Caster Semenya and Gender Discrimination – the ‘Elephant in the Room’

Wednesday, 26 August, 2009 - 12:40

An open letter signed by over 100 activists responds to the controversy surrounding the 800m women’s world running champion and the flurry of articles surrounding the saga. Caster should not have to deal with a world controversy over her win; she should be unreservedly basking in the glory of her and our incredible victory, they write

We write in response to the controversy surrounding the 800 m women’s world running champion, Caster Semenya and the flurry of articles surrounding this sad saga.

Some of those championing Caster’s cause accuse those wanting to sex-test Caster of imperialism and racism (as well as sexism). Others plead for the us 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” (Cape Argus, ‘Why the world should leave Caster alone’ Fri Aug 21, 2009:21), 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 are indeterminate and 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.

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 particular 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. (article in sportsscientists.com and editorial in Mail and Guardian ‘Racing to conclusions’, August 21-27 2009:20). 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 are 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’. 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 to 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.

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 – congratulations on your amazing wins and Caster, you have our full support. 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.

Yours sincerely

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

Elinor Sisulu, South Africa

Prudence Mabele, Positive Women's Network, South Africa

Nomfundo Eland , Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) Women’s Rights Campaign

Glenn de Swardt, Health4Men

Lisa Vetten, Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women

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

Pamela Scully, Women's Studies and African Studies, Emory University & Deputy Editor, Women's History Review

Sipho Mthathi, Human Rights Watch South Africa

Carrie Shelver, People Opposing Women Abuse, South Africa

Deborah Byrne, Foundation for Human Rights (FHR)
Akosua Adomako Ampofo, University of Ghana

Lebohang Letsie, University of Botswana

Amina Mama, Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair, Mills College, USA Jane Harries, Associate Director, Women's Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town

Jennifer Moodley, Women's Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town

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

Liesl Theron, Gender Dynamix

Dipika Nath, Human Rights Watch

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

Angelica Pino, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

Shireen Hassim, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

Phyllis Orner, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town

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

Regina Mlobeli, Women’s Health Research Unit, University of Cape Town

Jane Bennett, African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town

Mary Jansen (KIWIA) Khoe San Indigenous Women in Action
Shirley Walters, University of Western Cape, South Africa

Linda Cooper, Centre for Higher Education and Development, University of Cape Town

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, UCT

Nomfundo Mlisa: President – Gender Forum: University of Fort Hare, Alice

Masiphile Community Project: Tsengiwe Village, Cala

Johanna Kehler, Director, AIDS Legal Network, South Africa

Ayanda Rapita, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project
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, UCT

Balise Mahlanguthe, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project

Bernadette Bredekamp, Division of Family Medicine, University of Cape Town

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

Carol Thomas, thewomanspace

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, Institute of Development Studies, UK

Marjorie Jobson, Khulumani Support Group

Charlotte Young, South Africa

Melanie Judge, South Africa

Lin Helme, Adult Learning Forum, South Africa

Thembi Luckett, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town

Mohamed Jeebhay, School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town

Elaine Salo, Institute for Women's and Gender Studies. Univ of Pretoria

Marinda Maree - Institute for Women's and Gender Studies - Univ of Pretoria

Rory DuPlessis - Institute for Women's and Gender Studies - Univ of Pretoria

Owen Sichone - Department of Anthropology & Archaeology - Univ of Pretoria

Kammila Naidoo - Department of Sociology- Univ of Pretoria

Sven Ouzman - Department of Anthropology & Archaeology - Univ. of Pretoria

Rehana Ebrahim-Vally - Department of Anthropology & Archaeology - Univ of Pretoria

Feminist Alternatives

Ingrid Meintjes, African Gender Institute & Perinatal Mental Health Project

Mary Hames - Gender Equity Unity, South Africa

Desiree Lewis

Vasu Reddy, Gender and Development Unit - HSRC

Sophie Oldfield

Lubna Nadvi, UKZN, Durban

Josette Cole, Mandlovu Development Trust, South Africa

Thava Govender, Human Development Consulting Agency,South Africa

Charlotte Young, South Africa

Ashnie Padarath, Health Systems Trust

Simone Honikman, Head, Perinatal Mental Health Project, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town

Cherryl Walker, Department Chair Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University

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