For the past week, Pinki Pramanik — award-winning athlete, citizen and, most important, human being — has been reduced to an exhibit in a media-driven circus. Her treatment disgraces us all. Ms Pramanik, an Asian and Commonwealth Games medal-winning athlete, was earlier this month charged with rape by her partner, who claims Ms Pramanik has male sexual organs, and also that she reneged on a promise to marry. Like all women who file a complaint of rape, Ms Pramanik’s partner deserves a serious and sensitive police investigation of her allegations. It takes no great imagination, though, to see that what is happening is a particularly distasteful farce. Ms Pramanik has been subjected to multiple medical examinations, often with a voyeuristic media present to record her journey to and from prison; a surreptitiously made video recording of one of those tests was even put online, and promptly went viral. Thus, Ms Pramanik has been put on public trial not for her alleged crime, but her intersex condition. Prurience runs through this story: no one, after all, posts MMS clips of the medical examinations of the tens of thousands of men arrested each year on rape charges; nor is their anatomy a subject of discussion.

Ms Pramanik’s treatment tells us something profoundly disturbing about the society we inhabit. Ensuring dignity for the sexuality of citizens is one of the keystones of a democratic polity. Human sexuality is a powerful yet private sphere for citizens to exercise freedoms, which is why political and religious despots have often sought to regulate and punish perceived deviance. The assault on Ms Pramanik’s dignity comes at a time when political reactionaries and religious bigots are increasingly colluding to police our private lives. The hounding of Ms Pramanik also reinforces the stigmatisation of the millions of intersex people in this country. Late in the last century, research established that diverse forms of sexual physicality are not diseases to be treated. Nature is less doctrinaire in its approach to gender than our minds — a fact Hindu tradition, among others, has long acknowledged. Even though modern surgery has made it possible to stamp out what society considers to be aberrations, there is an ongoing debate on precisely when such intervention is appropriate. Ms Pramanik might or might not be guilty of the crime she is accused of, but her dignity must be restored — starting now. The individuals who made the video, the medical personnel who allowed it to be taken, and the police officers on whose watch this crime occurred, must be punished. For full justice to be done, though, we must search inwards, within our culture that engendered an audience for this sordid spectacle.

More In: Editorial | Opinion