• Saturday, November 1, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Runner Caster Semenya: gender, sex and discrimination

    Open letter by South African gender activists

    Courtesy of Zapiro, Mail & Guardian

    Courtesy of Zapiro, Mail & Guardian

    Some of those championing Caster Semenya’s cause accuse those wanting to sex-test Caster of imperialism and racism (as well as sexism). Others plead to wait before reaching a verdict, arguing that the realities of sex testing are enormously complex

    Firstly to address the issue of terminology, over which there seems to be confusion. Gender is the dominant society’s views on how women and men should look, behave, what roles they should play in society, how they should perform and frequently what rewards they receive – hence gender inequity. This has usually led to lower status and discrimination against girls/women but has increasingly been seen as limiting the options and potentially harming boys/men too.

    Gender is not a politically correct term for sex. Sex testing would be just that – establishing whether a person is biologically female or male. So gender testing is not the term that should be used this case, but sex testing.

    Secondly, to tackle the science issue, as this tends to obscure the real issue of gender stereotyping and discrimination so evident in this case. Professor Tim Noakes, an international sports science expert says the issue of ‘unfair advantage’ which is the only thing that should be at play here as it is in the case of drug use,is simple to establish.

    He states that the issue that needs to be clarified here is whether the person concerned is a man masquerading as a woman or not. This could be established by a simple physical examination “handled within the usual constraints of the doctor/patient domain – not in the public domain” as has happened in the harmful manner in which the IAAF has handled this.

    As for the rest, he says, there is great variation. All other possible tests including chromosome testing is indeterminate and so that should be left well alone. The calls for more to be done in dealing with
    this issue and await judgment are therefore erroneous and cloud the issue in a shroud of inappropriate so-called scientific enquiry.

    Sissies and butch

    The third issue relates to what lies at the heart of the matter, social norms. While issues of racism and imperialism have and will continue to apply in various circumstances and have a sensitive history in terms of
    women’s bodies, particularly in Africa, focusing on these issues in the current context obscures the much neglected ‘elephant in the room’ - gender discrimination. Comments within the press and on talk shows are
    unwittingly guilty of this same problem in placing ‘blame’ at Athletics South Africa or her coach’s door.

    They argue that the authorities should have pre-empted this situation, given her prior experiences (at the hands of the teachers, members of the public and previous authorities). ‘Pre-empting the situation’ would fall prey to the exactly these same prejudices – pandering to what people perceive to be ‘normal’ for girls or women.

    This is akin to what might have happened during the apartheid era where actions may have tried to stave off racism by negotiating black people’s entry into racially reserved sporting or cultural events before the
    time.

    Many white girls who do not ‘look’ as society expects will tell similar humiliating stories of being stopped from entering female public toilets or being questioned as to whether they male or female.

    At the core of this issue are ideas about gender – how girls/women and boys/men look and behave and perform (in this case perhaps a young woman winning by 2 seconds ahead of the field is not seen as ‘normal’).

    This is what has been so hard to address locally in South Africa, despite our progressive constitution, due to deeply held dominant ideas about what is ‘female’ and ‘male’. It is these ideas and actions that promote gender discrimination. This leads to men, who in societies’ terms do not look ‘masculine enough’, being called ‘sissies’ and women who look not ‘feminine enough’ being labelled ‘butch’.

    At the root,  gender discrimination

    In our own society, this has led to violent attacks on some women and in our own and other countries to violent attacks on some boys/men. This is what we need to clearly point as underlying this case and name it for what it is. Framing the discrimination as racism or imperialism without reference to gender discrimination as the main issue risks reinforcing gender stereotypes.

    Societies have a long way to go in terms of changing the dominant ideas on how women and men should look and behave and perform, and in some cases, dress – and allow for variations in ‘looks’ and roles to be
    underpinned by what people would like to be and do, rather than societies’ current dominant expectations.

    There are many excellent organisations in our own country and abroad that have worked with women and men on this issues, but as it is all to obvious from this and other cases, much work is still needed for these choices and this freedom to take root in the broader society as a whole.

    Supporters at the airport. Photo: Marion Stevens

    Supporters at the airport. Photo: Marion Stevens

    Caster should not be having to deal with a world controversy over her win. She should be unreservedly basking in the glory of her and our incredible victory. No doubt she has experienced this humiliation and discrimination at other levels before and has become somewhat hardened to its effect, but we wish her, her friends and her family strength in dealing with this blatant gender discrimination.

    As Caster Semenya and our other gold medal winner, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, return home – congratulations on your amazing wins and Caster, you have our ful lsupport. For the rest, to Caster’s detractors or apologists, hang your heads in shame for not ‘naming’ the issue for what it is and for perpetuating gender stereotypes and discrimination in her individual case and in society as a whole.’

    As we once again approach the 16 days of activism against violence against women, let us bear these issues in mind and not mouth platitudes in our struggle against gender inequity and discrimination.

    Diane Cooper – Director, Women’s Health Research Unit, School of Public
    Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town
    Leslie London, Director, School of Public Health and Family Medicine,
    University of Cape Town
    Nomfundo Eland , Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) Women’s Rights Campaign
    Larissa Klazinga and Rhodes Gender Action Project
    Lisa Vetten, Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women
    Nomfundo Eland, TAC Women’s Rights Campaign
    Shirley Walters, University of Western Cape, South Africa

    Lillian Artz, Director, Gender, Health and Justice Unit, University of Cape Town, South Africa

    Glenn de Swardt, Health4Men
    Jane Harries, Associate Director, Women’s Health Research Unit,
    University of Cape Town
    Jennifer Moodley, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town

    Sheila Meintjes, Political Studies Department, Wits University
    Ilse Ahrends, the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children
    Phumi Mtetwa,the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project

    Marion Stevens, Health Systems Trust
    Sipho Mthathi, Human Rights Watch South Africa.
    Deborah Byrne, Foundation for Human Rights (FHR)
    Sumaya Mall, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town
    Ntobeko Nywagi, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town
    Sheila Cishe, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town
    Chelsea Morroni, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town

    Phyllis Orner, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town
    Regina Mlobeli, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town
    Mary Jansen (KIWIA) Khoe San Indigenous Women in Action
    Angelica Pino, Gender-based Violence Programme, Centre for the Study of
    Violence and Reconciliation

    Shireen Hassim, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
    Linda Cooper, Centre for Higher Education and Development, University
    of Cape Town
    Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Inst. of African Studies and Head, Centre for
    Gender Studies & Advocacy, University of Ghana, Legon
    Cathy Mathews, Medical Research Council
    Fareeda Jadwat, African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town
    Ilse Ahrends,Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, South
    Africa
    Di McIntyre, NRF chair, Health Economics Unit, University of Cape Town
    Andrea Rother, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health
    Research, University of Cape Town
    Carol Thomas, thewomanspace
    Johanna Kehler, Director, AIDS Legal Network, South Africa
    Carrie Shelver, People Opposing Women Abuse, South Africa
    Gabi Jiyane, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
    Balise Mahlangu, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
    Ayanda Rapita, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project

    Gertrude Fester, Feminist Forum/ Women’s and Gender Studies,University
    of Western Cape

    Naeemah Abrahams, Gender and Health Research Unit, Medical Research
    Council, South Africa
    Angelica Pino, Gender-based Violence Programme, Centre for the Study of
    Violence and Reconciliation, South Africa
    Pamela Scully, Women’s Studies and African Studies, Emory University &
    Deputy Editor, Women’s History Review
    Mary Jansen (KIWIA) Khoe San Indigenous Women in Action
    Melissa Steyn, Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, South
    Africa
    Gabi Jiyane,the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
    Marion Heap, Health and Human Rights, School of Public Health and
    Family Medicine,University of Cape Town
    Balise Mahlanguthe, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
    Bernadette Bredekamp, Division of Family Medicine, University of Cape
    Town
    Ayanda Rapita, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
    Larissa Klazinga and Rhodes Gender Action Project
    Laura Pollecutt, South Africa
    Sokari Ekine,London

    Natasha Primo
    Alex Kent
    Annemarie Hendrikz
    Jon Weinberg, Cape Town
    Eva Hunt, South Africa
    Shirley Gunn, Cape Town
    Susan Holland-Muter, South Africa

    Tara Weinberg, Cape Town Lavona George, South Africa
    Gille de vlieg, South Africa
    Michael Weinberg, Cape Town
    Anne Schuster, South Africa
    Jenny Radloff, South Africa
    Kathy Watters, Cape Town
    Sakina Mohamed, South Africa
    Nicolene McLean, Gender Action Project
    Carla Tsampiras, Rhodes History Dept
    Corinne Knowles, GENACT
    Alan Kirkaldy, NTESU
    Thava Govender, Human Development Consulting Agency,KZN, South Africa
    Richard Matzopoulos, Medical Research Council and UCT Public Health

    Bernedette Muthien, Engender

    Sally Gross,Intersex South Africa
    Surplus People Project, South Africa
    Sharon Stanton, S.L Stanton Attorneys
    Tessa Lewin, Communications Manager, Pathways of Women’s Empowerment,
    Institute of Development Studies, UK
    Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development

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    • http://www.gendercentric.org Jane Haile

      At the very least we can hope that the continuing media coverage of this very distressing incident results in an increased public awareness that our usual categories of sex and gender & the binary division into two of each are really inadequate over-simplifications…..see more support in News on http://www.gendercentric.org

    • zulu127

      This seems to me to be the perfect time to abandon the concept of having gender-divided sports. Just have people compete at the various activities and those who perform the best win.

    • http://www.judgehenneke.com/caster-semenya-is-woman-enough-for-the-iaaf-after-all-colorlines-magazine/ Caster Semenya is Woman Enough for the IAAF, After All – ColorLines magazine | Judge Henneke

      [...] Semenya’s box raises critical questions about how you conclude gender as good as gender discri…–and because you go upon to conclude sure characteristics to one side as manly or feminine. It [...]

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