The Woman Accused of Being a Man... and of Rape

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Asian Games gold medallist Pinki Pramanik and the conundrum of gender indeterminacy

When Pinki Pramanik was arrested last week by the police in Kolkata on charges of alleged rape and fraud, it created a nationwide stir. Followers of sports remember her as the woman athlete who won India a gold medal in the 2006 Doha Asian Games. However, her live-in partner of three years contends that Pinki is a man who has led a life in disguise as a woman. Even for an audience reared on 24/7 live media sensationalism, this comes as a stunner. At stake is not only India’s gold medal in that 2006 event, but gender distinctions that are held valid for various purposes.

As a girl from rural Bengal who ran her way to success, Pinki’s story has been hailed as inspirational. Her nominally literate father reportedly owns six acres of land in Tilakdihi, a remote village in Purulia district; her mother is completely illiterate. Most girls in her place would have attended primary school, dropped out after puberty, got married to an agricultural labourer or small land holder at 15, and had a couple of children by 20. At 26, her current age, she would have almost certainly found herself (and her children) working in the fields.

Pinki resolved to escape such a life with all she had, an ability to run hard.

A police officer at the local thana spotted her raw talent and stoked her ambitions, arranging a proper diet and offering both training and encouragement. Pinki kept running through local, district, provincial and national competitions, until she secured a sports quota job with the Eastern Railways in 2003. She evidently passed the mandatory medical test before her appointment. It was conducted by doctors at Kolkata’s BR Singh Hospital. Srirupa Chatterjee, a former Bengal athlete who oversaw her appointment—and has since retired—as an officer with the Eastern Railways’ sports department, recalls nothing more about the matter. There is no record of any gender suspicion.

It was in 2006 that Pinki’s career peaked. As a member of the women’s 4X100 m relay team, she won gold in both the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and Asian Games in Doha. The latter, bagged along with Sati Geetha, Manjeet Kaur and Chitra Kulathummuriyil, was India’s only athletics gold in Doha. She was only 20.

That lone athletics gold was a relief for an Indian athletics establishment that was reeling under the disgrace of 800 m silver medallist Shanthi Soundarajan’s gender test failure. This was also the first time that Pinki found her career stalked by similar doubts. Recent media reports quote some of her fellow athletes who remember having been baffled by her ‘manly’ conduct. When contacted, though, most of them say they recall nothing ‘specific’ about her behaviour.

But why did Pinki suddenly retire from athletics in mid-2008? Why would a top-notch athlete quit at 22—and so soon after an Asiad gold? Madhav Sanyal, Pinki’s advocate, says a car accident had rendered her legs unfit for competitive athletics. Is that all there is to her retirement? Adille Sumariwalla, president of the Athletics Federation of India, sees nothing fishy in this. “I retired immediately after my 11th national championship gold as I had other things to do in life,” he says, “and I was only 27.”

The ‘other things’ that Pinki had in life were not sports-related. She had the job of a ticket inspector with the Eastern Railways that involved a few hours of duty at Sealdah, Kolkata’s second busiest station. It was around this time that Pinki bought a two-storey house at Teghoria in the city’s eastern suburbs. Her live-in partner moved in soon after.

Pinki and her partner had been neighbours, the latter living with her husband in an adjacent house on rent. They grew close and their friendship developed into intimacy. It was after the latter’s husband left that she moved in with Pinki along with her infant daughter.

At first, their life together was exciting, according to Pinki’s live-in partner, who I met in the office of her advocate. Her only anxiety was that Pinki was not particularly affectionate to her daughter. “This year, she gave the kid a new dress for the first time on her birthday (24 February),” says the 25-year-old, a slim woman with no distinctive feature except an air of restlessness.

By her account, the gold medallist would spend the first two-three hours of her day smoking ganja and drinking beer. “She guzzles beer like we drink water,” she says, “you’d still find hundreds of beer bottles lying about the house.” Then she would bathe, have lunch, and leave for work around two in the afternoon, only to return by five and watch TV and drink till dinner. At night, by her allegation, they had ‘sexual intercourse without [her] consent’; and whenever she raised her voice, she was silenced by force (‘assault’ and ‘torture’).

Her patience finally snapped in April, she says. That is when she lodged a General Diary report (GD-1940, dated 26 April 12) with the Baguiati Police Station, alleging that Pinki was a male. The police refused to take her seriously, but when she returned after two months with the same complaint, they decided to act.

Her primary charge against Pinki is that she is a man who had ‘present(ed) himself as a female and taking that opportunity developed a relationship and… promise(d) to marry her’, a promise she is alleged to have broken. The forwarding document presented by the police to the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Barasat mentions ‘assault’ and ‘torture’, but confirms that their primary investigation focused on testing Pinki’s gender.

Pinki was produced before the magistrate on 14 June with a plea to have her gender ascertained. Yet, the forwarding document consistently refers to Pinki as a man (as ‘son of Durga Pramanik’ and so on). This is not the only loophole in the police case, according to Madhav Sanyal, Pinki’s lawyer. He speaks of an implied contradiction between describing the couple as ‘living as husband and wife’ and charging Pinki with ‘sex without consent’ (note that marital rape in itself is not recognised as a crime in India).

Speaking to Open, a senior officer at the Baguati Police Station cannot confirm whether Pinki’s live-in partner had indeed filed a GD report in April. According to him, the police received a complaint around 10 pm on 13 June, and arranged for Pinki to be called to a crossing in Teghoria, where they cornered her. But Pinki, by his account, ‘pretended’ to fall unconscious and was taken by her well-wishers to a local nursing home, which kept her under observation for the night. According to the officer at the police station, the doctor on duty ‘filled the gender column in the admission form as male’, presumably on the basis of some tests about which the doctor there is no longer willing to talk, as it appears.

The next morning, when Pinki was produced in court, the magistrate issued a directive asking for a gender test. But Pinki refused to submit herself to any such exercise. According to the police, they took her back to court and sought her custody, taking into consideration three factors—the ‘rape’ charge, the complainant’s submission before the magistrate, and Pinki’s refusal to undergo a gender verification test. The police records show her date of arrest as 15 June, the day after she was produced in court.

Sanyal, however, wonders how Pinki reached the nursing home unconscious, why and how the doctor on duty declared him/ her ‘male’, and whether the police had the authority to produce someone in court without formally arresting her. With his questions, Sanyal wants to shift the focus of the case to the alleged violation of Pinki’s rights, and with her live-in’s charge of sexual violation now receding from public attention, he has perhaps been successful in his effort. Privately, lawyers say that it would not be easy to sustain such a charge in this case in a court of law, given the ‘reasonable doubt’ surrounding Pinki’s gender.

Even the live-in partner and her advocate say that she has little to gain from this case anymore, and that they are now fighting to expose a ‘gender fraud’ more than anything else.“I don’t understand why everyone is so caught up with doctors and tests,” says Sanjib Guchhait, the partner’s lawyer, “You define a man by his uninhibited sexual life with a woman, isn’t it? This girl says Pinki had all the sexual features and capabilities of a man, and that alone seems to be strong enough evidence.”

The implication, it would seem, is this: anyone who drives motorcycles, drinks beer, displays aggression, swears freely, wears T-shirts and trousers, has sex with a woman and assaults a sexual partner must be a man.

Is an individual’s gender then a function of how her actions are experienced and perceived by those around her? “No,” says Dr Partha Datta, a senior psychiatrist and specialist in psycho-sexual disorders. “There are clear medical parameters to determine an individual’s gender.”

Typically, three types of factors are taken into account—chromosomal, hormonal and psycho-social, in that order. If an individual possesses the XY (male) set of chromosomes, but has disproportionate female hormones and perceives ‘herself’ as a ‘woman’, then the person is genetically male and it may be possible to restore his sense of manhood through medical therapy and/or psychological counselling. However, an individual may chromosomally be neither male nor female, but of an ‘intersex’ gender. This third-gender status is generally considered an aberration, and doctors either counsel or administer medication/surgery to restore either male or female identities to such individuals. At best, such surgeries alter the relative balance of male and female hormones in an individual’s body; they cannot alter the chromosomal structure. Dr Dutta cautions me not to interpret his opinion as either for or against homosexuality (which he says is a different issue), or as having any direct bearing on Pinki’s gender status (on which only those who have examined her can competently comment).

The medical fraternity has valid reason to uphold a scientific view of gender. However, in popular perception, a man is anyone capable of regular—and frontal—penetrative sex with a woman. This leaves individuals vulnerable to whatever view the State takes in specific cases like Pinki’s. Asks Paula Banerjee, who teaches Gender Studies at University of Calcutta: “Have you noticed how lawyers, doctors, policemen and journalists have moved in to pronounce verdicts on an individual’s gender without even once taking her testimony into account?”

But then, does that mean Pinki ought to be free to ‘choose’ her gender?

Abhijit Kundu, an associate professor at Delhi University who also studies gender, agrees with Banerjee: “A biologically determinist position would not sensitise us on the issue of gender identity… we need to see gender as something premised on a biological variant, but actually an attitude and attribute performed in the real or assumed presence of others, as something emergent and a situated conduct.”

That still leaves Pinki’s case shrouded in mystery. Has the police goofed up? Are there any clear answers at all? Many of those who are directly involved in the case are motivated by the need to either retain the prestige of that Asiad gold medal or hide their own complicity and/or ignorance. But I wonder what you would do if you emerged from poverty to win a gold medal at 20 and were forced to retire at 22, only to find yourself under a cloud of suspicion over your gender.

Shanthi Soundarajan attempted suicide in 2007 after her public humiliation—as it must have felt like. Bengali filmmaker Kaushik Ganguly, who has made some remarkably sensitive films on gender complexities, says: “This is one of those rites-of-passage moments for the gender sensitivity of Bengali society, which finally seems to be growing up.” Let’s hope Ganguly is proven right.