Payoshni Mitra fights in the corner of female athletes who are ostracized, ridiculed and banned from competing, simply for how they were born.
When it comes to excellence in sports there is a double standard, says Indian athletes’ rights activist Payoshni Mitra in the documentary Category: Woman by Phyllis Ellis. ‘When you’re a man and do exceptionally well, you become a Superman. When you’re a woman and do exceptionally well, you must be a man.’
Payoshni’s experience with an abusive coach when she was a young badminton player inspired her to pursue a PhD in gender issues in sports. ‘As a feminist, I realized how severely sexist the sports world was,’ she said in an interview. ‘But to advocate for gender equality in sports, it was necessary to first understand the scenario.’
Today, Payoshni Mitra campaigns against the invasive ‘sex testing’ practices that are used to determine testosterone levels in female athletes. As Category: Woman highlights, athletic institutions like the IAAF (now World Athletics) implemented regulations banning women with higher testosterone levels from competing in matches. These women have to undergo irreversible sterilization surgeries or hormone therapies to have a chance at competing again.
The issue was put in the spotlight in 2009, when the achievements of South African runner Caster Semenya were devalued when her gender was thrown into doubt. Payoshni is proud to have worked with Semenya. But as she said in an interview with Human Rights Watch, which published a report on the issue in 2020: ‘The media should highlight other stories too, of women who don’t rise to those heights. The women who are just mid-level, proud to represent their country, and trying to build a better life.’ For them, the consequences can be devastating. ‘They are constantly under scrutiny, start to feel unsafe, people gossip about them constantly. It is a very hard thing to deal with.’
It is a subject that affects women from some parts of the world more than others, Payoshni explains: ‘I have been working with women athletes for years trying to make them aware of their rights. It is no coincidence that these policies affect women from poorer countries, where they don’t have the same level of awareness about their rights.’
Fortunately, Payoshni Mitra also sees some hopeful signs: ‘Women are now challenging these policies in courts of law, both national and international. This is a recent development and it makes me happy to see that more and more women athletes from Asia and Africa are becoming conscious of their rights.’
Category: Woman is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2023, where Payoshni Mitra is a special guest.