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 , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’ve been obsessively chasing news about this in the print and virtual media since the story broke and have yet to find an analysis of the whole debacle as insightful as this. Well done on helping us nuance this appalling spectacle of violent gender overdetermination, and on rightly celebrating the achievements of a fantastic young woman. Hope you publish and circulate this more widely.

  2. I have to say I am completely outraged by this. It is a violation of Semenya’s right to privacy at minimum and I think that Athletics South Africa should sue the IAAF- and if they don’t then I think one of the many human rights organisations who are committed to these issues could do so as an impact litigation case.

    There are of course broader issues of race, our obsession with narrow conceptions of gender- but I guess I am also hoping for a bit of (legal) justice in the matter too,

    I can’t imagine the humiliation of having my genitals examined by a team of European doctors under the spotlight of the international media. It is a figurative rape, and they should not get away with it.

  3. Always on point, and articulate very elegantly written. Thanks for this.

  4. but ‘she’ is a boy and this was a girls race

  5. Incredible post. Thank you for such thoughtful discussion. I support Caster Semenya and her right to be.

  6. Am very pissed off by this issue! Disgusting!!
    Only God will judge, u have 100% of my support Caster

  7. VERY much on point, i agree. it’s been a heartbreaking story to follow

  8. VERY much on point, i agree. it’s been a heartbreaking story to follow.

  9. I don… Read more’t understand why this is an issue NOW!! This young woman did not just pop up from nowhere and decide to kick everyone’s ass in the 800m race. I’m assuming that she has been racing for some time now and is not new at this. It seems way too convenient that this would come up now that she has made it to the big stage. There is nothing legitimate about what the IAAF is claiming. This was badly handled, is a tacky, and shame on the IAAF for trying to humiliate a young woman. Perhaps there `scientific’ notions about how fast a woman should be will be reevaluated and I hope she keeps kicking there asses…..Go Castor!

  10. She is owed a lot of apologies and more, by those in charge and those who handle her, who not only didn’t anticipate this, but didn’t prepare the girl adequately for it; those who didn’t treat her special situation withe the same grace and courage that she showed when she nonetheless decided to run the race and won.

    I hope the furore doesn’t just … Read moreend with all the public commentary and outrage from independent observers. Instead, the IAAF, and the local SA federation, ASA, should be held responsible for several courses of corrective action that include an official statement of strong endorsement for the girl, a form of legal penalty as well as paying for the girl to undergo counselling.

    It would also help if the IAAF officials who started the tabloid frenzy were fired from the IAAF, so as to demonstrate the commitment of non-discrimination not just in words, but in action.

  11. thanks Pumla

  12. What is also interesting is that it appears a South African birdie journalist whispered the question ‘what is she’ in the IAAF’s ear. Thanks P for the article

  13. My friend, thanks for all your comment through out this debacle. You made facing the papers bearable this morning! G

  14. Thanks for sending this, Pumla. The treatment of Caster is medieval and a disgrace.

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