Oh Woman! Tell Me, Are You A Woman?
By Nisha Biswas
19 August, 2012
( The experience of Pinky Pramanik forces us to think the notion of sexual identity. )
Life of a woman, since the time of her birth, identified as one on the basis of absence of a penis, is a story of struggle, irrespective of the cast, class or country to which she belongs. She is required to prove her womanhood, has to follow the pattern that society sets for her, while she aspires for an identity other than being the daughter, wife or mother of someone in the big man's world. This happens at home as well as in the profession that she chose for herself. The challenge becomes more stringent if she excels in her selected field of work. Arena of sports, being highly segregated and competitive, has many examples. First, let me narrate few prominent stories where being a woman, the athlete had to suffer severe indignity.
STORY OF YE SHIEWEN
Sixteen years old Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiewen's story is the latest. The moment she won gold in 400m swimming in London Olympics by the worlds best 4:28.43sec along with the fastest into the final 50m, which was 0.11sec, quicker than the existing fastest man, Ryan Lochte, her performance is continuously questioned. She was blamed of doping, even after she did clear the test and has also won gold in 200m swimming in the same Olympics. She is still not out of suspicion. Not so common sizes of her hands and feet have been her added advantage, along with the rigorous, infamous that China imparts to its athletes. Her performance is questioned to the extent that the London based ‘Nature', a prestigious academic journal, too got involved into this controversy. ‘Nature' would not have done such a foolish thing if instead of Ye the performer had been a man. The legendry performance of Michael Phelps in the same sports, whose peculiar body proportion, enabled him to cut through water more easily is never questioned. Phelps is celebrated and Ye is vilified. Good thing is that Yi is competing in the age when gender verification tests in Olympics are abolished; otherwise she probably had to go through much more harassment and abuses.
BIZARRE TALE OF HELEN STEPHENS
The story of Helen Stephens is a perfect example of truth can be stranger than fiction . In 1936 Olympics held in Berlin , Helen defeated that time fastest Polish woman sprinter Stella Walsh. A Polish Journalist protested and a ‘sex test' was performed on her, where she was found to be a woman. Walsh later shifted to America and was killed on 4 th Dec 1980 in an armed robbery in Cleveland . Autopsy revealed that Stella Walsh, who ran slower than Helen, had been a man.
M ISTAKEN GENDER OF DORA RATJEN
Dora Ratjen, German athlete, competing in 1936 Olympics in high jump and came fourth. In 1938 she set a world record at the European Championship. A few months later, while Dora was travelling in an express train from Vienna to Cologne , the conductor of the train reported to the police that there was ‘a man dressed as a woman'. A physician examined her and pronounced her ‘a male', describing her genital as having ‘a coarse scarred stripe from the tip of the penis to the rear' and opined that with this organ sexual intercourse would be impossible. High degree of hypospadias on a micro penis plus cryptorchidism, might have given the impression of Vulva with a long clitoris at birth and the error might have continued. Dora was arrested and fraud could not be established in the criminal proceedings. Dora promised to the authorities that she would ‘cease engaging in sports with immediate effect' and returned the medal. Dora's father, who initially insisted of her continuing living as a woman, later changed her mane to Heinrich Rajten after changing her sex in her birth records. Heinrich called himself Heinz and took over running of his parent's bar and refused requests for interview till death.
STORY OF NEGLECT OF SANTHI SOUNDARARAJAN
Life of sprinter Santhi Saundarajan, daughter of a brick kiln laborer, winner of silver medal in 800n race at 2006 Asian Games at Doha , is a life of extreme neglect and apathy. Soon after winning the medal Santhi was subjected to gender test and failed. On whose insistence the test was performed on Santhi remains a mystery, as sex tests are not mandatory in Asian Games and could be carried out only if officials want it or a rival team protests. Same Santhi cleared the same test a year before at the Asian Field and Track Championship in South Korea , where she won the same silver medal in the same 800m race. Santhi still holds the national record for women's 3000m-steeple chase clocking 10:45.65sec. A week after the test, Santhi was stripped of her medal.
Unable to bear the agony, betrayal and social stigma, Santhi attempted Suicide a year later. Athletic Association shunned her. 15lakh rupees that was awarded to her by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister were spent on her brothers education and on the training academy that she started for under-privileged children in her village. Academy brought up positive results, but the cost of running such place was too much for her and was shut down in two years. Tamil Nadu's Sports Developmental Authority appointed her, as a coach for a brief period and the contract was never renewed despite her repeated pleas. Now she is working in a brick kiln with her parents on a daily wage of 200 rupees with a bonus of persistent burning and pain in her hands due to peeled-off skin and boils all over.
In this connection story of South African sprinter Castor Semenya is of great importance and of inspiration. Castor won gold in 800m race at 2009 world Championship and had to undergo sex test. The report was never made public. She retained her medal and after few initial hiccups, Semenya was back to tracks. Semenya carried her countries flag during the opening ceremony of London Olympics and has won a silver in 800m race in the same Olympic.
ORDEALS OF PINKY PRAMANIK
Gold and silver medalist of Asian Games and Common Wealth Games, respectively, both held in 2006, Pinky would have liked to be known as an athlete who has brought glory to her country, is now known for a bizarre set of events. Her story is like any other story of intimacy gone badly. Along with joy and desire, intimate relationships also encounter pain and betrayal. Her story took a twist as her partner claimed that pinky is an imposter and is actually ‘a man' who has tried to rape her.
Pinky had to go through a series of medical tests, whereas her partner was not medically examined, who in course of time kept changing her name and complaint. Firstly, Pinky was taken to a private nursing home, which claimed that she is ‘a male' and the MMS of this test went in circulation. Pinky was arrested and had to go a series of tests. Pinky was housed in a male-cell in prison and was guarded by male police. She was escorted by policemen who manhandled her, forgetting the basic principles of jurisprudence that unless proved no one is guilty. Instead of being treated with respect that she owe as a great women athlete, her dignity was ripped while the State remained a mute spectator, even though she claimed to be a female who has lived, competed and identified herself as a woman. The final gender test results, as reported in media, say that Pinky has XY chromosome and that she has ‘female genital ducts and female external genitalia'. What can one make out of this conclusive report that terms Pinky being ‘male' due to XY chromosome but has female genital duct and external genitalia?
With this report the case of rape against Pinky should have been dismissed and a criminal case against the complainant should have been initiated for making false complaint, misleading the investigation and causing immense suffering to a national pride. But this did not happen. Today Pinky is out on bail, and has to continuously prove of her being a woman. She has to pose in kitchen, has her father to accompany her and is presently not riding the bike, ride she enjoys so much.
SEX AND GENDER
Sex is a biological construction, whereas gender is a sociological construction. Sex is decided at the time of birth on the basis of presence or absence of penis. Whereas, gender refers to the economic, social and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female at a particular instance of time. Science tells us that gene, hormone and genital determine the sex of a human being. Biological construction and its complexities are narrowed down to the extent that female have XX chromosome and male have XY chromosome; female have abundance of estrogen hormone and male has abundance of androgen or testosterone; female has internal genital and that the male has external.
Human cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes (22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes), giving a total of 46 per cell. XX is female and XY is male sex chromosome. But chromosome, quite often exhibit other patterns such as XO (female with only one X chromosome), XXY, XYY, XXX or a ‘mosaic condition', where different cells in a body has different sex chromosome. That is why Olympic games abolished gender verification tests, after it was shown that ‘atypical chromosome variations' are far too many. Another reason to abandon this practice was that it was the performance of only women athletes that was always questioned, with the assumption that men are better, stronger and therefore have better athletic abilities. Physical attributes, level of training and differential natural advantages like height, strength, weight, body structure, etc. are some of the many factors that makes a player win. It is also true that all men do not run faster than all women, all men do not jump higher than all women and that all men are not stronger than all women, then why question woman? It is also not the case that when a competing athlete fails ‘sex test', she is allowed to participate in men's events or take-up profession that is reserved for men. For all purposes, she remains a woman, but is forced to abandon the activity that she loves to perform. In a highly segregated and competitive activity like sports the sex question appears in public domain more frequently than in any other profession and that is why, examples of women athletes and players are given here.
Estrogen hormone is termed as ‘female hormone' as is found in abundance in women and men having abundance of androgen or testosterone hormone and is therefore termed as ‘male hormone'. Since 20 th century hormone distribution is considered to be the root of sex difference. But it does not mean that female do not have testosterone in their body or men do not have estrogen in their bodies. Around 30 percent of men have abundance of female hormone in their body at sometime or other. That is the reason we come across men, mostly around puberty, with nipples and breasts bulging out, which doctors term as ‘super sensitivity to the minuscule amount of circulating female hormone' that has nothing to worry and in extreme cases surgery is recommended. But in the case of women, immediate hormonal therapy is prescribed for disorders like aging of skin, depression, menstrual irregularity, etc. Thus we see that medical science has preferred to portray female, not male, body completely controlled by hormones, which shows a clear nexus between the doctors and multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry. However, the recent biological research has shown that the gendered activity is also responsible for the production of hormone than the other way around. Therefore we find increased level of estrogen in the periods of non-aggression. In the bodies of infants and elderly there is a reduction in androgen, whereas aggressive interlude increases the level of the same.
Presence or absence of penis decides the sex of a new born. However, there are cases where sex organs are ambiguous, i.e., the baby is born with both ovarian and testicular tissues or that penis or clitoris is not fully formed. In such cases, many times surgical intervention is performed on the available tissues to form a satisfactory clitoris or a small penis, depending upon the parent's wishes guided by the culture. Surely living, as a man with small penis, is not a desired preposition, therefore mostly such children live as a female. Thus a baby is made into a female or male but will require hormonal therapy all her/his life to remain in the surgically assigned sex. It is also medically established that such inter-sex people are cable of living a long and healthy life and are even capable of reproduction.
Scientist also tell us that all the above three characteristics that are used to determine sexual identity, i.e., chromosome, hormone and sexual organ are not interlinked. One may have female genital, but not necessarily have female chromosome and hormones. A woman athlete will surely have higher level of ‘male hormones' and the possibility of not having a female chromosome is also not ruled out. Most bodies marked as ‘male' or ‘female' will not pass this ‘gender test'. Only respite is that we are not routinely tested for gender once it is assigned at the time of birth.
Thus we see that we are not clearly bounded male and female bodies with only a few exceptions, which should be term as ‘abnormal' human beings. Gender is constructed by human practices, of which science is one. We are ‘masculine' like Gandhi, whose politics and style had key elements of feminine or are ‘feminine' like Lakshmi Bai, whose politics and style had key elements of ‘masculinity'. Therefore, I being woman cannot prove that I am a woman!
Nisha Biswas, based in Kolkata, is by profession a scientist and is involved in people's movements.
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