I probably don’t need to tell you that women play polo. Or that they have played polo for a very long time. Polo is a sport with a very long history, the longest of any game, if historical documentation means anything, and women have been right in there like a dirty shirt from early on, as far as we know. I have a rubbing from an ancient frieze hanging on my wall that a friend brought to me from China many years ago. It shows two women playing polo—with men—during the Tang Dynasty period (618 - 907 CE ). But women were playing polo in Persia, polo’s acknowledged birthplace, well before that. The history of women playing polo in Iran dates back to at least the 4th century CE with many accounts of polo matches played between mixed teams. The 13th century Persian poet Nezâmi described polo matches between the Shah, Khosrow Parvis (The Victorious!), and his team against the Armenian princess, Shereen, and hers. Many indications point to the likelihood that polo in ancient Persia was as popular with the ladies as with the men during this era.
Fast forward to our own times…
Now, as then, women are good at polo. With a slightly lower center of gravity than males they have excellent equestrian balance. Their maternal instincts and propensity for gentleness translate into a natural rapport with horses. They are prudent risk managers with a deep desire and determination to win any contest. If they are not long ball hitters they certainly can hit it quite long enough.
Recently I overheard a furious husband say of his wife, whose team had just defeated his in a tournament final—and I quote: “Damn it all! Why do we let them play this game anyway!”
Why, indeed. Probably because we couldn’t stop them if we tried.
Ah women: we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them. We can’t play polo without them either, apparently. In the U.S. women have their own league, plus they play in the regular leagues as well—but just you try playing in theirs, Mack.
But what really happens in the mind of Mack when he rides out onto the field of battle to face the second sex? Well, it depends. Some men might think—or even say aloud if they have the nerve—“OK, you want to play polo with me, do you? Well, don’t expect any quarter. Take that, and that, and that!”
“He’s a brute,” they say. “Yeah, no gentleman, that one.”
Tears may fall.
Other men might try a more gentle and polite approach. “Oh, so sorry, go ahead, you take it. Hey, nice hit!”
“He’s so patronizing. Why can’t he just treat us like any other player?”
Mack the Knight takes it even further, laying on the charm as he follows the Code of Chivalry (e.g., “Thou shalt never lie, always remain faithful to thy pledged word, protect women and children, etc., etc.”) and holds forth thus: “Here, let me get that dropped mallet for you. My team can do without me for a moment.” V “Thank you for your misogynistic altruism, Sir Galadork!”
God help him if he’s dumb enough to try hitting on her after the game.
You get the idea? It seems men often have their work cut out for them when it comes to playing polo with women—especially competitive polo, where the problem increases proportionately as the degree of competitiveness is ratcheted up. The higher the stakes the greater the pressure on what is already a strained relationship.
OK, let’s go back to Shah Khosrow and the beautiful and accomplished Shereen in medieval Persia. Turns out Shereen was pretty well connected in her own right, being the daughter of a king. She no doubt had him to thank for her education, which apparently included polo lessons. A Persian miniature illustration from an edition of Nezâmi’s epic poem detailing the long love affair between these two actual historical figures shows Shereen and Khosrow on the polo field. She is deftly hooking him while the other players on his team seem to be gesturing towards the women’s team and griping to each other about something (I wonder what!). But Khosrow is having the time of his life, totally smitten with the blonde ringer from exotic Armenia. In other words, the complex and eternal dynamics of the male/female relationship have intruded into the game, making it a mere sideshow.
“That’s sexism, pure and simple!”
Yeah, OK, call it what you will, but I didn’t invent the system. I just try to cope with it. The point is, you can’t thrust men and women together and not expect this dynamic to at least tinge the result. It’s chemistry, after all.
So much for the mind of Mack. But what are the shireens thinking? Not surprisingly, I’m not really sure. They seem to want to be just one of the guys but hold the keys to “The Ladies’ Room” locked tightly in their purses at the same time. Can’t blame them for that, though. For women, every day can be like a night in a gay bar for a straight man. They need their refuge.
In our mythical past, women ruled the world. Once a son or two was born to a woman she was liable to nominate her worn-out hubby for the starring role in the Autumn Sacrificial Pageant. For their part, men were stumped over how women were able to produce babies. Indeed they were so awestruck by it as to be paralyzed into inaction. Then, some genius figured it out and the plotting began. Once men learned they could turn off the tap (notice I say “could” because they rarely did) they started to push back. Women, disarmed of their most powerful weapon (i.e., control over procreation), were soon rounded up like so many sheep and lost the key to their dominion. At this point myth merged with reality.
It has been a long, slow, belly-crawl back to where women are now, poised on the verge of liberation from male hegemony. In man’s coup d’etat of yore, a brilliant realization (along with characteristic brute force) was critical to success. Today women have trumped brute force with weapons born of technology (which we won’t go into here because some men get sooo upset)—and plenty of brilliant realizations of their own.
In polo this timeless mother of all relationships plays itself out on green grass under blue skies, where strength, speed, and skill are equalized by the noble horse—but for many women this is about freeing themselves from vassalage and reclaiming sovereignty over their own bodies, perhaps even their souls. As long as they play with men in this game that is a metaphor for life, they will be struggling not just for equality but also for female ascendancy and transcendency, something men have been standing in the way of much too long for women to forget about it even for seven and a half minutes.
So, go ahead and play together, kids, and let’s keep on having fun. Just don’t expect it to be easy and uncomplicated!
(This article was published in Polo Players' Edition magazine in September, 2011. )
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