Scroll Top


photo of activist Dr. Payoshini Mitra. She wears glasses and long hair, and is wearing a black sweater with an orange-and-black patterned scarf

Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a researcher, activist and writer working on gender issues in sport in India with special emphasis on intersexuality and sport. Currently she has been nominated the Mediator by SAI in the case of Dutee Chand, an athlete who has been unceremoniously dropped from the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games for hyperandrogenism.

TARSHI: Could you tell us about your experience working as a Researcher & Activist in the area of Gender Issues in Sports.

Payoshni Mitra: I was a badminton player myself and was a keen follower of other sports too. When I decided to pursue a PhD in Gender issues in Sports, I was inspired by my own experience of dealing with an abusive coach as a young athlete. As a feminist, I realized how severely sexist the sports world was. But there was no substantial research on gender and sports issues in India. To advocate for gender equality in sports, it was necessary to first understand the scenario. The activism around issues of intersexuality and sports began after I started working with Santhi Soundarajan in 2010. Pinki Pramanik’s case brought the issue to the forefront. We have all noticed deep conservativeness and a complete disregard of the possibility of multiplicity of bodies. In India, athletes’ rights are often violated and no action is taken. Most of our athletes come from very ordinary backgrounds, with very little awareness about their rights and entitlements. This is never addressed. On the other hand, federation officials, coaches and other stakeholders take advantage of this situation. This needs to be changed.

T: Could you tell us a little bit about the ‘hyperandrogenism policy’, which is equally discriminatory as the gender testing procedure?

PM: The International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations‘s policies on hyperandrogenism suggest that female athletes who naturally produce androgen in the male range and do not have androgen resistance are not eligible to run and can compete in the women’s events only after their hyperandrogenism is ‘treated’ or their androgen level is lowered to a certain level in order to ensure a level playing field for all female athletes. Such treatment will include hormone therapy and in some cases even gonadectomy. Using the same logic, the IOC and the IAAF should provide a level playing field to male athletes like Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay and therefore should either ban Usain Bolt from competing, or recommend that he will only be eligible to play when he cuts his legs off a few inches so that he does not have any unfair advantage on the basis of his height or long strides!

Now we must understand that these surgeries (like gonadectomy) are invasive, irreversible and often harmful to the athlete. Also, ethically, how can one subject someone to surgery for participation in sports? This policy is discriminatory. It attempts to single out female athletes who do not look feminine. The earlier gender verification tests used to tell us if someone was a woman, this one tries to tell us if someone is ‘ woman enough’. Where is the difference?

T:How do complaints against specific female athletes get lodged?

PM: The international sports bodies like IAAF have advised national sports bodies to ensure any cases of hyperandrogenism are dealt with nationally before sending athletes to international tournaments. In India, they have suggested having nodal officers to deal with it. But we have not sensitized these officers which leads to the repeated use of the term ‘gender verification’, or lack of concern for confidentiality or no importance given to obtaining ‘informed consent’ of the athlete. Also, co-athletes can raise concerns which is highly problematic, as they may have other unfair motivations in a competitive world.

T: In the absence of clear understanding of gender identities, what challenges do intersex and transgender players usually face with respect to their gender identity?

PM:There is an overall insensitivity towards difference. We laugh at someone who is taller than usual, bigger than the average and we laugh at those who are gender variant. This is reflected in the sports field too. Even if co-players are more understanding, the authorities are not. And the insensitivity of international sports bodies along with its impact on rules and regulations they come up with add to the struggle of transgender athletes or female athletes with intersex variations. They have to face day-to-day discrimination and also discrimination at a higher level, which is institutionalized discrimination.

T: Could you tell us something about the intersectionalities between intersexuality and sports?

PM:We have very little information about intersexuality because there has been little research on the subject. But if we keep reiterating that ‘Sports is for all’ then why try and exclude female athletes born with some intersex variation? The same people who at some point believed that women should not plan ‘manly’ sports make these rules. It is only recently that the Olympics included women’s boxing. The same men decide that to maintain a gap in men’s and women’s performance, there must be surveillance. You must understand where this anxiety comes from. They fear, ‘What if a woman starts physically challenging men?’

T: Could you tell us about your experience working with doctors?

PM: All I can say is that doctors tend to think that intersex issues are  medical issues. I will call it a social issue. Unfortunately, our officials tend to see it as a medical issue too. And then there is the tendency to follow what is thrust upon you as science without questioning it. Medical ethics are not often followed. Rights are violated. But we hardly make our doctors and scientists accountable.

T: You were quoted saying, “So what they believe and promote is that it is more painful to live as a man who is not man enough rather than being a woman who is not woman enough. This is why I strongly believe that intersex issues are a feminist issue.” Could you elaborate on this please?

PM: I was talking about the politics of sex assignment at birth. It is reported that in case of ambiguity, medical practitioners all over the world tend to assign female sex at birth. A genital tubercle smaller than 2cm or a urethral opening that will not allow a ‘boy’ to pee in a standing position are considered. Doctors say that it is more likely that a child born with ambiguity is assigned female sex because a girl child is more likely to grow up in a protected way, so hiding her so-called ‘inadequacy’ will be easier than in case of boys. The other reason cited is that in case of surgery, it is easier to cut things off than to add them, therefore the choice of female sex. Cheryl Chase, an intersex activist, was once quoted saying that female pain is not considered as deep as a male pain of ‘inadequacy’. Therefore, what the medical practitioners are doing here is precisely that: they are saying for a boy to grow up with a smaller penis, or a urethral opening attached to his body is harder than a girl growing up with a sense of ‘inadequacy’. This is why I call it a feminist issue. While I believe, no matter what body you have, you should be proud to have that, I understand the sexism and conservatism at play in the background when doctors assign sex to a child born with an intersex variation.

T: Do you think there is a possibility of the sports system in India being more inclusive of people from all genders by working on a standard system of analysing everyone’s performance/abilities in the future? If yes, how? Or why not?

PM: I definitely think we can be more inclusive and understanding. Officials and other staff tend to continue working as they did traditionally. We need to update our knowledge and be more open to diversity. Most importantly we need to think and act ethically. I am glad, that in recent times, thanks to some sensitive and forward-thinking officers in the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and in the Sports Authority of India, things seem to be moving in a positive direction.


Dr. Payoshni Mitra seeks support for Dutee Chand:

This post was originally published under this month, it is being republished for the anniversary issue.

Pic Source