A day before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics, Facebook community Thappad released a video on the forgotten story of Shanthi Soundarajan, a runner from Tamil Nadu who was suspended after failing a 'gender test' in 2006.
A track and field athlete, Soundarajan has won 12 international medals for India and 64 national medals for her state Tamil Nadu. However, in 2006, her brilliant run came to an end after she failed the controversial gender test.
The New York Times Magazine explains what a 'gender test' typically involves: "To evaluate the effects of high testosterone, the international athletic association's protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale." What the sex verification test then does is to check if a sportswoman is eligible to compete in a single sex category. It is perceived that a high level of testosterone gives female sportspersons an advantage.
Shanthi's story is important now because we are all cheering for the true spirit of sports at the Olympics, all the while discriminating against our sportspersons.
"Shanthi's story is important now because we are all cheering for the true spirit of sports at the Olympics, all the while discriminating against our sportspersons. The time is right to visit her case," the video's producer and Thappad co-founder Sandesh B Suvarna said. "PM Modi's #RunWithRio campaign will be incomplete if you cannot get #JusticeForShanthi."
Thappad realised the need to tell her side of the story, after a recent online petition for Soundarajan on Change.org got such a feeble response that it did not even get a minimum of 1,500 signatures. The video was made in collaboration with Tamil and Telugu actor and director Dheepa Ramanujam and activist Gopi Shankar Madurai.
The video is part of an online campaign that is asking for Soundarajan's name to be included in the official records again and that the government should give her a permanent job to rebuild her life. Thappad's petition has so far received 2,400 signatures.
The video is part of an online campaign that is asking for Soundarajan's name to be included in the official records again and that the government should give her a permanent job to rebuild her life.
Titled #JusticeForShanthi, video highlights Soundarajan's remarkable struggle against the odds, and the the discriminatory and humiliating practice of gender testing athletes. Born to a poor Dalit family in the village of Kathakurichi in Tamil Nadu, she spent her childhood in a hut with no electricity, toilet and running water, and often a shortage of food. She emerged as a star athlete in 2004, and went on win a series of medals, including her career-best silver at the 800 m race at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.
A day later, she was subjected to a blood test and a physical examination. She had failed the gender test and was diagnosed with AIS or androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which a person who is genetically male, is resistant to male sex hormones or androgens, leading them to have the physical traits of a woman but the genetic make-up of a man.
The decision changed Soundarajan's life. Stripped of her medal and subjected to intense media scrutiny, she attempted suicide in 2007 and was forced to work as a daily wage worker at a brick kiln with her parents.
The rules on gender tests finally changed after a landmark ruling in 2015, when athlete Dutee Chand challenged her suspension after failing a hormone test. As a result, the International Association of Athletic Federation's gender tests were finally suspended for two years.
Sundarajan is now coaching youngsters in running and mentions how happy she is seeing Chand and South African athlete Caster Semenya, two female athletes who failed gender tests, run."I dream of a future where no one goes through what I went through," Soundarajan says at the end.
With inputs from Anwesha Madhukalya.