by Astha Madan Grover
The world of elite sports is one wherein women of color are discriminated against. The definitions of femininity are restricted to those imposed by the Global North, and women who do not fit the standard of western female physicality are singled out. Caster Semenya, an Olympic athlete who hails from South Africa, identifies as female and was judged to be female at birth; Semenya also has naturally higher testosterone levels and XY chromosomes due to being born with a sex development disorder. She is banned from participating as a woman due to her testosterone levels unless she lowers them with surgery or medication.
Using sex, race, and gender to restrict womanhood
The World Athletics Association is trying to determine if an athlete is ‘feminine’ enough to compete as a woman. The dominant discourse in the sporting community, and society at large, expects women to conform to a specific notion of femininity, which includes a hormonal requirement; these requirements are determined on the basis of what are considered appropriate testosterone levels for men without assessing women’s testosterone requirements independently. This is the standard by which arbitrary gender distinctions are imposed: women are expected to have what men do not. Women of color, especially black women, have experienced masculinization and defeminization by the Global North, thus leading to an implicit bias that contributes to discrimination based on their appearance. The influence of hetero-centrism and ethnocentrism renders the prototypical woman as heterosexual and white. Semenya’s thick limbs, broad shoulders, and strong jaw set her apart from the traditional beauty ideals of femininity in Western Europe and North America and make her more vulnerable to policing by the Association.
Semenya’s case is not the only one in which this bias against women of color athletes can be seen, and this policing is not restricted to hormones but extends to making unnecessary cosmetic alterations as well. An oft-cited study describes how four athletes between 18 to 21 years of age from “rural mountainous regions of developing countries” were flagged at the 2012 Olympics because of hyperandrogenism. They were flagged as they did not look ‘traditionally feminine’ and were tall, slim, muscular, and flat-chested; however, they did not show any male sex behaviour. After a medical evaluation by the IOC, their gonads were surgically removed, and they also underwent completely unnecessary cosmetic treatments like partial removal of the clitoris and ‘feminizing vaginoplasty’ to allow them to compete as women. I argue these examples demonstrate that the world of sport subjugates women of color by using a White Northern European lens to determine the femininity of a Black woman from the Global South.
According to White Northern European standards, women should be curvaceous, wide hipped, long haired and gender conforming. These expectations require women athletes to be strong and powerful without outwardly appearing so. Women’s bodies must be desirable to men, not intimidate them, and hold a working, traditional reproductive system. Contrastingly, Blackness is overwhelmingly gendered masculine. When viewed through this lens, Semenya’s lack of conformity leads to being questioned for not being ‘woman enough.’ Women who don’t appear ‘feminine’ enough, such as Semenya and various other athletes from the Global South, have repeatedly been forced to prove their femininity – starting with invasive, discriminatory, and humiliating strip searches – thus leading to their subjugation.
Misogynistic discrimination under the guise of fairness
World Athletics’ claims that the ‘testosterone ceiling’ rule was put in place to ensure a ‘level playing field for women athletes’. However, the reliability of such tests is doubtful as average testosterone levels are markedly different both between and amongst men and women: levels vary widely depending on the day, time of life, social status, race, and athletic training history. The CAS’s ruling discriminates against people who have bodies that defy stereotypes of womanhood. Based on this criteria, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal condition that can include heightened testosterone affecting up to 20 percent of cisgender women, would be considered men. This is just one example that troubles the ability of hormonal testing to conclusively determine sex. Further, safe-guarding and ensuring fair competition should include testing all participants or none at all.
However, women with seemingly ‘masculine features’ or/and non-heterosexual identities from the Global South are the only ones subject to such testing. In 2015, Dutee Chand convinced Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that elevated testosterone levels increased athletic performance. Despite this, a policy announced by the IAAF in 2018 still applies to runners in three events, all dominated by black women. These rules push young women athletes to make a choice they shouldn’t have to: either accept medically unnecessary interventions with harmful side effects, or give up their future occupational prospects in sports. The IAAF’s policy does not include events dominated by white women in which there is a direct correlation between testosterone levels and performance, such as the high jump and pole vault. No athlete from the Global North has faced such a ban or discrimination. A common pattern in all these cases is the public humiliation and scrutiny of women of color who belong to the Global South. In 2006, India’s Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her silver medal during the Asian Games when she failed the same gender test. Consequently, she attempted suicide. Instead of ‘protecting women’s sport’, all the IAAF has done is demonstrate that their institution cannot protect sexually non-normative women and women of color from systemic prejudice.
Black female athletes have a long history of being masculinized by white men, and men in charge will protect the white women with ‘deemed to be appropriate’ testosterone levels from women of color, especially those who are gender variant. When the excellence of women of color threatens men they will do anything to steal that power, including position themselves as the saviours of ‘equal rights and fairness’ for white women, as seen with the US bathroom segregation laws. It has been argued that these laws were put in place to protect white women from black people, when white women’s fear of contracting venereal diseases from black women resulted in a massive backlash towards the construction of race neutral bathrooms during the civil rights movement. Comparably, non-normative women of color are being discriminated against under the guise of protecting normative, white women from the Global North. Semenya is a queer Black woman from South Africa. Similarly, Dutee Chand an Indian sprinter, is lesbian. I argue these rules are about delegitimizing their excellence which threatens the white men in power, as has been argued in the case of Serena and Venus Williams as well. In a comparable case, where a natural physical difference may be interpreted as contributing to athletic prowess, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was not barred from competing for his various “physical advantages,” arguably since he is a heterosexual white male from a first-world country. Competitors with genetic mutations that cause enhanced oxygen-carrying capacity are not required to reduce their enhanced oxygen carrying capacity. Other women with disorders resulting in ‘higher’ than expected testosterone levels, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, are not required to reduce their ‘biological advantage’. The IAAF’s ‘hormonal prejudice’ is yet another example in a long history of the policing of womanhood from the Global North to the Global South.
Further, there is no such “unfair advantage” rule among men. Given the IAAF’s rule’s implied correlation between testosterone levels and ability, one might ask: What if a male athlete’s testosterone levels are significantly higher than the average male range? Or, based on the IAAF’s rule, why aren’t men with low testosterone eligible for female competition? But male athletes are not tested, despite visible diversity in male biology and the IAAF’s claimed belief that testosterone levels determine athletic ability, and there are no rules to disqualify men on that ground. The IAAF also does not test all women athletes; the investigations are irregular and selective and are based on specific external characteristics. In these ways we can see that this language of equality is weaponized to discriminate against women.
Transphobia as a means to limit the notion of womanhood
Seemingly scientific approaches of separating the sexes can often be weaponized against gender and sexual minorities, such as intersex people. It is difficult to take socially constructed categories like gender and sex and try to fit them into science. Such policies are premised on the cultural assumption that male and female phenotypes are and should be distinct, which they are not. Testing chromosomes and genitalia does not objectively indicate a person’s sex: female anatomy and physiology vary in ways that make it difficult to definitively classify a person as male or female. Furthermore, the weight of this discriminatory, humiliating, and medically inconclusive sex testing has always fallen on women. Not only does this marginalize women of color, it also marginalizes transgender women and intersex individuals by failing to consider that gender is a socially constructed identity.
Gender categories are a form of self-identity and a social category: they are not a biological category. There have been no tests of gender other than self-identification since the 2000 Sydney Olympics; Caster Semenya identifies as a cis-gender female. Race is not a biological category either, and the incidence of women with high testosterone is the same across all races. Yet, most of the women with high testosterone ‘discovered’ by the IAAF in the past decade come from the Global South. Certain women with high testosterone levels may not be identified through physical attributes due to sophisticated medical interventions at an early age. Athletes from the first world have an advantage in staying under the radar due to better and more accessible medical technology. These regulations seem to coincide with the recent dominance in specific track and field events by women from Sub-Saharan Africa. This is about ‘who’ won historically and ‘who’ is winning now.
The gender policing of intersex and gender-nonconforming bodies is one consequence of the IAAF’s lack of diversity. These regulatory efforts cause considerable harm to the women athletes singled out for testing. Arbitrary gender binaries fail and dehumanise intersex women and women with hyperandrogenism. While transgender and intersex individuals do not have the same sexual characteristics, they’re often conflated in public discussions and the testosterone ceiling lobby believes that trans-women are men trying to infiltrate spaces exclusively dedicated to women. I believe this is similar to how white women were ‘protected’ using bathroom segregation laws and serves to exclude non-normative women of color using benchmarks set for white women from the Global North. These arguments are based on transphobia and fear rather than facts. Stories about dominant trans-athletes are cherry-picked for use in moral panic narratives by far-right outlets including racist comments from Semenya’s European Caucasian competitors. This mode of labelling gender-nonconforming bodies is rooted in prejudice and seeks to brand these athletes as being “not female” in order to exclude them from competing. Thus, these approaches use transphobia as means to limit the bounds of womanhood and make it a less inclusive space for non-normative women of color.
This article is written with the belief that, women’s sports should be for all women. Historically, womanhood had been defined to protect cis-gender heterosexual white women; unfortunately, women of color have their gender and bodily attributes misperceived in varied contexts based on a white-dominant social frame. As society continues to confront the racial legacies of social institutions in other ways, sports organizations like World Athletics have a clear opportunity to address the harm done as a result of the implementation of racist, sexist and transphobic ideas. Society still remains uneasy with female strength of any stripe and still prefers – still champions – delicate damsels; this outdated sentiment limits all women, but especially non-conforming women of color. Semenya, Chand, Negesa, and other women of color athletes with hyperandrogenism need not alter or manipulate themselves to fit ideals of womanhood that were constructed explicitly around their exclusion; their bodies are simply not the problem, and never were. However, the regulations imposed by World Athletics fail to protect all women and ensure a level playing field. The IOC internalises societal prejudice and transphobia by cherry picking women who look different from their Western Caucasian notion of femininity. Thus, racism, misogyny, and transphobia intertwine to define the notions of womanhood in elite sport thereby becoming a shared experience for appreciating and understanding these conversations surrounding these colossal confronts and distresses.
Astha Madan Grover is a second-year student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, pursuing an undergraduate degree in law. She is a member of the NUJS Law Review with a keen interest in gender law and policy. Astha’s interests lie in advancing gender equality and engaging in legal discourse from a feminist lens. Furthermore, she is also interested in the way the post-colonial world explores the concepts of ‘womanhood’. She would like to thank thank Alanah Mortlock and Dr. Roma M. Soni for their invaluable insight that helped shape this article. Astha enjoys dim sum, murder mysteries, and lo-fi music.
 Hyperandrogenism is a medical condition characterized by high levels of androgens (hormones usually prevalent in larger quantities in males) in females.
 Primary reproductive organs. Responsible for the production of sex cells and sex hormones. However, these athletes did not have fully formed primacy reproductive sex organs due to their sex development disorder.
 “These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male’s, which is why they look how they look and run like they run,” said Poland’s Joanna Jozwik, who finished fifth, one spot behind Canada’s Melissa Bishop.”[Bishop] improved her personal best and was fourth. It’s sad, and I think she should be the gold medallist. I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white,” Jozwik added. “On my way to the stadium I was walking behind Wambui, who is three times bigger than me. How should I feel? She has a big calf, a big foot, she makes a step like three of my steps.”
 ‘Intersex’ is a term used to describe any number of medical conditions where someone is born with characteristics outside of the typical male and female binary, ranging from the noticeable to the invisible.
 “To evaluate the effects of high testosterone, the international athletic association’s protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale,”.
 ‘Transgender’ is a term used to describe somebody who was assigned one gender at birth but identifies with and may medically transition to another.