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 African feminists, African Women, Black women, Caster Semenya, gender based violence, sexualities, South Africa, south african feminists, writing back. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.