Over the last week, the news media reported on Mokgadi "Caster" Semenya's "gender testing." The reporting showed a serious lack of understanding between "sex" and "gender" and also raised a bunch of other issues. Below, see the commentary written by Colleen Lowe Morna of Gender Links:
South Africa: Semenya challenges our deeply ingrained stereotypes
By Colleen Lowe Morna
Is she a girl or is she a boy? That’s been the level of debate surrounding teenage athlete sensation Mokgadi “Caster” Semenya at home and abroad.
The question we should be asking ourselves in Women’s Month in South Africa and in a globalised world steeped in gender stereotypes is how this young woman, who defies all templates of what we expect a woman to be, should help us see through our own blinders to the beauty of her success.
Let’s start with some definitions. Sex is a biological given. Gender is a social construct: it is about society’s expectations of what a woman or man should look like, behave and be.
In sport, testing for sex is legitimate, as is testing for drugs. There are physical differences between women and men. To the extent these might give an athlete an advantage, they can be questioned. This kind of testing indeed started in the sixties as a result of men sneaking into women’s sport is disguise. It was about proving that men are not women; not about women proving that they are women. Men, it should be noted, never have to undergo tests in sports to prove that they are men.
Gender testing, if that is what happens, is completely wrong. What would such a test involve? Determining if a person looks or thinks or acts like a woman or a man? And how exactly does a woman or man think or look or act?
Ironically, gender not sex testing is exactly what Semenya is being subjected to. She is being questioned on the basis of our assumptions about how a woman should look and behave: not the biological facts.
Over the last few days, we have heard from Semenya’s coach; her room mate, her mother and grandmother, all of whom confirm that she is biologically a girl. The experts say that there is more to it than simple gynecological tests. In the same breath, they caution that hormonal balance is murky territory; especially when one is talking about super fit athletes whose balance is anyway going to be quite different from the average man or woman.
Could it be that the real issue is that we are blown away by a confident and fit young woman who exudes not only physical but also psychological strength in a way that challenges our deeply held views about what girls should or should not be? And is race conceivably part of this stereotypical mix?
Hark back two decades ago to Mozambican athlete Maria Mutolo’s debut on the world stage, when similar questions were raised about her sex. How different is her physique to that of Semenya? On the other hand, of late we have seen a muscular Madonna making public appearances after four hours of gym each day. Why are we not asking whether the world’s great sex symbol is indeed still a woman?
The singer Caiphus Semenya has a great line in one of his songs: woman has a right to be. That is what Women’s month in South Africa is all about. Our biggest gold medal is a Constitution that celebrates diversity: that embraces women and men of all shapes, forms and colours.
We should celebrate Semenya on her return not just because she is bringing back a gold medial, but because she has refused to conform to societal norms and expectations.
When little girls were being told not to play soccer, she declared she loved the sport. When she was teased and humiliated and told to pull down her pants before she could use the “ladies” she cast her energies and concentration into running. In Berlin, when an Australian newspaper leaked the sordid details about her “gender test” on the eve of her big race, she ran like there is no tomorrow.
Today it’s the Athletic World Championships; tomorrow it’s Soccer 2010. What is that next big global sporting event going to mean for the women of Southern Africa? A chance to make a bit more money in the dark alleys of illegal sex work? Or a chance to play the game; build roads and bridges; run thriving businesses; drive taxis and be a part of public life?
If Semenya helps us to see past all that has made our society blind to these possibilities for women, rendering them politically, socially and economically second class citizens in our society, her agony will not have been in vain. We can only turn her trauma to victory if we raise the current tempo of the debate from a Twelfth Night drama to a serious questioning of what exactly gender equality means.
(Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news)
Also see Ammu Joseph's posting on the WIMN blog