Semenya Caster Is South Africa’s Hero

I previously reported  that Semenya’s testosterone levels were found to be 3 times that of the “normal” range for women. According to the Guardian her levels are within a respectable range despite being higher than average. She will be allowed to participate in women’s track and field events. I am beyond relieved at the outcome and hope Semenya continues to shine on and off the track. There is no doubt that she is a female who is eligible to compete against other female athletes.


Sources within the ASA told South Africa’s Mail & Guardian this week that said Semanya had taken a standard urine test – taken by all athletes – and not gender verification to make sure she was eligible to compete. “She was tested three years ago when she started competing and it was found that she is a woman. She may have rather high levels of male hormones but she is definitely a woman,” the source said.

Another source said she has been tested and found to be a woman, and the issue of whether or not an athlete is tested has to be kept confidential. “Of course it is controversial but results are made known only if there is a problem.”

Chris Hattingh, the chair of ASA’s anti-doping committee, says a urine sample taken for a doping test is often used to test the ratio between testosterone and epi-testosterone. Epitestosterone is a natural steroid produced by the body but can be used to mask the appearance of an unusually high amount of testosterone and is classified as a prohibited substance. The urine sample given for doping tests is taken by a person of the same gender who is also authorised to check any irregularities in the athlete’s genitalia.

I’m going to follow this up with a well written article by David Smith from the Guardian website. He addresses some of the deep socio-cultural issues surrounding South Africa’s persistent problems with discrimination and violence again its masculine identified women, most notably; lesbians.

South Africa had never witnessed a homecoming like it. The quiet bustle of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport gave way to a riot of noise and colour on Tuesday as more than 1,000 people welcomed their new sporting heroine. They sang, danced and waved posters proclaiming: “Our golden girl” and “Caster you beaut!”

The patriotic pride in Caster Semenya, the women’s 800m world champion ordered to undergo a “sex verification test”, was fierce and charged with historical grievance. South Africans rallied around her on websites and invoked the ghost of Saartjie Baartman, an 18th-century Khoisan woman dubbed the “Hottentot Venus” who was brought to the UK on account of her large backside common to the Khoisan people and paraded naked for colonialists to prod her genitals with their umbrellas. The defiance went all the way to the top. President Jacob Zuma defended the 18-year-old against accusers who had seized on her androgynous appearance, deep voice and sudden improvement in form, and told her: “Walk tall. We’re proud of you. We love you.”

The fact that a man notorious for “macho politics” was so quick to celebrate Semenya may be political opportunism. But it also speaks to the paradox of a country where women hold significant positions of power yet challenges to notions of femininity are still violently suppressed – and where rape is a national epidemic. Zuma himself infuriated activists after being acquitted of rape with remarks such as: “In Zulu culture you cannot leave a woman if she is ready. To deny her sex, that would have been tantamount to rape.” And Semenya might have been embraced with adulation this week, but another sportswoman who transgressed gender expectations has met a very different fate.

Last year Eudy Simelane, who captained South Africa’s women football team, was gang-raped and beaten, before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. This week, as Semenya was praised by her countrymen, three men went on trial for Simelane’s murder. Gay and lesbian activists said that Simelane – a 29-year-old politically active lesbian of supposedly “butch” appearance – was just the most high-profile victim of so-called “corrective rape”. That is the rape of a lesbian by a man to punish or “cure” her sexual orientation.

Marlow Valentine of the Triangle project, a leading Southern African gay rights organisation, says: “It is mostly ‘butch-presenting’ women who are targeted and Eudy Simelane was seen as someone who challenged the normative ideas of what gender is. She was brutally murdered because she chose to live her life as a proud, visible and confident gay woman. Her life was taken because a group of men believed she was ‘other’.”

Shocking research published last year by Triangle revealed that 10 cases of “corrective rape” are reported in South Africa every week. An astonishing 31 lesbians have been reported murdered in homophobic attacks since 1998 but only two cases have made it to the courts and there has been only one conviction.

On paper, South Africa is progressive. Women MPs make up 44.5% of its parliament, the third-highest representation in the world after Rwanda and Sweden. In 1994 it became the first country in the world to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in its constitution. It was also the first country in Africa to legalise gay marriage. Yet the reality is very different, says Phumi Mtetwa, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project. “There are women in leadership roles but they don’t necessarily advance a female agenda. Women are at the bottom in this country when it comes to help. Let the ANC [African National Congress] produce a campaign in which we celebrate different gender identities.”

The criticism has been echoed by academics and activists in South Africa who, in a recent joint letter about Semenya, said the country is still in thrall “to deeply held dominant ideas about what is ‘female’ and ‘male'”. They added: “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 as underlying this case and name it for what it is.”

So how has Semenya escaped South Africa’s gender policing? Is it a case of patriotism trumping prejudice – would she be defended so passionately if she had finished 12th in her race? This, too, is complex. When the Guardian visited her home village in a remote rural area of Limpopo province, it found friends and neighbours who watched her wear trousers, play football with boys and shun talk of boyfriends – and who still accepted her unquestioningly. Dean Peacock, co-director of the Sonke Gender Justice Project, says: “Her parents have been very supportive. It doesn’t conform to the particular stereotype of rural families in Limpopo. I think Caster Semenya’s father is the unsung hero of this story. He belongs to a traditional church in a small village but leapt to her defence and has never tried to force her into a particular gender role.”

Recent research by the Sonke Project found traditional views of gender deeply entrenched in South Africa. Men said they felt a deep sense of shame when unable to fulfil the role of provider and protector, with male violence a possible consequence of feeling that their manhood is threatened. Working women are accepted but are still expected to take the majority of domestic and parenting responsibilities. Peacock finds the Semenya episode encouraging, however. “It’s fantastic how supportive people have been of a bold and courageous young woman. She could easily have been the butt of jokes and homophobia but there has been none of that. She’s determined to resist conformity and be who she is, and that’s inspiring in a country where there isn’t a lot of space for complex gender identities.”

The Semenya story has been complicated by racial politics, with leaders such as Malema and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela citing the struggle against apartheid and accusing the west of “imperialism”. In this case it is Europe, not Africa, that has proved intolerant and illiberal with its prurient commentaries and bookmakers taking bets on whether Semenya will be found to be female, male or hermaphrodite. At the centre of it all is a shy teenager having the core of her identity assailed.

Vytjie Mentor, a female MP for the ANC, describes the events of the past week as a “milestone” that stands in contrast to the murder of Simelane. “It looks like we are leaving that sad chapter behind,” she says. “This must be defended and multiplied.”

She reflects on a divided nation: “I went to a skincare shop in Cape Town and found two gay men who gave me advice and who wear makeup themselves. I asked if they suffer resentment from other men and they said no, they don’t. But last night I watched a TV programme about young girls in Eastern Cape being forced into marriage. There was a 13-year-old girl who had been made pregnant against her will. So we cannot say we have arrived.”

Mentor concludes: “There are a lot of contradictions in South Africa today, but the Caster Semenya case gives us hope.”




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