FIFA needs a bit of good PR right now - just one feel-good story would help - but I’m not sure a report this week from the FIFA Women’s World Cup is the one. Because it’s not about the sport, the results or even the viewing figures - but about the fact that we can all relax, safe in the knowledge that the players are 100% female.
How can we tell? Because FIFA is gender testing them. Yep, according to a recent report on Public Radio International in the US, every single player in the women’s tournament has been obliged to undergo some form of gender testing to prove that they are female. There are no specifics available about where in the body testing is done, but in the past it has involved body exams for visual and physical genital traits and chromosome testing. These are women who have lived, competed and had legal status as women their entire lives. There is no reason to doubt them, yet they must be checked. In Germany, the German Football Association has used players’ personal gynaecological reports as evidence. Hmmm.
It should be noted that while FIFA says the rules also apply to male players, there are no reports of any man ever having to undergo such tests or to provide such documentation. So what possible justification is there for this policy, particularly as it has been been criticised widely by medical organisations for over 20 years, with them acknowledging that there is no single way to test for gender? As Stanford University bioethicist Katrina Karkazis, interviewed on PRI explains, “Sex is actually much more complex than a single test, as there is variation in each of the sex traits. There is not one common trait that all people labelled women have. You can’t do it, we are all more complicated than that.” Even the International Olympic Committee, which has come under fire in the past following scrutiny of athletes such as South Africa’s Caster Semenya, has done away with gender testing, preferring to focus on testosterone levels alone.
One of the reasons FIFA has given for the testing is the strange anxiety that men may masquerade as women in order to use a perceived physical advantage to excel. There have, unsurprisingly, been no cases of imposters to date. There have, however, been the opposite - witch hunts focussing on female players perceived to have been too masculine. The most recent example was South Korea’s Park Eun-seon who had six rival teams in the South Korean league accuse her of being a man... on account of her solid performance and short hair. Eventually, after a sustained period of media humiliation for Eun-seon, Seoul City Sports Council announced that as she had been tested for the previous world cup, they could confirm she was a woman.
It is very hard to see this as anything other than the ongoing policing of women’s bodies in a way that simply isn’t in place for men. It isn’t about doping in sport, or the physical advantage that ‘undercover’ men could have over women. After all, football is a sport which requires no certain body characteristic, like, for example basketball does. In the England team alone we have Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon who have a fourteen inch height difference between them.
South Korea’s Park Eun-seon who had six rival teams in the South Korean league accuse her of being a man...on account of her solid performance and short hair
This is about women needing to be monitored, and investigated if they stray from the exceptionally restrictive gender stereotypes regarding body shape, ability and even hairstyle. It’s absurd, and does all players a disservice.
Dr. Jay Stewart, co-founder of Gendered Intelligence, an organisation looking to increase understanding of gender diversity, agrees. Mercifully football in the UK has a better track record of dealing with those who do not fit into these narrow gender structures, and the Football Association are now working with the trans community. Since consulting with Gendered Intelligence, the FA have recently moved some of their goal posts around working with trans players, on the understanding that every individual’s situation is different and no one test could ever really work. “If you’re a trans woman and you have been on androgen blocker hormones and taking oestrogen for two years, your hormone levels and muscle mass would be absolutely no different from someone who was assigned female at birth. You would sail through any tests,” explains Dr Stewart. As such, he believes that eventually we will need to operate beyond gender segregation in sport. “It might seem futuristic,” he told me, “but it should just be about being good enough to make the team.” It does sound a little futuristic, but only fifty years ago women were being told they could not run a marathon - they would never make it, their uterus might fall out, they must be stopped. Things change.
Whatever the future for gender segregation in sport, women across the board need to stop having their appearance judged over their athletic abilities. The assumption that doing well must mean you’re a male imposter is antiquated, offensive - and ludicrous. As Katrina Karkazis puts it, “FIFA have a solution in search of a problem”.