If of late you have been sickened by the way the West Bengal Police have treated Pinki Pramanik, then think again. The extreme voyeurism exhibited in the leak of her video (that is how she identifies herself) medical ‘screening’ is something that we encounter almost every day – in newspapers and on the internet.
The violation of the private is intrinsically related to the voyeur’s gaze into the intimate – whether it exists in the form of gossip, pornography, or sting journalism. The case of Pinki Pramanik-once a celebrated, medal-winning athlete, now alleged rapist, and ‘maybe’ male – always had the makings of a potboiler. Add to this a Court ruling that has found her not “capable of rape”, and reports from the Central Forensics Lab test indicating the existence of “abnormal genitalia”, suggesting “male pseudohermaphroditism” and the intrigue levels have gone up further.
Where is the privacy in this? We are shocked with the police behaviour-groping Pinki and putting her in the cell meant for men-and yet are willing to let a gender test intrude Pinki’s privacy in a very public way. Considering our incensed sense of injustice is usually highly selective – in this case it has come down to blaming the rape victim and her right to privacy by covering her face – aren’t we equally culpable as the police?
To begin with, the gender test – the alleged medical arbitrator of whether an individual is a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ – is itself a gross intrusion of privacy. What will happen by establishing that Pinki is male, and therefore ‘can’ rape? Do we mean that sexual violence involves a particular form of bodily/physical requirement? Isn’t this argument used by lawyers to deny women who have been sexually violated – molested, physically abused – to say that non-penetrative sex is not rape, not violence?
But the gender test is just that. It seeks to do what science and medicine have been doing for long – assign gender identity on the basis of sex. To construct that which by ‘nature’ or let’s say individual choice is varied and not fixed. To be able to fix and identify it’s important to be either man or woman. The ambivalence in a test meant to secure “concrete-ness” in gender identity led to the suicide of athlete Pratima Gaonkar , known as the ‘Goa Express‘ in 2001 when the Goa police released reports of her gender test identifying her as having “a male organ measuring half an inch with other female organs missing”. She was considered to be another P. T. Usha in-the-making.
The now-defunct gender test took its toll in the Olympics, with Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan and South African Caster Semenya. They were powerful, ‘unfeminine’ and posed a threat to the competition in the women’s category. Amelie Mauresmo, French tennis player, who retired in 2009 was also subject to whispers of her being ‘male’, ‘unwoman’ and thus posing an unfair advantage.
Nivedita Menon notes that the gender test constructs human bodies on idealised perceptions of male and female while in reality none of us adhere to such a norm of hormonal and genital perfection. The test becomes then a means to intrude. First at the level of ‘observation’ of physical markers, primarily genitalia – and if that is not ‘unambiguous’ enough then an internal examination of the body is undertaken. And the ambiguous person has never been perceived kindly. There is enough historical and contemporary evidence of that. The effeminate man, or the masculine female is a threat to idealised socio-medical constructions of the man and woman.
Take the case of Phool Chand Yadav, a 23 year old theatre actor who was found dead in 2005 – murdered by two friends who found that Phool was ‘masquerading’ as a man. Newspapers dubbed the case, half in jest it seemed, ‘The case of the boy who turned out to be a girl’! That Phool Chand was raped before being murdered makes it even more relevant to how being ambiguous in the way you dress, walk, sound, think is dangerous.
Often the ambiguous person gets clubbed into ambiguity due to their sexuality. Part of Pinki’s trauma stems from the ‘unnaturalness’ of her situation. A woman in a relationship with another woman in a country where homosexuality, despite the landmark judgement against Section 377 decriminalising it, is very much taboo. The voyeurism emerges from the desire to intrude and gain insight into the privacy of a forbidden sexual relationship.
It was this intrusion that cost SR Siras, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, his life. In 2010 two sting journalists and some colleagues of Siras secretly videotaped him having sex with a male rickshaw puller. The resulting backlash and stigma broke the sixty-something Siras’ will to live.
An article published in 1890 in the Harvard Law Review lists the right to privacy as emerging from the increasing intrusion into private life as a result of the unhealthy interest in gossip.
This interest is actively fed into by newspapers, the authors note. In contemporary readings of popular culture and celebrity gossip this right is regularly violated and even more regularly contested through defamation suits. Yet, what about all those Pinki Pramaniks who undergo gender tests, MMS leaks and can never fight for their right because they are not celebrities? They find stray mentions in newspapers or get so much public attention that it leads to a life that is completely sans privacy.
Yet, if such violations are not reported in a very public way, would we be able to register our protest? Pinki’s sense of self and her identity is violated most by the medical tests undertaken on her-the leaked images of which stand testimony to a deep personal intrusion. Privacy is selectively invoked and rampantly violated. The weak, marginalised are the first, easy targets – Dalits, women, tribals, homosexual, transgender, the list is endless. Pinki Pramanik is testimony of how those in power, the dominant are looking for an excuse to make the idea of the private redundant.