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The changing navigation of female identity


Correspondent NILANJANA BHOWMICK -WNN Features

Male / Female symbols for lavatory

What causes us to perceive our identity as male or female?


A U.N. report by Finnish international law professor and United Nations Special Rapporteur, Martin Scheinin, says, “gender is not synonymous with women, and, instead, encompasses the social constructions that underlie how women’s and men’s roles, functions and responsibilities, including in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, are understood.”

The report stresses “gender is not static; it is changeable over time and across contexts.”

Caster Semenya, an 18 year old South African athlete came into prominence last summer when she won a world championship at Berlin. She beat her own personal record and came to the notice of the world track and field federation who requested a biologic sex-verification test August 7. On public allegations that Semenya is a hermaphrodite, what is termed more correctly today as an “intersex person,” she has faced the possibility of losing her medal.

The completed tests, which were not publically released to enable Caster the dignity of privacy, probably prove a much more common than realized outcome. Semenya may indeed be intersex with internal organs that are causing her features to become more masculinised. But this doesn’t mean she is not a woman. It certainly doesn’t matter to her fans back home or to South Africa’s governing African National Congress, which called for an annulment of the results if Semenya’s recognition and medal was placed in danger due to the test.

In November the IAAF – International Association of Athletics Federations decision announced that Caster Semenya would keep her medal and her prize money, but failed to say whether she would be allowed to continue.

“God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself,” said Caster in an interview with Cape Town’s You Magazine last September.

Sexual identity in society based on gender recognition has caused much suffering for those who are intersex. Discrimination, harassment, and ongoing misunderstanding of the condition is part of the problem. Semenya clearly identifies herself as female as the public outside of South Africa continues to unfairly question her reality.

“Sporting activities can be an important forum for providing information to women and girls on sexuality and health, including reproductive health. Girls’ participation in sport can generate a greater awareness and understanding of their bodies and its functions, as well as a greater sense of self-ownership and respect,” says a December 2007 report by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women.

“Self-ownership and respect” are important issues for those who have naturally and innocently been born with an intersex body that might not easily fit the “normal” range of male or female identity. The issues often cause the public to falsely accuse intersex people of “deceiving the public” in order to gain some kind of gender advantage.

Not all intersex women know they are biologically different. Some function without notice in society. Others hide the condition of their human biology in silence feeling something inside them is indeed different.

The attitudes on gender within society, especially for women, is one that places many restrictions on women to conform.

While South Africa rallied behind Semenya, as she received a heroine’s welcome back from Berlin, India athlete Shanthi Soundarajan, who had undergone the same fate, still struggles to cope with her fall from grace in 2006. Semenya’s story has brought the spotlight back on this reclusive India athlete, who was once hailed as a prodigy.

Bursting onto the international athletic scene with a silver medal at the Asian Championships in South Korea in 2005, Soundarajan followed her win with a silver medal in the 800 meter race during the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar in 2006. But shortly after winning the medal in Doha, she was asked to undergo a sex-determination test, which she failed.

Following a failed test, Soundarajan was completely stripped of her medal. Biologically she was considered “a man,” but she was, and is, a woman. Soundarajan was later diagnosed with AIS or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. AIS is a genetic condition where XY (male) chromosomes are present in the fetus as it forms in the womb, but masculinising characteristics and organs are often non existent, malformed or replaced with female organs. It is still a mystery how Shanthi had passed the original gender tests for the AFI – The Athletes Federation of India in South Korea. When contacted the AFI declined to comment.

A year following, after the gruelling and humiliating public process that exposed Soundarajan as an intersex person, Shanthi was admitted, in 2007, to the Intensive Care Unit of the Government Hospital in Thanjavur with an alleged suicide attempt.

Shanthi, is tall, lanky and dark. Some of her physical features are considered, in India, not to be feminine, but masculine. She has a high forehead with slightly jutting eye brows and striking high cheekbones. Undergoing a lengthy invasive and “too harsh” critical eye in the public, Shanthi has now come back from her life of public scrutiny. She heads a private sports academy helping children and is a contract coach for the SDAT – Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu.

Shanthi Soundarajan

Indian athlete, Shanthi Soundarajan

Despite her comeback and positions, Shanthi’s current life is still a challenge. “I do not earn much from the academy as I do not take money from the children I train,” she said. “I subsist on my salary from the SDAT. I get Rs5000 (only around $100 USD) a month.” Her academy started in 2007 from a Tamil Nadu government grant that enabled her to train talented children in sports who come from homes in the region that are racked with poverty.

Like Caster Semenya, Shanthi Soundarajan grew up extremely poor. As the daughter of Indian brick kiln laborers from the Tamil Nadu village of Kathakurichi, she rose to fame with incredible discipline and talent as a runner. Because her family had little resources, Shanthi grew up in a household suffering from so much poverty that quality food was scarce. It was only as late as 2004 when, according to her coach P. Nagarajan, “Shanthi finally began to get an adequate diet.”

“There was a lot of jealousy against me,” said Soundarajan explaining how she felt targeted because she was such a good runner. “I heard that a teammate of mine had actually complained about my sexuality to the authorities.”

Unfortunately for Shanthi Soundarajan there is very little public awareness about AIS or intersex conditions. The prejudice in India against females who have sex-ambiguity is ongoing and immense.

Soundarajan, who is closely following Semenya’s case said about her own life, “I had no support… but I didn’t give up. I couldn’t live my dream, but I am sprouting dreams in many young hearts now.” Like many other intersex women Shanthi says proudly, “I know I am a woman. I have lived my entire life as a woman. I do not need a gender test to tell me who I am.”

Women competed for the first time in the international olympics in 1900 in Paris at the Games of the II Olympiad. The first competition was in croquet. The first female champion was Charlotte Cooper, of Great Brition, who won for her outstanding performance in tennis.

In 1966, sex-determination tests conducted by IAFF – International Amateur Athletics Association caused some women to undergo numerous humiliating nude examinations. Some exams included requiring women athletes under testing to parade nude before a panel of doctors and to be submitted to numerous humiliating invasive gynaecological exams. At the time, the IOC – International Olympic Committee followed this policy.

In recent days, some opportunities for the IOC to conduct sex-determination tests have been placed on hold. In January 2010, the IOC will hold a conference, “to look at gender issues and advise sports bodies how to respond” to intersex and other sex-determination issues among female and male athletes.

In South Africa, meanwhile after returning home from her ordeal, 18 year old, Caster Semenya was too upset and “mentally tired” to sit for her University examinations. She also failed to show for a scheduled race releasing a statement that she, “wasn’t feeling well.”

“She is mentally tired,” Semenya’s coach, Michael Seme, told AFP news in August.

In contrast to Soundarajan, Semenya was accepted back at her village in Masehlong, South Africa as a hero. Local crowds thronged to see the athlete, smiling and praising her talent. During the celebration, one of her uncles told the Telegraph, “God knows who she is and how she has been brought up… Whatever people are saying we are not going to listen to it, we will trust in God, we have got Caster and she is a heroine.”

“We are disgusted that these things are being said and everybody has questioned her gender. We don’t know what informed their thinking, but we are not overly concerned because we know her as a girl,” added Marles Photo, a citizen from Masehlong.

“People want to stare at me now. They want to touch me. I’m supposed to be famous but I don’t think I like it so much,” Semenya told The Guardian News after she returned home.

Intersex conditions are now considered a common phenomenon in South Africa. A report in The Star, says that medical specialists who deal with the condition have been attending to patients with symptoms of intersex every 4-6 weeks. Dr. David Segal, a pediatric endocrinologist at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, points out that South Africa has a greater incidence of intersex conditions than anywhere else in the world.

“There are a whole bunch of cases with boys where they are referred to surgeons and neurologists instead of to endocrinologists. This is not the most appropriate decision as the endocrinologist should do the initial diagnosis, planning and counseling,” said Dr. Segal. In the past six years, the doctor has attended more than 100 cases involving intersex conditions.

The term “hermaphrodite” is a misnomer. Full male and female anatomy together in one human body does not exist anywhere today in the human spectrum. Instead, endless variations of anatomy, hormonal and chromosomal signatures along with partial or differently formed organs, that may or may not be external, is the reality. According to the Intersex Society of North America, the percentage of intersex people is approx one out of every 1,000 to 2,000 persons.

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