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Male, female and the third option
There is very little understanding in India of issues related to intersexuality. We refuse to accept any exception to the male-female binary.
When I first thought of writing about Pinki Pramanik, I was angry at the way the local, the national and even the international media was dealing with the issue. Two days into the controversy, I was infuriated to see a photo published in a UK daily where Pramanik was seen being escorted by a policeman whose right hand was groping her right breast. Legally, until proved otherwise, Pramanik should still be considered a woman and treated accordingly. Infuriated by this gross violation of human rights, I, otherwise a reluctant Facebook-user, decided to post my comments with the photo on the social networking site, packed my bags and flew to Kolkata.
As a feminist, a researcher on gender and sports, an advocate of gender equality in sports, I understand that it is too early to take sides in this case - either that of the woman who complained against Pramanik or the athlete herself - unless some conclusive evidence is found. But I also strongly believe that it is important that both parties receive a fair trial.
I spent an entire day travelling from Dum Dum Central Correctional Home to Barasat District Hospital to other important government offices and courts speaking to police officials, public servants, doctors and journalists.
The frenzy of the media, the ultraprotectiveness of the police, the attitude of the medical staff at the Barasat District Hospital, and the comments of the medical board after Pramanik appeared before them, were all, to say the least, examples of how incompetent the establishment is in addressing issues like these.
The root of the problem lies in oversimplification and in an inability to understand the nuances of the issue at hand. The argument put forward by a large section of the media is too onedimensional. The popular interpretation of the first medical test results publicly announced by Dr Subrata Mukherjee of Uma Nursing Home, confirming Pinki to be male, also seemed to suggest that the athlete is cheating the system by posing as a female. On the one hand, Pinki has to prove whether she is 'male' or 'female' and on the other, whether she is a 'cheater' or a 'true champion'. Last on the priority list of most comes the question of whether she has committed a crime or not.
The bio-centric male/female model of sport (endorsed by the sports governing bodies including the IOC and the IAAF and further reinforced by the 'gender-verification' test) is severely exclusionary in approach.
Sex tests have become an awkward model for detecting what is medically called 'Disorder of Sex Development', as is noticed in the case of Caster Semenya or Santhi Soundarajan. The current frenzy around Pinki Pramanik's case, frequently referred to as 'bizarre' or 'curious', exposes the general lack of knowledge about certain possibilities that may push the comfortable limits of debates surrounding these issues towards a more nuanced understanding of the divergences of sex development. There is an inadequacy in understanding inter-sexuality, an unwillingness to rethink the male-female binary.
Intersex generally refers to variations in genital anatomy, but not all such conditions involve ambiguous genitalia. Some people have typical external genitals but the internal anatomy of the other sex. One of the main targets of the Intersex Rights Movement in the West has been the medical community.
Intersex management, gender assignment and surgery were based on John Money's finding for more than four decades since the 1950s. Money recommended that sex assignment and required surgery should be conducted as early in life as possible, as his experiments suggested that sexual behaviour and orientation as male or female does not have an innate instinctive basis.
However, in 1974, an endocrinologist, Julianne Imperato-Mcginley, and her associates concluded that gender identity is not unalterably fixed in childhood but that it continually evolves.
While working on sport and intersexuality, I have realised that the problem lies with the medical management of intersexuality. Doctors assign sex to a new born on the basis of the child's genitalia or more specifically the size of the genital tubercle. Doctors I have interviewed in India have admitted this and medical literature implies that it is preferable to assign female sex in case of ambiguity because it is surgically easier to create a female genitalia rather than a male one. Many such persons grow up to realise that they have a different biologic sex.
In India, the problem also lies with the law. It strictly defines a man as a 'male human being of any age' and a woman as a 'female human being of any age', with no mention of a third option. Also, the perpetrator of rape, according to the Indian law, has to be a man and the victim a woman.
It is a change in the way intersexuality is managed by the medical community or the inadequacy of our law that we need to address. And amidst many negatives, this particular case of Pinki Pramanik may lead us towards those discussions in favour of a more tolerant society, a more sensitive medical community and a more inclusive law.
The writer is an independent researcher on gender & sport issues. Her documentary on the story of Santhi Soundarajan is called 'Y can't I run?'
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