Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | A new definition of women is strange but popular

On Wednesday, a respectable body of people that included scientists, defined women. As humans who are deficient in a very useful hormone. And it appears that a majority of women in the world see wisdom in this.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, the highest court for settling disputes in international sports, was looking into a protest by South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, who has an abnormally high level of testosterone for a woman. The International Association of Athletics Federations had deemed this a disqualification from women’s events. The normal female range of testosterone, as indicated by the court, is 0.06 to 1.68 nanomolecules per litre (nm/L) of blood, and the male range is 7.7 to 29.4. The hormone contributes significantly to the strengthening of muscles and the density of bones. Its abundance in men is a crucial factor that makes male athletes perform better than female athletes. This, and the under-appreciated fact that the testicles of a man miraculously hang at different lengths so that they don’t collide when he runs.

Semenya’s defence was that the high level of hormone in her body is a blessing, her genius. But it has been for long an overt and discreet view in the athletic world that a runner with such high levels of testosterone is, very simply, “a man".

Both, those who support the court and those who are enraged by the verdict, have excellent reasons. What the issue brings up is that “balance" and “objectivity" are not virtues, but qualities that are attainable only for people who have no real stake in the matter.

For a majority of women in the world who are “normal", and for a minority who are hyperandrogenous (women whose bodies produce an excessive amount of male sex hormones) there is much at stake. The fight is not over which side is moral, but over which hierarchy of moral values is more humane.

Why couldn’t the court define a woman as a human whose 23rd chromosomal pair is “XX"? After all, didn’t we learn in school that men and women are defined by their pair of sex chromosomes?

Female is “XX" and male is “XY". But that is not the contemporary scientific opinion. “XY" does not conclusively mean “male". There are women with many female biological traits who have “XY". This is how the matter looks today: All men are “XY", but not all “XY" are men. And, all “XX" are women, but not all women are “XX".

For female athletes with “XX" sex chromosomes, the International Association of Athletics Federations places no limit on the testosterone levels in their bodies. If an “XX" woman has as much of it as Usain Bolt, the world’s athletics federations are willing to consider her gifted, rather than a man. But such a person is unheard of. Almost all female athletes with high testosterone are “XY". Semenya, too. And for now, she and others like her will have to reduce their testosterone levels to under 5 nm/L to compete among women. It will slow them down.

Lamenting the decision, ran a headline: Caster Semenya Is Being Forced To Alter Her Body To Make Slower Runners Feel Secure In Their Womanhood.

When people have little to lose, as in a dinner conversation about transgenders, they are willing to accept esoteric notions such as “gender is a spectrum". They are willing to attack feminists like Germaine Greer, who said that being a woman is an innate condition and a man cannot simply perform a surgery on himself and become a woman just because he imagines he is one. But sports have succeeded where Greer’s feminism has failed.

From my conversations, and from what is emanating in the media, it appears that many women support the feminization of testosterone levels in athletes, and for practical reasons. The very idea of a separate category for women is lost if the hyperandrogenous are going to take over the field.

For young girls to be drawn to sports that require them to invest and sacrifice much, they need role models. And girls are more influenced by women than by men. This is the central logic in professional chess, which has separate tournaments for women. Some pious men find it insulting to women that there must be separate categories based on gender in a sport that requires no brawn, but anyone who has a daughter will know it is wise. If you have tried to teach your daughter football, cricket or chess, you will quickly realize that the primary odds they face is the scarcity of role-models.

In a world that is striving to be fair and just, more and more hyperandrogenous athletes are able to pursue sports. In the future, if they are left to their innate gifts, they might become the face of women’s sports. The fact is, sports constitute a highly visible and glorious representation of women, and they don’t wish to be represented by men, or maleness. Or by a certain sexual ambiguity.

But this is not a uniform view. Semenya, for instance, is deeply admired in her country as a woman. So is Dutee Chand, the Indian athlete who had a similar problem and, in fact, started the whole dispute.

Some people have suggested that there be a third category in sporting events: For those who cannot be assuredly considered women. But this will not only diminish the top hyperandrogenous athletes, whose art might be relegated to a fringe, freak show, it would also destroy the prestige of women’s events, which could end up downgraded to a third tier.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Recommended For You

Edit Profile
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout