervarsity tournaments. This can be a problem for India’s female debaters, many of whose parents forbid them from competing because “the notion of being a free traveller for some reason is in tension with the cultural values you are imbibed in as a woman in India”.

These problems are then compounded by Indian universities, which often accommodate parents’ conservative attitudes. Sharada told us that, “getting permission [to attend tournaments] at a university level is also hard for a lot of these women. There is a university called VIT, which has one of the largest women populations within the debating circuits in India. But they can’t send any women to tournaments… because their university administration simply doesn’t permit these things… women in VIT can’t debate at internals after eight in the evening.”

Sharada feels fortunate not to have faced these constraints. While her parents were reluctant to allow her to travel when she first started her undergraduate studies, this was because she had been diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis the year before and was still undergoing treatment. Sharada’s mother, who spent seven years working in an Indian paramilitary force, is “very independent and liberal”, and after that year her parents were “very helpful” in supporting her debating career.

This year alone, Sharada has travelled to 14 tournaments, and she spends most weekends debating. Over the course of her debating career, she debated with a number of women with whom she would establish the Indian Women’s Debating Championships (IWDC). Radhika Radhakrishnan, who was ultimately the tournament director, was Sharada’s teammate for two years as she finished her undergraduate degree, and Sharada spent the last debating season speaking with Achitha Jacob, a co-founder of the tournament.

The women worked hard, but initially struggled to build support for the tournament within the debating community. “Early in 2014, there was a potential case for sexual assault within the [Indian Debating] circuit”. The “person registering the complaint was well known, and a key part of the then-conceptualised IWDC, and it was against a member of the debating community who otherwise holds a lot of respect…. it became a social media circus”.

The incident derailed plans to host the IWDC that year. “I don’t think building traction for IWDC in that environment would have been productive. The social media circus happened over the same period we were trying to gain interest in the tournament and adjudication core”.

It took another year to get the tournament running. “In January, Achitha Jacob [a co-founder] called me and told me we can’t just have abstract conversations about how to improve women’s debating in India. We need to collect, and see if we have support, and if we do then we need to do this project.”

As the tournament approached, Sharada and Achitha were appointed co-Chief Adjudicators, and became responsible for setting topics for the tournament and organising the adjudicators.

Their actions received intense scrutiny—for instance, a decision that men could adjudicate at the tournament, but would not be able to chair the adjudication panels, was criticised by a number of senior male debaters. Sharada explained that they claimed that the absence of male chairs would hurt the women, as their “experience” would have better helped women debaters to “develop”.

Nevertheless, the tournament was ultimately a success, with over 90 women attending from more than ten different cities. It looks like IWDC will continue to grow into the future, as four universities have tentatively expressed an interest to host the tournament next year.

IWDC is one of a growing number of women’s-only debating tournaments worldwide.  Similar competitions exist in Australia, England and Canada, and all have developed to address the conspicuous underrepresentation of women in debating: at this year’s Worlds University Debating Championship, the most prestigious tournament on the debating calendar, only two of the ‘top 20’ best speakers were women.

Sexism is not confined to the Indian debating circuit. In fact, as Sharada observed, “comparing the Indian circuit to some of the stories I’ve heard outside, especially in the British circuit, we don’t have as much systemic, intentional discrimination”. But for all circuits, it is only with the concerted efforts of debaters like Sharada, Achitha, Radhika, and of the all women involved in organising IWDC that change finally, slowly, happens.