Wheels of Change

Wheels of Change

Hannah Macaulay looks into the empowering affects of increasing numbers of all-girl skate crews around the world.

If you’re tired of sexism and certain things being coined as gender-specific, the solution to your frustration may be easier than you think. Some suggest the answer lies in women jumping on skateboards or strapping on some roller-skates and going for a ride in a local park, on an empty sidewalk or probably even in the nearest public gymnasium.

In many countries, women and girls are starting to challenge the common stereotype that skating is a male oriented activity. Skating is especially expanding amongst women in places such as Afghanistan, Cambodia or India where skating was never popular or common to begin with. It is a fascinating turn of events: countries where women have less legal rights than in e.g. Europe or the USA, may be breaking with stereotypes that we have never been able to shake off. In a time filled with gloomy prospects for women’s rights in many countries that once seemed like “safe-seats”, will the revolution of female skating lead to a revolution of women’s voices and rights?

The music video of Wild Beasts’ latest single “Alpha Female” will most likely give you Goosebumps the first time you watch it. It portrays women from India, riding skateboards around their cities in traditional Indian clothing and getting a range of mixed responses from the local men. If one word could describe the footage, it would be “empowered”. The video starts brilliantly by showing endless frames of gobsmacked Indian men watching something hidden from the viewer, and then finally revealing what they’re all looking at: a woman on a skateboard. The music video doesn’t tell the whole story behind the girl skating scene in India though. It specifically follows Atita Verghese, India’s first professional skater, and her girl crew. It is an innovative and somewhat controversial way to promote women’s rights. And it seems to be working.

Since finding her passion for skating, Verghese has opened a skate park in collaboration with the organization “Holystoked Collective” that helps underprivileged girls learn skating and academic skills. She also started the online community “Girl Skate India” where she encourages other girls to break with certain stereotypes and jump on a skateboard themselves. She wishes to spread the purpose she found through the skateboard community to the rest of her world’s young girls: and her movement is currently flourishing.

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In my early teens I spent a lot of time in skate parks. I roller-skated up and down ramps that many boys I knew wouldn’t go near. In 2010 I became a silver-medalist in the Danish national championship in roller-skating. I was always respected and encouraged for my interest in skating as a young girl, however I quickly noticed a pattern when starting to hang out more frequently in skate parks: it was mostly dominated by boys. I remember how many people around me were surprised when I told them that I was quite interested in and talented at roller-skating. I have always been active and relatively sporty, but never lived up to the stereotype that many people have of a “tomboy”. Often, I was wearing skirts and headbands while racing around amongst boys and girls in baggy jeans and caps. Watching the video of the Indian skate crew brought me back to my own experience with skate culture: it doesn’t take much to surprise or make an impression as a woman in a male dominated sphere. In many ways, skating changed my view of gender equality for the better.

Identifying with an activity that is normally connected to men in the West has benefitted me in ways I hadn’t even realised. Watching the video of the Indian skater girls made me think of how empowered something as simple as a hobby can make you. It also made me realise how you can influence the world in many alternative ways. Changing a deprived community doesn’t always need to be through aid or increased medicalisation. Improving women’s rights often comes from a bottom-up structure where one voice becomes the voice of many, which eventually can lead to a change of legal structures.

Sometimes, all you need is a girl with a skateboard and a voice. The movie “Whip It” with Ellen Page has touched on many of the same topics as the emerging skater girl culture is currently doing. In the movie, Bliss (played by Page), joins a local roller derby and quickly finds a community that makes her feel like she belongs somewhere, at an otherwise difficult point in her life. The empowerment and confidence she gains through taking up the team sport is portrayed in an original and captivating way, with the roller derby girls breaking all common Hollywood stereotypes of female portrayal. The girls seem cool and individualistic, while still being original, reflected and thought-out characters. Their love for roller-skating doesn’t define their identity, instead it is a part of their life in a healthy and natural way. “Whip It” is an interesting adaptation of real life girl skater crews, and brings up big questions about femininity, identity and youth. Just like Atita Verghese and ‘Holystoked’ advocate, engaging in something as liberating and fun as skating can change the lives of many girls and how they view themselves. I would even argue that it would have a positive impact on their future self-confidence and view of “womanhood”. The girl skate scene is booming, and it’s only going to get bigger.

It is a difficult and rewarding sport, where you (literally) have to take some nasty falls prior to reaching success. Skating is about risk and skill, but also about having fun and being a part of a community. For many women, this community has been lacking in Western skate culture. Often, girls have felt like outsiders in a mostly male-dominated activity. Although I personally reaped the benefits from skate parks growing up, it is only a small amount of girls I know that did the same. An even smaller number wore skirts, jewellery and headbands while doing it. This isn’t to say that you cannot enjoy skate culture while being a man or embracing the clothes and “traditional” culture. It is just to say, that we need to look at skating differently. We need to break with the set views we have of “skaters”. Enjoying the activity can be beneficial to anyone, and girl groups around India, Afghanistan and Cambodia have offered an alternative to the narrow view we have of skating in the West. These women, coining the activity as gender neutral in their home countries, are activists.

Maybe they aren’t carrying placards or shouting about women’s rights, but their actions are enough. They aren’t only challenging the stereotypes about women in their own part of the world: their message is global. We all need to change the way we divide girls and boys into different camps while growing up. We need to mix boys and girls more on sports teams, in hobbies and in our institutions. Through skating, we may achieve more equality than we ever could by trying to catch politicians’ attentions. And right now, in a time where we need to keep the eyes on the prize for gender equality, we need a powerful statement. A woman in a pink sari skateboarding the streets of India is a good start.

Hannah Macaulay

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