On bodies and gender, and what Pinki Pramanik teaches us

The story of Pinki Pramanik and her partner can be pieced together like any other story of intimacy gone bad. After all, human beings invariably encounter pain and betrayal in intimate relationships, just as they encounter joy and desire. No relationship is free of power, whether produced by individual personalities or by social structures — patriarchy, the assumption of heterosexuality as natural, caste, class, race. Why then has Pinki’s story become about something else altogether? Because we assume that our bodies are “naturally” male or female.

But would anyone pass a gender test?

(Here’s the rest of this short piece published in Indian Express yesterday).

Last year I had posted The disappearing body and feminist thought on kafila, raising very much the same issues.

21 thoughts on “On bodies and gender, and what Pinki Pramanik teaches us”

  1. Impossible to pass a gender test – but that won’t stop people, including Pinki, from trying to do so. And we all know that the real gender tests don’t happen in medical labs. Today’s Indian Express has a photo of Pinki undergoing precisely such a test – she is stirring a kadai with a ladle, with her mother watching’; caption: Pinki’s mother teaching Pinki to cook.
    What’s the message here? ‘I may be a successful sportswoman and medal-winning athlete with fine muscular limbs – but REALLY I’m a woman, and how better to prove it than by cooking?! Real men don’t cook, we all know THAT!’
    Even as the Pinki story disturbs and destabilises the notion of rigidly bipolar gender identities, there’s the anxious and fierce effort to reinforce that bipolarity. Yes, chromosomes and the body may be fuzzily gendered, but that doesn’t stop us from falling back on the time-honoured ways of gendered social roles…


  2. What may need more interrogation is the definition of rape under the Indian Penal Code, which is premised on the penetration of the penis into the vagina (thus, any penetration by objects, fingers, or other forced sexual interaction is legally not rape). If Pinki does not have the “external genitalia” of a man, but tests positive for being “male”, does she have the ability “penetrate”? This is what differentiates her case from other athletes competing in sex-segregated competition, the question of the act of rape under 376. Few discussions of Pinki have considered how this case opens up an important conversation on how rape law institutionalizes and perpetuates sex binarism (and heterosexual norms of sex).


  3. As usual well argued. But one question: taking your argument, one would have to demand that all sex-segregated sports events should be stopped. Its true be that all men do not run faster than women, but in athletics there is generally a significant difference between the record timings of men and women. So until sex-segregation in sports is removed, this question of deciding upon the sex of an athlete would continue to be relevant.


    1. Santhi or Pinki are, unquestionably, athletes. Athletics is their life and their identity. Gender tests cannot be used to take away sport from them and humiliate them. And that’s what’s happening – because they are humiliated and told they can’t compete as women, but are not allowed to compete as men either! They are not imposters and cannot be treated as such. If these are people who have been brought up as, and lived their life as, women, then we must respect and accept that they are women.


    2. Navin, the point about the difference between record timings of men and women is a red herring, I think in this case. It would be more revealing to compare the timings of all participants in a men’s event with the timings of all participants in a women’s event, including taking into account the fact that there would be no Indian or South Asian men say, who even qualified in the heats. Wouldn’t we find that the timings of Indian men would be way lower than the timings of all (or most) of the women in the finals of an Olympics event? How would we interpret that fact? Wouldn’t we suddenly then bring into the equation other factors than gender? Training, resources, advantageous physical build of some racial groups etc.?
      I’m suggesting that we need to look at sports and its history with a more analytical eye – when and how do game like tennis, hockey and football become tests of strength rather than skill, the shift to astroturf that pushed out all but advanced capitalist countries from the top of some sports, and so on.
      Sports is SO not a level playing field!


      1. Very interesting debate, but i am not sure if all of us over here, including me, have understood the issue. I am not sure if it can be made just about how one chooses to be identified as. One may have chosen to identify with male/female gender because modern society did not have any scope for queer. Ask Pinki if she runs for comparing with ALL other athletes or if she runs to stand first among the women athletes. What about other women who are running with Pinki? What do they want? What about their identity? This could be time and space for the queer in sport. We cannot rubbish science in the name of social OR vice versa. Science establishes/ dis- establishes and provides for facts. Science is also open to new hypothesis and challenges to facts that have been established. The chromosomal variations and external genitalia learning surely must be taken into account.
        One cannot discount that estrogen and testosterone and androgen’s have a role in muscle building and stamina! Social sciences have established differences in female/ queer/ male.
        So, Navins question is not so easily challenged without examining factors for segregation of male/ female events in the first place.
        Agree with Nivedita that sport is not a level playing field for sure and a debate is valid. But sport will never be a level playing field. That is what competition is all about, isnt it? Africans have a certain advantage as a race. People play different sports in different regions of the world. We have to realize that if we want to run like the Africans or hike like the Europeans it will take some evolution. If over the years tennis became a sport of strength and skill, its because the game evolved as did the sports-persons/ athletes. If Phelps holds a cricket bat today, even if he has a natural suave to play the game, he will take time to compete with a Sachin Tendulkar.


  4. It is not just a question of human relation or gender test. Under the events are some more powerful motive. Criminal perhaps!


  5. While I am in full agreement of the unreliability of any gender “test,” or even the need to have one (if gender is constitutively ambivalent), what still worries me is that we are often drawn to make this argument when queer bodies are on the line–in this case, the body of Pinki–however she may choose to identity herself. Why do we need the example of Pinki to remind us of such foundationally feminist issues? My concern here is that non-normative bodies continue to labour for the hetero-normative centre—it is at their expense that we “learn,” and they are forever designated to do the work of that critical limit-case that alerts us to our critical and political foibles. Surely, there has to be some other argument to be made here.


    1. Anjali, I dont understand your worry. You may have noted that almost anybody who wrote about the fluidity of gendered bodies after Pinki hit the headlines recently, has written about the tyranny of heteronormativity for years now. it’s just that when someone like Pinki enters mainstream consciousness, that gives us all a renewed opportunity to point out that it is not Pinki who is “abnormal”, but that there is nobody who is “normal”. In that way we not only express solidarity with Pinki, but we also are able to (hopefully) shake some smug assumptions about normalcy as such. We dont “need the example of Pinki” to make these arguments, but we certainly do need to make them again and more strongly in the thick of political battle, and especially when an actual person is being discriminated against on the grounds of an assumed normalcy she does not possess.
      I think you also underestimate how queer interventions in the public domain in India have gradually changed common sense over the last couple of decades even in the media, so that Pinki got immediate support not only from queer groups and voices, but across a much broader social and political base. Most of us who wrote for the “big media” on this occasion, did so because we were invited to do so, because clearly there are people inside who wanted these arguments to be reasserted in the mainstream.


      1. There seem to be two aspects to this debate, the first of which is a red herring, I think.

        Many factors are at work shaping our lives, including in the world of competitive sports. All are equally ‘broad’, all are open to question and can be potentially destabilising, whether it be wealth, age, technology, race, gender, caste, etc. etc. It is in the interaction of all of these that, among other things, some people become high performing athletes and most of us don’t, and,further, that the world of sports changes.

        The debate thrown up by efforts at gender testing have to do with a factor like gender-sex where both its biological and social dimensions have been the subject of questioning, by science, by feminism, by queer studies, and in popular discourses for quite some time. The question for me is whether and how biology can have meaningful (variable not iron-clad) effects, even when no clear codes are available. It is absolutely not necessary for ‘all men to be faster than all women’ for biology to be playing some role, partially and always in complex connection with the social, and, of course, with myriad other dimensions.

        My surprise was therefore simply that I thought its role was much smaller.


  6. “If these are people who have been brought up as, and lived their life as, women, then we must respect and accept that they are women”. Kavita, though I agree with most of what you have said, I must say that it is the fact that they both identify as women irrespective of what gender they were socialised as, that should make us accept and respect them as women. What we are biologically doesn’t matter, what our perceived gender is doesn’t matter, what we have been socialised to be, doesn’t matter, what the gender tests say doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you identify as and would like to be seen as, by the rest of us.


  7. And here’s Santhi Soundarajan, Asian Games silver medalist disqualified and stripped of her medal for “failing” a “gender test”, working at a brick kiln on women’s wages! (Congratulations to the writer V Narayan Swami for drawing our attention to this irony).
    Santhi’s not woman enough for competitive sports, but all too woman when it comes to being paid for her labour. Because despite the Equal Remuneration Act (1976), women are routinely paid lower wages than men for the same work. One of the ways in which contractors/employers get away with this legally, is by segregating men and women into different parts of the labour process, and then paying less for the work that women do, claiming they are not paying “women” less than men, it’s just the “work” they do that is lower paid, even though the work would be no less physically strenuous and/or skilled than the work given to men.
    At the very least, in this scenario, shouldn’t Santhi’s “maleness” that gives her a supposed advantage over women on the sports field, be to her advantage in the field of labour too? Apparently not.


  8. I completely agree with Anjali that it is non-normative bodies that are invariably on the line when it comes to defining gender.

    At the same time, I do not agree that differences in performance within the world of sports are a ‘red herring’ as Nivedita suggests. This is precisely why we do have a problem here.

    Not wanting to go by vague memory when it comes to differences in the timings of “men” and “women” who participate in the 100 metres race, I did a little checking with Wikipedia on “facts”. The difference between the records of men and women are around 1 second, with Usain Bolt at 9.6 and Joyner-Keyes at 10.59 (which is a 1988 record, with little signs of being broken in the near future, and is under a cloud.) Differences between runners are of the order of one-hundreth of a second when it comes to silver and bronze. Even more interesting (and I have to admit that i was taken aback by this one) our Indian record for men stands at 10.30 seconds. So this means that if the fastest woman on earth were to come to our country, (one with close to the lowest records anywhere) — to compete in a genderless world — she would lose. (And, vice versa, our men would beat all women at the Olympics!)
    In such a world, women would simply no longer compete. Of course there are plenty of factors that go into the unequal playing field of sports, but gender continues to be one of them, and to a degree that surprised me.

    Isn’t it remarkable then, that gender/sex cannot be and should not be defined, and yet its exclusionary effects in terms of secondary sexual characteristics, namely musculature, continues to live on?


    1. Mary, Wikipedia is available to anybody with a ‘vague memory’, even to me :) I did find these records for the 100 meters too. My point is that records are a red herring, not “performance in sports”, as you decided to read me. If gender is a kind of continuum, it is quite possible that at two ends cluster qualities that are more “male” and more “female”. That’s why I was not all “taken aback” to find as you did, that the Indian men’s record is higher than the the international women’s. I did wonder whether the field and wind conditions were comparable but anyway, it does not affect my argument.
      I was looking for the timings of all competitors over an event, which I was unable to find with a quick click, but which I’m sure are available. I’d be interested in the timings in heats, for example. My point is that not all men are faster than all women. And my broader point is about the need to rethink competitive sports, its parameters, the ways in which it advantages some natural advantages and not others, and the ways in which technological interventions into the conditions of playing sport add advantages for people from wealthier societies.
      When we see that women rarely become Chess Grandmasters, we do not assume their brains are less effective than men’s. We ask a series of other questions. Why are we not asking those questions for physical competitions?
      This is why ultimately no amount of statistical information about actual records in an already unequally structured world really ‘proves’ or ‘disproves’ the fact that it is social and not biological difference that we are dealing with.
      I wrote earlier about some interesting and startling gender-related stories from the world of sports, and this rethinking about gender divisions on the sports field is a growing tendency in feminist thinking. Nobody is saying gender does not matter in the real world, we’re asking if it’s biologically coded clearly into every human body that it is clearly and unmistakably male or female, and whether these differences ensure that every male body is stronger/faster than every female body.
      Eventually, I’m suggesting that we need to ask radically more destabilizing questions about every aspect of this world in which we live, than be limited by the seemingly iron-clad ‘realities’ it offers us.


  9. Hitakshi,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Interesting to think of introducing the idea of ‘queer’ in sport, but personally, I would wish for the ‘queer’ to quite literally ‘queer the pitch’ for sport in such a way that queer does not become a third category, but is able to destabilize the idea that there are clearly discernible men and women in the first place.
    Some of your other assertions seem to be only common-sense, but it is “common sense” that feminist historians and philosophers of science have been disproving for decades; e.g. you say “Science establishes/ dis- establishes and provides for facts.” This is not the place for a long disquisition on the issue, but take a look at the book Feminism and Science edited by Keller and Longino that brings together some classic essays. A recent book is The Poetics of DNA by Judith Roof. And quite an old book Strategies of Being Female by Shaw and Darling look at the “animal kingdom” to demonstrate how patriarchal and sexist assumptions carried by male (and often female) scientists shape “facts” about the world of nature.
    Again, you say “One cannot discount that estrogen and testosterone and androgen’s have a role in muscle building and stamina”. Yes, but the point is precisely that estrogen and testosterone are not carried solely by female and male bodies respectively. Hormones are notoriously slippery, and both kinds circulate in all bodies. But instead of recognizing this, we find breast reduction surgeries for men and breast enhancing surgeries for women, and other ways in which the myth can be sustained that only female bodies carry estrogen and only male bodies testosterone, and all variaations are treated as diseases to be “cured” surgically or chemically. (Take a look at Nelly Oudshoorn’s book, The Archaeology of Sex Hormones).
    It’s interesting you should bring up Michael Phelps, because he is thought to have a “medical condition” called Marfan’s Syndrome which makes his body proportions (longer arms etc) better equipped to swim faster than “normal” people! Talk of a natural disadvantage that is an advantage in sports! And your reference to Africans as having advantages “as a race” should make us wonder why it is almost entirely African Americans who reap the benefit of that advantage and not Africans from Africa.

    Finally, take a look at these two articles opposing gender testing in sport (in the Olympics) precisely on grounds that may be termed “scientific”:

    Tale of two runners exposes flawed Olympic thinking

    Rip up new Olympic sex test rules


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