'Category: Woman' documentary calls out the human rights violation of defining a woman in sports

·6 min read

Canadian filmmaker and Olympian Phyllis Ellis is calling out the racism, sexism and the human rights violation of international sport governing organizations requiring “identified” female athletes to medically alter their bodies if they have naturally high androgen levels, in her documentary Category: Woman, which was part of the Hot Docs 2022 festival.

“I always thought I would go back and explore something in sport,” Ellis, who played for the Canadian field hockey team, told Yahoo Canada. “I had a great meeting with Dr. Payoshni Mitra, who's the activist that works with all the athletes, and sometimes a story just presents itself, and I think women's rights, athletes rights, human rights are important in life and in sport.”

Annet Negesa and Payoshni Mitra - park steps - Berlin in
Annet Negesa and Payoshni Mitra - park steps - Berlin in "Category: Woman"

Category: Woman tells the story of four professional runners from the Global South, Dutee Chand, Evangeline Makena, Annett Negesa and Margaret Wambui, who were forced out of their respective competitions due to World Athletics regulations that bar women from participating if they have high levels of testosterone, forcing them to medically alter their bodies to comply with these regulations if they want to compete.

“The policing of women's bodies has been going on…since the beginning, when women athletes first started competing in the modern Olympics,” Ellis said. “I think when you have a lot of white men making decisions on women's bodies things can get conflated.”

“These are healthy athletes and then to medically alter them in order to compete is ludicrous… Kids run around and we say, ‘boy, he's got a lot of testosterone,’ it's this constant misinformation…that somehow high testosterone equals being male, and that makes you more male, or makes you biologically male. When that's repeated over and over again, people believe it.”

From mandated examinations for women athletes in the 1960s, called “naked parades” in the documentary, to present-day rules on testosterone levels, it's all, as Alison Carlson from International Work Group on sex/gender verification in sports states, based around the “same naive misassumptions” of an “unfair male-like physical advantage, where it doesn't exist.”

India's Dutee Chand (R) competes in a semi-final heat of the women's 200m athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 28, 2018. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)
India's Dutee Chand (R) competes in a semi-final heat of the women's 200m athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 28, 2018. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Dutee Chand was banned from international competition due to regulations from the International Amateur Athletics Federation (now World Athletics) for women with higher testosterone levels, and was the first woman to take her case to the Court of Arbitration of Sport.

Evangeline Makena qualified to represent Kenya at the 2019 World Relay Championships in the 400-metre race but prior to departure, Athletics Kenya tested all their female athletes, based on the regulation. Makena’s results showed higher testosterone levels and she was immediately dropped from the team. She chose to switch events to avoid having to take medication.

BERLIN, GERMANY-OCTOBER 30: Ugandan female Athlete Annet Negesa at Treptow Park, on October 30,2019 in Berlin, Germany. Annet Negesa was born with internal male organs a condition called differences in sex development (DSD) or intersex meaning that her body produced a higher level of testosterone than other female athletes. In 2012 she was advised to undergo surgery to remove the male testis in her body. Due to the high profile of her case, she is now afraid to return to Uganda as she has received hostility within her home country from political and religious leaders. She is now seeking asylum in Germany. (Photo by Craig Stennett/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY-OCTOBER 30: Ugandan female Athlete Annet Negesa at Treptow Park, on October 30,2019 in Berlin, Germany. Annet Negesa was born with internal male organs a condition called differences in sex development (DSD) or intersex meaning that her body produced a higher level of testosterone than other female athletes. In 2012 she was advised to undergo surgery to remove the male testis in her body. Due to the high profile of her case, she is now afraid to return to Uganda as she has received hostility within her home country from political and religious leaders. She is now seeking asylum in Germany. (Photo by Craig Stennett/Getty Images)

Weeks before the London Olympics, Annet Negesa was informed that she had high levels of naturally occurring testosterone and was offered an irreversible surgery, the side effects of which have resulted in her not being able to compete internationally since 2012.

In 2019, Margaret Wambui was dropped from the Kenyan track team due to the World Athletics due to her naturally occurring high levels of testosterone. She rejected the option of medically altering her healthy body through medication or surgery and has not competed internationally since 2019, after winning a bronze medal in the 800-metre race at the 2016 Olympics and a silver medal at the 2017 Commonwealth Game.

South African 800-metre Olympic champion Caster Semenya reacts after winning the women's 200m final during the Athletics Gauteng North Championships at the LC de Villiers Athletics Stadium in Pretoria on March 13, 2020. - Star South African 800-metre athlete Caster Semenya said on March 13, 2020 she hopes to compete in the 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The 29-year-old is prohibited from defending her 800m Olympics title because she refuses to adhere to testosterone regulations set by governing body World Athletics. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
South African 800-metre Olympic champion Caster Semenya reacts after winning the women's 200m final during the Athletics Gauteng North Championships at the LC de Villiers Athletics Stadium in Pretoria on March 13, 2020. - Star South African 800-metre athlete Caster Semenya said on March 13, 2020 she hopes to compete in the 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The 29-year-old is prohibited from defending her 800m Olympics title because she refuses to adhere to testosterone regulations set by governing body World Athletics. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

The filmmaker also points to the case of Caster Semenya who in 2009, at 18-years-old, had her personal medical information spread publicly, with a ruling by the Court of Administration for Sport (CAS) determining that Semenya had to take medication to reduce her testosterone if she wanted to run internationally at events between 400-metres and a mile.

“It’s the worst kind of human rights violation in sports,” Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a former badminton player and coach, and an advocate for the abolition of sex testing policies in women’s sport sports in thee documentary. “

A key aspect of these circumstances pointed out in the film, is that once someone questions your gender, particularly in this capacity and this publicly, it makes a permanent impact on your life.

“They can't walk down the street, they can't go to restaurants, restaurants won't let them in, they lose their income, they lose their ability to feed their families,...that’s what's at stake,” Ellis said.

'I do not pretend the world is a fair place'

Near the end of of the film, there is a quote that’s put up on the screen from Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics, from The New York Times in 2021, which reads, “I do not pretend the world is a fair place,” but Category: Woman points to a quote like this and calls out the dangers of not striving for fairness.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had previously required women to have testosterone levels under 10 nanomoles/litre but last year, moved away from that stance, encouraging a move away from testosterone-based restrictions, while at the same time, World Athletics said it did not have plans to change its rule requiring athletes to lower their testosterone to under five nanomoles to compete in distances of between 400 metres and a mile.

“What is fair play, is providing safety and a safe space because you do not have a right to win, but you do have a right to play,” Phyllis Ellis said. “It's OK in sport to segregate, and it's OK to do it and also say that it's under the guise of fair play, and we're protecting women, when we don't need protection.”

“That line is an old white male ideal…that somehow they're going to protect the poor woman, and it’s just not true.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting