What Makes You A Woman?

“So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” wrote J.K. Rowling in her essay defending her transphobic comments.

Rowling believes transwomen do not share the same experience or oppression as cis women do by being born in a man’s body and having lived with male privileges. Germaine Greer had earlier expressed similar thoughts when she stated that “a sex-change surgery doesn’t make you a woman”.

Chimamanda Adichie acknowledged that transwomen have their separate struggles but claimed they aren’t anything like those of women. Most of the radical feminists who suggest trans-exclusion from the movement of feminism, argue that there is a standard experience of womanhood, one which is only available to cis women. A global, lived reality of women which one has exclusive access to only if they were born with the female genitalia.

Is there an universal experience of womanhood? What counts as a woman and what disqualifies you from it? A woman born and brought up in the congested corridors of Dharavi has a different lived reality than an investment banker in posh sea-facing apartment near Juhu. A girl born to a young single parent in Florida would have a completely different version of womanhood from one raised in a tribal community in Namibia.

My mother lived through the Emergency and forced sterilisation drives in 1970s, didn’t go to school or have the right to inherit, while I grew up as the daughter of a bureaucrat, going to medical school and claiming my queerness. The brand of feminism led by Ivanka Trump is different from that led by Angela Davis or Meena Kandasamy.

Nancy Fraser addressed this neoliberal feminism in her book Feminism for the 99%:

“This is a remarkable vision of equal opportunity domination: one that asks ordinary people, in the name of feminism, to be grateful that it is a woman, not a man, who busts their union, orders a drone to kill their parent, or locks their child in a cage at the border. In sharp contrast to Sandberg’s liberal feminism, the organizers of the huelga feminista insist on ending capitalism: the system that generates the boss, produces national borders, and manufactures the drones that guard them”.

Calling Chelsea Manning’s struggles in an American prison trivial compared to the Kardashians is unfair. If the socio-political context is divorced from the debate, the definition of womanhood only reduces us to menstruation and motherhood, which again some women do not experience by fate or choice.


Also read: J.K. Rowling Is Like My Own Parents, But Less Woke


An old, consistent argument against trans-inclusion is that transwomen expressing themselves in ways aligning with gender stereotypes or roles perpetuates and reinforces them and hence, is counter-productive to feminist struggles of getting rid of these. “Exaggerated” feminine gender expression or dressing up hyperfemininely apparently turns them into caricatures of real women.

“Is individual gender suffering relieved at the price of role conformity and the perpetuation of role stereotypes on a social level?” asked Janice Raymond in The Transexual Empire. “In changing sex, does the transsexual encourage a sexist society whose continued existence depends upon the perpetuation of these roles and stereotypes?”

Robin Morgan claimed that by doing so they “parody female oppression and suffering.”

This monolithic image of a transwoman is culturally constructed, born out of limited interaction with transwomen or media depictions and sheer stereotyping. In reality, transwomen differ greatly in their gender expression and personalities. While some adhere to conventional femininity, others are non-confirming to gender stereotypes. But along the same lines, it’s important to ask, do women complying to gender roles not deserve the same human rights as men? Are cis women who use lipstick or pay attention to their clothing, complicit in the subjugation of women and reinforcement of the gender binary?

It’s worth remembering that when cis women live as cis (using sex segregated bathrooms, shopping in the women’s section, renting a women’s hostel), they too are participating in binary gender identifications and a world with limited number of acceptable ways to be a woman, like any transwoman.

Judith Butler’s classic work Gender Trouble which proposes that gender is a culturally constructed performance, is often cited to dismiss the trans-experience and gender dysphoria. However this year, while interviewing for Verso Books, Butler explained her position on the trans experience in response to a question that asked what she would “like trans people to take” from her work. Butler said:

Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore ‘unreal’. That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognised and supported. I only meant to say that we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologisation, de-realisation, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalisation. I join in the struggle to realise such a world.”

Rowling’s concern isn’t only that transwomen haven’t had the conventional experience of “womanhood” but also that the acknowledgement of transgenderism will somehow downplay the struggles of cis women and erase their experiences.


Also read: Feminism: The Vilifying of a Collective Dream


This line of reasoning is similar to the right-wing insecurity of “immigrants stealing jobs” or the arguments that legality of same sex marriages will render heterosexual marriages meaningless. As if one can only exist at the cost of another. As if reduction of police brutality against black people would mean hurting the rights of white people in someway. That upholding someone’s rights can only hurt another’s, especially if the other has been enjoying an unfair advantage.

Justice isn’t a zero-sum game. The broad and complex experiences of womanhood are not negated by others adding their own complicated experiences.

In 2011, IAAF, the governing body for world athletics, introduced a rule which made women who naturally produce testosterone at levels usually seen in men ineligible to compete as women. The criteria has been continuously changed over the years, from the basis of physical appearance to chromosome testing, eventually landing on a testosterone level of 10 nmol/L as the acceptable level.

While testosterone is associated with muscle growth, the IAAF’s claim that it confers competitive advantage in running hadn’t been scientifically backed. Athletes who had hyperandrogenism were supposed to either quit sports, or undergo a medical intervention involving surgery and long-term hormone-replacement therapy to lower androgen levels.

Formerly, Indian swimmer Pratima Gaonkar died by suicide and middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan had attempted suicide on having failed the sex verification test. But sprinter Dutee Chand chose to challenge the ruling at the the Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS) in Switzerland.

On the other hand, there was no stigma against men who were strong and fast, and no tests to weed out men who produced more testosterone than other men. Michael Phelps has a rare genetic disorder called Marfan’s Syndrome, which is characterised by hyperflexibility, long limbs and long, thin fingers – which confers an advantage in competitive swimming. Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta, who won seven Olympic medals in skiing in the 1960s, has a mutation in the EPOR gene, which improves his oxygen-carrying capacity  by 25-50%. Usain Bolt completes a 100m race in 41 strides because of his long legs, while his nearest competitor takes 45.

“Only real ladies can participate in ladies’ events. I am not blaming them…but it is unfair for other athletes,” coach and former sprinter P.T. Usha had said.


Also read: By Coming Out, Dutee Chand Continues to Inspire a Generation


Eventually, the rule was revoked and Chand went on to become the first Indian female sprinter in 36 years to qualify for the Olympics. She also won a silver and a bronze at the Asian Athletics Championships and Asian Games.

However, the struggle continues for South African runner Caster Semenya since the latest change of rules in 2018, decreased the testosterone levels from 10 to 5 nmol/L. “I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast,” the athlete has said.

“So long as we refuse to accept that ‘woman’ is a holistic concept, one that includes all people who experience themselves as women, our concept of womanhood will remain a mere reflection of our own personal experiences and biases rather than something based in the truly diverse world that surrounds us.” writes Julia Serano in Whipping Girl.

A world is possible in which both Rowling and Manning can be women. It is the one we live in.

Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist working for LGBTQIA rights in Odisha. You can find him on Twitter @bijaya_biswal

Featured image credit: Domingo Alvarez/Unsplash