Semenya as the 21st century Bartmann?

Below is the full opinion piece published in City Press (23 August 2009, p5) with the first half shortened and the 2nd half slightly edited. I did not like the editorial changes, and I see it is not on the website, so I cannot just link to it. If I remember to, I’ll attach the scanned pdf version from the past weekend to my next Caster Semenya post (for those of you obsessive types, like me:)

I wish that the stir caused by South African super-athlete, Caster Semenya, this week was in celebration of how she achieved the previously inconceivable. Instead, Caster Semenya became the twenty-first century Sarah Bartmann.

Like Bartmann, Semenya is a South African woman rendered spectacle in a European city for the world to see. In the IAAF’s statements and ensuing media frenzy, Semenya ceased to matter as more than the subject of humour, humiliation and leering. The widespread use of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as if they were synonyms is telling, not just for the failure to recognise that sex is a biological and gender a social category. This apparent confusion shows how Semenya, like Bartmann, is unworthy of decent, humane consideration. She may have scooped gold because of skill, talent and choice – all social attributes – but she is reduced to the field of spectacle. Through the IAAF’s irresponsibility, Semenya the outstanding athlete was reduced to a freak, another curious body that does not fit categories we pretend are neutral. She is not even entitled to privacy from the leering eyes looking for the Adam’s apple they claim to almost see, just like Bartmann’s mischievous ‘Hottentot apron’.

Through her exhibition, Sarah Bartmann was rendered object, and her humiliation was justified through claims that her body held secrets of scientific value. Was she animal, human or something altogether different? Semenya’s journey to Berlin was about skill, talent and determination. It has not mattered what she likes, feels, thinks or decides. She is the spectacular body on display waiting to yield secrets that are the world’s entitlement. Ms Semenya has no right to privacy, unlike other athletes who have been tested before. A band of scientists want direct access to her body so that they can answer once and for all: is she female, male or something altogether different. And what would that be?

Suddenly, it does not matter that sex classification tests are murky terrain, or that many people are intersex. Many scientists tell us that poking around with Semenya’s chromosomes, blood samples and other body fluids, or subjecting her to painful tissue sampling is not as simple matter. Rather than conclusive answers, these biological sex tests may yield more questions. In addition to the technical lab dealings, we must never forget that the business of science is also very political. It was men in European labs who brought us scientific racism which the remainder of the academy legitimised so effectively that we still live its nightmares. In the aftermath of esteemed scientists like Linneaus, who classified, and dissected like Cuvier, sex tests such as the one used by the IAAF would become de rigueur for those whose bodies were safe to question and mark as hysterical.

But we are assured that this is not in the eighteenth century. The IAAF will ensure that competent teams of specialists are responsible for these tests. Their results will hold a very clinical truth.

Is it really irrelevant that these tests originate from the 1930s at a time when scientists were less coy about the connections between race, sex and superiority?

Results are determined by which tests are used, when and how. All research is indelibly shaped by the scientist’s questions and assumptions. The language of scientific sex verification hides the significant role that interpretation plays when faced with the results. This is why the same athlete has sometimes passed and failed very similar IAAF sex verification tests. Science is not the unquestionable truth, and it is important to continue to question the racist gender violence under its cover here.

But even if we accept the validity of some testing, the IAAF does not test every athlete, nor does it release the details of ongoing tests as a matter of course. Most athletes are human beings, entitled to dignity, privacy and respect – unless that athlete’s name is Caster Semenya. Semenya’s crime is that she dared to be that young, fast, strong and look like a powerful athlete at the same time. She does not look like the British Jenny Meadows, who resembles idealised white femininity. But Semenya looks and sounds like many women we all know from across the world. Bartmann looked like many African women. But she did not look like Jenny Meadow’s foremothers.

We have more power to defend and support Semenya than our foreparents did with Bartmann. It is our responsibility to speak in anger at Semenya’s racist gender violation, and to celebrate the achievement of a most remarkable eighteen year old.


Posted on 24 August 2009, in Caster Semenya, Sarah Bartmann, things that suck and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. An excellent piece Pumla – Your comparison with Sarah Baartman speaks volumes – Let us shout our pride in both women and silence these vitriolic voices.

  2. History does repeat itself…Damn!!!

  3. Brilliant piece Pumla….
    And all of this is taking place within a sort of global meta-narrative that has created an “extreme heterosexuality” where women have to differentiate themselves from men surgically. They must shave or wax their armpits, their legs, their faces, their pubic hair. They must whiten their teeth chemically, Botox their wrinkles, enhance their breasts, their lips, their cheekobnes, lipsuck their stomachs, extend their hair. All of this at huge cost to say nothing about the physical agony of it all.
    And the wrath of the ignorant gods of the dominant media shall be unleashed upon those women who dare to be just as they are….in the full range of what it means to be female.
    Looking “heterosexual” takes such hard work one wonders what is is those who promte this on every front are denying. And the wrath of the ignorant gods of the dominant media shall be unleashed upon those women who dare to be just as they are….in the full range of what it means to be female.
    Looking “heterosexual” takes such hard work one wonders what is is those who promte this on every front are denying.
    That a range of being masculine and feminine is the norm and that you cannot categorise human beings in these new extremes?… Read more
    Viva Caster, viva…..Aluta Continua

  4. You are right Pumla. It is the same “scientific curiosity”, that surrounded Sarah Bartmann, that makes Caster (read:black female bodies) spectacle and worth of STUDY by superior-feeling white males. But what disturbs me is the pathologizing of black bodies because they do not FIT Europe’s IDEA of a woman!!! I am deeply disturbed by this and no … Read morematter how many people come out to say that we are ‘crying victimhood’, I still cant think of this whole TRAGEDY outside race and gender.

    Thank you for posting this ‘sequel’ of Castor Semenya.

  5. Awesome piece of writing Sisi wam.

  6. Sistah! Thank you. Asante Sana. I have had a bee buzzing around in my head to write my responses to this abomination in the form i know best, poetry. but da bee each time i wished to expel it, stung my lips,my tongue…so i thank you

  7. It does indeed take a lot of hard work, money and emotional energy to look feminine in a heteronormative sort of way, no doubt because these rules about bodies are fuzzy and vague even if at the same time hugely oppressive and interpellative. I was thinking we should insist that the English rugby team all go for sex testing. It would miss the point, of course, but I’d get a perverse kick out of it, nonetheless.

  8. well said…

  9. Fabulous!!!!

  10. This is really a brilliant piece of work Pumla. Well said!

  11. Hi Pumla, just read your piece on the Caster Semenya the City Press..I particularly liked the dimension of a ‘Sarah Baartman of the 21st Century’. Its important that we sustain our actions and condemn the actions of this IAAF.

    Lets keep on keeping on….

  12. Well done on articulating so many peoples thoughts on the Semenya matter so eloquently. So many people appear to be missing the point and your piece brings the crux of the matter to the fore. BBK has a piece on the Times on line today. It lacks your nuanced approach though.

  13. If Semenya truly is a female, then I am positive she will get resounding apologies and adolation by the world and the athletic community as a whole. However, if she is NOT female, then she has undermined the very trust and spirit of competing in world competition. “The truth will out.”

    I believe that Semenya is truly a male, and will publicly apologize if the IAAF determines otherwise.

  14. In plain truth, it is not want, but rather abundance, that creates avarice.

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