Category Archives: Sarah Bartmann

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.


Joint Working Group statement on Caster Semenya

The Joint Working Group Statement on Caster Semenya

As Mokgadi ‘Caster’ Semenya proudly received her gold medal today in Berlin we join with the rest of the country in declaring our pride and joy at the astounding achievement of this amazing young woman. We are deeply disturbed that questions around her gender have taken prominence away from her performance throughout the international media and condemn utterly the demand from the International Association of Athletics Federations that she should undergo gender testing.

Some 200 years ago a young South African woman named Saartjie Baartman was forcefully removed to Europe, as a woman who was physically different to the commonly accepted norm she became a figure of curiosity and disgust to the people she was paraded in front of. After her death she was dissected. Now Caster is likewise to be dissected; poked, prodded and tested by a panel of doctors who on the basis of their ‘investigations’ will pass judgement on who and what she is. Making an abysmal mockery of her history, her family and her right to ownership of her identity.

That the IAAF chose to reveal that a gender test had been requested before her race thereby forcing her to run under a media storm was disgraceful. It is against the IAAFs own rules to comment on athletes being tested for drugs related offences before the outcome of the test is known, there seems to be no good reason why the same courtesy was not extended to Caster. Nor is she the first woman to face these allegations, athletes from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe particularly have throughout the history of the sport been subjected to suspicion around their gender based solely on their physical appearance and perceived lack of femininity. In 2006 Indian sprinter Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of the silver medal won at the Asian Games due to the fact that despite having the external organs of a woman, being brought up as a woman and self identifying as a woman her genetic tests indicated that she was not fully female. The testing is invasive, insulting, based on a very limited and questionable understanding of what constitutes a woman and has no place in modern sport.

We stand in full solidarity with Caster and applaud Athletics South Africa and other sports bodies for throwing their full support being her. We hope this support will be maintained regardless of the results of the gender inquisition to which Caster is to be subjected.

Emily Craven

Joint Working Group
011 403 5566
emily at

Media witch hunt on Semenya will lead to hate crimes

-Media Statement Gender DynamiX and the Saartjie Baartman Centre-
20 August 2009

This week South African media, in particular radio DJ’s and print media have been having a shameless orgy with the gender dispute of our gold medalist heroine competing in Berlin.

Last year we lost a South African sport star to a hate crime because she transgressed gender boundaries. Banyana soccer star Eudy Simelane was murdered in a township because she challenged expected gender stereotypes.

Is our media putting a South African hero’s life in danger on her return, gold medal in hand?

Instead of being proud of our champion the South African media and public is on a witch-hunt trying to define Semenya’s sex. DJ’s on radio are dissecting Semenya’s person to a point of reducing her accomplishments to her genitals.

Says Gender DynamiX Director:” In our work we are reminded of how (wo)men’s bodies are so easily ridiculed and made into a spectacle because of gender notions”. Gender DynamiX focuses its work in the field of transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming people.

Civil society organisations, are fighting battles against homophobia and transphobia in South Africa. With their work the killing of black lesbians in acts called “curative rape” has come to light. Gender DynamiX maintains that these hate crimes are not only rooted in sexual orientation but also in gender identity.

Ilse Ahrends, Partnership coordinator at the Saartjie Baartman Centre in Cape Town asks ‘. Alas where was the media when National Banyana-Banyana soccer player, Eudy Simelane was murdered because of her sexual orientation?’

Gender non-conformity does not always equal gay or lesbian. It merely refers to a person physical appearance that does not conform to society’s expectations. In general people are outraged and confused by gender ambiguity.

As in the case of Caster Semenya, when confronted by people who challenge our perceptions of masculinity or femininity, we react with anger and fear. This is the daily reality for many South Africans.

Gender DynamiX board member Simone Heradien says: “We are appalled by public and media mechanisms that spur hate speech of this nature. We should not forget the part of radio in the genocide in Rwanda.”

Contact: Robert Hamblin 083 226 4683.

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.