The idea of an all-women group that meets on weekends to play sports and do fitness might seem ordinary but Sisters in Sweat have created a paradigm shift. Though fitness for women is feminist in itself (more on that soon), the infusion of the community aspect makes this nothing short of revolutionary. And for the founders of Sisters in Sweat – Swetha Subbiah and Tanvie Hans – this revolutionary potential of one football game was serendipitous.
Swetha Subbiah is a fitness trainer, who took the road-less-travelled by quitting her job at Ernst and Young all the way back in 2009. As of May 2020, she was the only four trainers in India to be certified by Nike. Tanvie Hans is an Indian footballer who has previously played for well-known English football clubs – Tottenham Hotspurs and Fulham, now playing for Karnataka. (You may know these badasses from Nike’s ‘Da Da Ding’ ad)
We spoke to these women about Sisters in Sweat, their journey and why we need such spaces to create a brighter future for women in sports and fitness. Everything Swetha and Tanvie had to share with us was heart-warming, hope-giving, and powerful. If you aren’t already aware of how ground-breaking these Sisters are, Swetha and Tanvie are here to tell you!
How was Sisters in Sweat born and how has it evolved?
SS: We first met while working on a Nike ad. Soon after that, Tanvie moved to Bangalore because she wanted to make a difference in Indian football, and she realised Bangalore is where the action is. We spent a bit of time together, and I took Tanvie out to a friend’s birthday party. This friend of mine, after a couple of drinks, was very excited to have met a female footballer and was excited to learn football.
TH: She asked us to plan a football session for her and some of her friends. We had no real expectation but went ahead with booking a 5-a-side football team. 17 women turned up dressed in the cutest athletic attire – bandanas and headbands! So, it became a fun weekend. They asked us to do it for them every weekend and that’s really how it started. It was not our brainchild but our friend’s! When the pandemic hit earlier last year, we were excited what was becoming of the community because we haven’t spent a rupee on marketing, and growth had been organic. The situation forced us to think creatively and check our intentions. We can’t meet in person but what we wanted was to keep up this sense of community – keep them motivated, active and connected with each other. COVID actually turned a decent corner for us because we expanded our offerings, expanding outside the city and even the country. It’s because of virtual offerings that we’ve been able to expand beyond a physical community, beyond the city.
What role do you think you play for the women who enrol? Going from 17 that one weekend to now a community of over a thousand in about 3 years – no small feat!
SS: The inspiration for Sisters in Sweat has come from the women themselves. What we mean to each woman is different – someone is escaping from the mundane, or has just moved to Bangalore, lost touch with sports, wants to get fitter. We have women from conservative families who are unable to go and play in a mixed group. We are just enablers. If I can use the analogy of a construction site where these women are the material – the cement and bricks. We are merely the engineers, engineering the building, putting it together, adding floors and levels to it. We had a league match at the end of 2019 and there was this one girl who came up to me, after which we heard many similar stories. She came up to me and said “Swetha, I have never played sports in my life. I have never worn a team jersey. I was never a sporty girl in school, I was always hiding from the PT period. I can’t believe at the age of 35, I am part of a team and I’m a wearing jersey”.
TH: I always wanted to make a difference in the football scene. I never thought it would be so much deeper than that. Football has become a tool to help these women feel empowered, interact with like-minded women – it’s become so much more than just the sport. It’s the women who come to us and tell us about the transformation in their personal lives through the activities that Sisters in Sweat provides them which is deeper and more meaningful than just making a difference in the sport.
I always played sport while growing up. And it was rare to see women who continued playing sport beyond a certain age, or to have role models. Participation dwindled as we grew older. What changes do you think Sisters in Sweat is making in the larger scheme of things?
SS: In the fitness industry, when I began a decade ago, it was completely male-dominated. I had no role models to look at and say this is the trajectory I want to take, and end up like her. We are providing role models. We’re also changing the landscape in many ways. One woman told us she was watching primarily all female events and her son asked, “Hey mom, when does the Olympics for men start? Is there an Olympics for men?” Another friend would lace up every Sunday to play football and took her son to some of Tanvie’s games. One day he asked, “Do boys play football?” I think women supporting each other is such an important and powerful thing which is being brought at the forefront through sport”
TH: This has gone so much beyond just sport. We are trying to be conscious about the model we’re building. That’s why we say “By women and for women”. Apart from offering all these things to our members, we are also trying to create jobs in coaching and management for women because there is a huge gap in the market when it comes to this. There are only a few sports – maybe cricket – through which you can actually build a revenue stream for female athletes. Being a footballer, still active in my career, you can take it from me that it’s not enough and you really have to supplement it through all these other things – coaching, managing and having a job on the side. We decided that we want to offer a platform that caters to both sides. Those are the two big things that we’ve become mindful of. When we started out, we were just having fun but as we went along, we started to understand the bigger role we’re playing and the power we have to create such spaces for women.
It can be very intimidating to be constantly surrounded by men when you’re playing sports. Though I would personally love to see a gym full of women, we want to hear from you what the pros are of women-only spaces? More importantly, tell us about the cons of the same.
SS: There are far more pros to it, beginning with something as basic as safety. We’re creating a space where I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing, who will be looking. We often play in sports bras. We still have women who come from conservative families. It is still a battle for them if it’s not going to be an all-women group. We give these women a chance. So, in an all-women group, we’re less inhibited and almost childlike when we come out to the field. With regards to the cons, the only one I see is finding female coaches. While we want to provide the job opportunities, sometimes we don’t find candidates because it’s such a nascent space for women.
TH: Having women-only spaces automatically handles a lot of barriers for entry. There is a sense of comfort for them and the family. women who come from conservative families are often able to get involved and engage only because it is an all-women community.
Another con is when you’re looking to get better at sport, it’s beneficial to have some men involved because they have a genetic advantage – they may be quicker, faster, stronger. So, we’ve started our ‘Sisters and Misters’ session, for those women who feel they are comfortable and would like to up their game a bit. Though we are trying to enable these women, mixed interactions are also important.
Having been women in male-dominated industries, there must have certainly been many instances where you’ve been able to inspire a sense of awe in others. That feeling is priceless. The sad truth is that female athletes are taken less seriously. What has been your experience being in male-dominated spaces? We would like to hear some fun anecdotes.
TH: In London, on the days I wasn’t training, I would go and play at local parks. This happens often. They usually don’t know about how well I play. I like being in that position because it puts me in a privileged position where I can switch their mindset in the matter of seconds. Though it’s sad that there’s a need for that, it’s a privileged position to be in.
SS: When I started out, I was the only female among 35 male instructors, all big and burly. It was very much the body-building culture back then and then there was me! I remember back then this man saying, “What is she going to do? Is she going to be the dumbbell?” It’s funny to see those instructors who made such comments now contacting me to upskill their training. To change that perspective and be able to say “I’m a little person but I can lift as heavy as you can and be as good a fitness instructor as you are. And no, my clientele will not be all-female. It’s going to be mixed”, and because of the sports-specific training I’ve done, I have more male clients who tend to invest more in their training. It’s great to see the paradigm shift we are able to make. We have a canvas that we can paint on, and in many ways, chart out what the future of women in sports and training is going to look like. It’s an incredibly privileged position to be in and comes with a lot of responsibility.
TH: We never set out to be the first at anything. We just wanted to pursue something we were passionate about.
SS: It’s about making that entry, establishing yourself and making your presence known. I don’t feel any less than my male counterparts.
For a lot of women, it’s also about external factors – familial expectation, absence of a opportunity. Sometimes these barriers are not explicit but implicit – little quips and comments like “why do you have to spend so much time in the gym”. What kind of external factors aided you? What role did your family play?
SS: We’ve had extremely supportive families and we come from position of privilege where we never had to be the bread-earners. There are barriers to entry which is what we aim to remove through Sisters in Sweat – be it comfort or employment.
TH: We’ve had families who have supported these endeavours. External factors had a lot to do with why I became a professional footballer. One was that our school was the first in the state to have a girls’ football team. So going to play nationals at the age of 12 from school was a big part of how it all began. One thing I struggled with was an actual opportunity to play. Until date, I have to create opportunities to play. We’re now in a privileged position to make these opportunities, for women to feel included and create job opportunities. I don’t think I had a female footballer role model growing up but now I can be that for many others. It’s the best place to be because we’ve been able to create that change.
What changes have you seen over time? Do you think women are more health conscious and participating more – whether at the elite level or just doing at-home workouts?
SS: When I began training, there would be only 2 or 3 women on the gym floor who you know by name. Now, I think it’s 50-50 and often, there are more women. When I was in school, it was rare to hear of sports for women. Now, when we travel and we get recognized. There’s a demand which is outdoing supply. Sisters in Sweat is overwhelmed too. From 12 women on average 3 years ago, we now have waiting lists. There’s been a sea change.
TH: When I started playing, there used to be a small group of girls in the circuit and we all knew each other. Slowly, football started being taken up by more girls in schools and colleges. When I came back from England, I didn’t know most of the girls that played the circuit and that made me so happy.
We previously published an article on how women are neglected in medical research, and sports medicine in particular. What is your take on that?
SS: I do think my education and training has facilitated me to take on female clients. There are so many nuances with hormonal changes, we do have a long way to go. However, I am comfortable with the pace at which we’re going. There is research happening globally. When we compare it to the amount of awareness there was when I was in school, we have been moving in the right direction. At the school level, there is still a lack of awareness since the knowledge is slow to trickle down and may not trickle at all.
TH: Even among female coaches and managers, we just don’t talk about periods. The only time a manager did was when she told us about a pill that could delay your period so it wouldn’t coincide with our matches. We’re also a little judgemental as a society, perhaps. There’s a lot said about the dynamics between female athletes and male coaches, regarding sexual and romantic relationship even when it’s purely professional. Often male coaches don’t feel comfortable even putting their arm around a female athlete, much less talk about menstruation which can be construed as invasive. There are those barriers because a lot of players come from humble backgrounds and they have certain boundaries.
What’s the future of Sisters in Sweat?
SS: More sport, more sessions, more city, more women
TH: There’s a certain mentality that is attached to sport. There’s only a certain breed of men and women who engage with sport in a certain way and grow from it. That’s probably why we began Sisters in Sweat – to use sport as a tool, to empower, to level the field in a certain way.
SS: That’s what we always say – we’re trying to level the playing field. The men are equal enablers of that endeavour.