Presumption of the penis
A lot is happening in the Pinki Pramanik case. Her former live-in partner who had alleged on June 13 that Pinki, an Asian Games gold medallist, was a man who had “raped and tortured” her, confessed on Saturday that she had filed the complaint at the behest of Avtar Singh, a “history sheeter” and husband of Jyotirmoyee Sikdar, one of Bengal’s most celebrated athletes and a former CPI(M) MP.
On Friday, West Bengal sports minister Madan Mintra had said that Singh, who was arrested in 2004 for running a prostitution racket in his hotel, had tried to seize prime land allocated to sportspersons by the Left regime in 2006, including Pinki’s three-katha land off the E.M. Bypass. Pinki Pramanik and Avtar Singh have been locked in a bitter land dispute.
Pinki Pramanik was arrested on June 14 and spent 25 days in prison, during which she was hauled from one hospital to another, by male policemen, for gender tests, and an MMS clip of her naked, apparently recorded during one of the several rounds of medical testing conducted on her, went viral.
Pinki Pramanik’s case has generated a lot of bother, and overzealous police and court action. At first glance it seems unclear why. For what is she being tried — for being a rapist or for being a man successfully passing as a woman? Are both these equivalent crimes?
Part of the reason for trying to determine whether Pinki is a man or a woman is to make sense both of her relationship with another woman, and her seeming propensity for violence. If this is a lesbian relationship, then it might suggest both that some women prefer having sex with other women, and that women too can be violent against women. Indeed, women are perfectly capable of rape, in the sense of forcing non-consensual sex, so it seems presumptuous to suggest that an investigation of rape first has to establish masculinity. But the charge of being male is exciting the most attention because in it ideology and legality seamlessly morph together: only a man has a penis, and only penile penetration can be defined as rape.
Pruriently, fellow athletes in the past have complained of Pinki’s allegedly “strange behaviour”. I wonder if the “strangeness” of her behaviour involved making sexual advances towards other female athletes? If so, then does that constitute masculinity or lesbianism? Is it to rule out the latter that the former is being probed? One of the many tricky things about the complaint against Pinki is that the complainant had been living with her for months. The allegation says Pinki promised to marry her and then reneged on that promise. Is Pinki being charged for being a stereotypical man — of the love ’em and leave ’em variety — or is she being charged with a rape that could just as easily have been effected using a sexual accessory? Or is she being charged with suddenly sprouting a penis? Is Pinki a man or is she acting like a man? We need to decide if both these options can be classified as crimes.
Prevailing wisdom has it that Pinki is biologically male, yet lives as and with a woman. Genitalia and gender seem to have pulled in different directions, and this complicates our straightforward assumptions about identity. There are millions of people around the world who are transgendered, i.e. people whose genitalia do not match their gender presentation. Sometimes this is effected by surgical reassignment of genitalia, and sometimes by people choosing to dress, behave and live differently from the way in which they have been brought up.
Part of the intrigue around Pinki is that we cannot tell into which category she falls. We presume that we can tell immediately whether someone is male or female. We presume that genitalia determines how one looks and behaves, one’s place in the household and in society. Despite extensive tests conducted by teams of gynaecologists, radiologists and other specialists, it seems that sex is not so easy to determine. Yet, we want to enforce the overlap of gender and sex even when the doctors seem flummoxed by it.
Perhaps only sex brings us face to face with our schizophrenic and contradictory stance on the relationship between sex and identity. Hijras are reviled in our society even as they are revered for having transcended sex in the manner of Shiva-Parvati/Ardhanareeshwara. But when we think of how the uncertainties in this case might force their way into our lives and our laws, then what seems to be motivated by pure prurience might in fact stem from more profound, because more cataclysmic, questions: what am I, and can my education, profession, and sexuality be determined by my genitals?
Past examples allow us a different approach to the case of Pinki. Renee Richards, a male-to-female transgendered American tennis player, successfully petitioned in 1977 to play professional women’s tennis. South African star athlete Caster Semenya has undergone sex testing, but her test results have never been made public, and her medals have not been revoked. Pinki was held in a men’s cell in prison, and has already been suspended from her job with the Indian Railways.
Presuming that the presence of the penis indicates masculinity, and in turn heterosexuality, underestimates the surprising ways in which desire works all around us, every day.
The writer is a professor of literature at American University, Washington, DC