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Human rights and gender categories in sport

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Human rights and gender categories in sport

In a world striving for inclusive and equal societies, how does the world of sport fit in with it's gender categories? Discussing the toss-up between controlling for a "level playing field" and providing an accessible playing field to all.

Sport has always been known to be a torch bearer in the expression and safeguarding of fundamental human rights. And while it has been used as an effective tool to champion the cause, global organised sport has often fallen short in curbing violations and/or protecting human rights.

In the last decade, there has been an increased dialogue and awareness regarding gender identity, fluidity, and expression. The recent ruling against Caster Semenya by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) opens up this question of gender inclusivity in the realm of sport.

The notion of a "level playing field" was the origin of creating sex-specific divisions in sport. It was done so in the interest of promoting fairness and equal opportunities for success. Whilst upholding these values, various sporting governing bodies (like the International Olympic Committee, or World Anti-Doping Agency) have infringed on very basic human rights whilst evidently discriminating against athletes – and mostly female athletes.

To begin with, concepts like a level-playing field or fairness, are all philosophical in nature, created by society to bring about some order and uniformity. Taking this into consideration, there is no doubt that issues of gender identity and inclusivity take absolute precedence over these concepts.

Further, these sex-specific divisions ignore the distinction between sex and gender. While the former is based on biological features, the latter includes sex as well as gender identity, i.e. one’s identity of oneself internally. If these rigid constructs of division have been put into place, it cannot be enforced by excluding persons of ‘unconventional’ gender characteristics.

The idea of conventional gender appearances, too, are problematic in the first place. Set standards for determining femininity and masculinity are all a product of long standing norms of patriarchy. Regressive positions on a female athlete looking too muscular or not “feminine enough” have time and again made her subject to additional and unnecessary scrutiny merely because she may not conform to the patriarchal view on how a woman should look. It is especially disturbing since men with exceptional physical attributes are celebrated as legends in their sport, while the women are in fact looked down upon with grave suspicion.

If we as a society are moving towards creating safe spaces for all, accepting without any doubt the free expression and equality of each individual, it is incomprehensible why sport should do otherwise. Civil rights are often reduced to a secondary status to nurture commercial or other ulterior interests. The sporting community must come out strongly and vociferously against such unjust discriminatory practices. As a globally recognised and revered activity, decision-makers in the sports world should shoulder the responsibility of promoting inclusivity and equality for all.

It is important to keep in perspective that in the fostering of sporting values, a compromise on fundamental human rights is unacceptable. Here is to furthering modern ideals achieved by the feminist movement to reach a more inclusive and sensitised sporting society!


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Samiha Dabholkar


Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 13:49