Violence against Caster Semenya
On Thursday, at the 12th International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Championships in Berlin, an eighteen year old South African athlete broke a record and scooped the gold in the women’s 800m final. Caster Semenya was the first South African to achieve such spectacular athletics heights in the middle distances. Given how happy we are to celebrate Mzantsi firsts, we have much to be proud of in the accomplishments of the teenager from Polokwane. However, if Semenya showed us that “all the world is her stage”, this week we noticed the multitudes that stood ready to shower acid rain on her parade.
Reporting for the IAAF website, Bob Ramsak declared that Semenya’s record breaking time was “naturally, another world leader”. Much of the world’s media dubbed her “controversial” since the IAAF deemed her a candidate for “gender verification testing”. This is fancy language for the crude assertion: she must be a man to run that fast at 18.
But how do you test someone’s gender?
This could be simple, assuming that the tester and tested speak the same language: we are the gender we claim. Ms Semenya has lived her life as a girl, then a woman, and she enters women’s athletics events. But her answer has been dismissed as unreliable.
What people really want to question is whether her sex is male or female, not her gender. Our sex is in our chromosomes, not our genitals, height, muscles, appetites or mental agility. Although lay people believe chromosomes offer conclusive answers, many scientists tell us that XX and XY are only part of the picture, that even biological sex has many grey areas.
Gender is a social category that does not necessarily correspond to sex. Our gender is everywhere, except our chromosomes. But there was a time when scientists thought that our DNA and other biological information determined who we were. Many of us would like to think that science has moved beyond this fact, but has it?
The Caster Semenya saga is an old, familiar story: a young South African woman on the world stage for prodding, genital and other testing by a band of scientists in Europe in order to determine whether she is this or that, or if indeed she is a separate category altogether. It was exceptionally cold over Sarah Bartmann’s Eastern Cape this late August week, and she must have shivered from horror at the de ja vu.
Listening to the increasingly bizarre discussions on the super-achieving Semenya, my mind drifted to tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, who endured endless questions about her gender identity and sexual preference even as she was at the top of Wimbledon. The Williams sisters are scrutinised similarly two decades later. They all look too strong and muscular to be women. And I paused on Eudy Simelane, star footballer, who was prodded to death by a different band of men.
A friend insists that what is wrong is the public manner of Caster Semenya’s humiliation because the IAAF did not quietly take the tests at the beginning of the entire saga rather than making her the subject of rumour and speculation. She notes that the IAAF testing is justified given a history of men running women’s races and the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport.
I might partly agree if the IAAF were in the business of routinely testing all athletes for their chromosomes and whatever else they think determines sex (not gender). It would be despicable and vile test, reminiscent of a time in the science academy when people’s genitals, blood and skulls were studied for information on where to classify them and their capacities. But the IAAF does not subject every single athlete to such tests, only those who challenge dominant understandings of what men and women should look like. Semenya is not the first person to be tested like this by the athletics body. Remember the Indian athlete, Santhi Soundararajan? She first passed and then later failed the same biological sex test, and her results were released upon the failure of the infamous test.
The lesson here is sobering: unless you look like the conventional idealised woman, do not dare dream and achieve big dreams. There is nothing controversial about Caster Semenya, save for the fact that she does not look like a Black Barbie. I don’t know about you, but I will be drinking pretend champagne this week and celebrating a remarkable achievement by a young woman I am proud to share a continent with.
Posted on 21 August 2009, in Caster Semenya, Sarah Bartmann, things that suck and tagged 800m women's race, Berlin, Black people, Black women, Black women's activism, Bob Ramsak, Caster Semenya, IAAF, sex and gender, South Africa, south african feminists, women and sport. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.