Debate like a Girl

by Zehra Ashruf

As a student of the HB community, I haven’t had many memorable encounters with extreme sexism during my academic career. I applaud the HB administration and its faculty for its attempts to provide a safe, secure environment for its diverse student body. But that sense of protection that we’ve grown to depend on, that we’ve subconsciously incorporated into our daily lives is confined to the walls of our beloved school. Beyond them, we’re on our own to fend for ourselves.

Debate is a man’s game. Frankly, I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. It’s not unknown that female debaters have to work harder to prove themselves than their male counterparts. And I’m sure most of them would attest to that. On too many occasions, I’ve caught myself speaking louder, faster, and more aggressively than my male competitors to present my arguments. In actuality, I prefer speaking at a normal pace and a more eloquent tone to emphasize the key voting issues of the round. The issue is this: if a female debater doesn’t make that extra effort during the round, the judge is likely to take the boy’s word over hers. However, the moment you seem “too passionate” or “too aggressive”, judges notice. And they don’t like it. Debating as a girl is a double edged sword: if you’re too aggressive, your behavior comes off as rude and uncivil; if you’re not aggressive enough, you’re not taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this injustice extends further than the measurement of skill and delivery. Some judges prefer to use the limited space provided on ballots to comment on the way I look, rather than my ability. And I’m not the only one. Here are some comments that judges have said or written in response to either my round or to a round of another female debater.

“You should wear a skirt next time, instead of pants”

“Your skirt is pretty short”

“Your makeup is a little distracting”

“I think you should tie your hair up next time”

“Please wear heels”

Firstly, I find myself quite concerned and unsettled by the idea of middle-aged and older men paying so much attention to my outfit. Not only that, but having the audacity to share these thoughts. But on a more relevant note, notice how some of these comments can also contradict each other. It’s that double edged sword again.

During my novice year of debate, I listened to these comments and applied my judges’ suggestions, rather than questioning them. I was so desperate to please them, given that it’s their opinions that determine my win-loss record. I was convinced that what they thought of me held more weight than what was fair. Now that I’ve gained more experience, I’m far more comfortable with my personal style of debate. But, from time to time, I still catch myself adjusting my presentation to the liking of a judge. Let’s just say I’m still working on it.

And to my fellow female debaters:

I’m sure you’ve always been told to adapt to your judges. Well, maybe the judges should adapt to you.