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A case of sexual policing?

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

August 25th, 2009

South African teenager Mokgadi “Caster” Semenya won the 800 metres race at the ongoing World Athletics Championships in Berlin last week with what has been described as “a stunningly dominating run.” Unfortunately, her victorious debut in international sports has been clouded by controversy over her sexual identity.

The case has understandably provoked public outrage in South Africa. It has also received widespread media coverage in the country, with SABC News International scheduled to broadcast a discussion on the subject live tonight (7 pm, Johannesburg time).

But it has also been widely reported in other parts of the world – though not in India, which is strange considering that an Indian athlete, Santhi Soundarajan, went through a similar, traumatic experience just a couple of years ago after winning a silver medal (coincidentally in the same event – 800 m.) at the 2006 Asian Games.

Some of the coverage has been of “the ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ smutty variety,” as Margaret Gallagher put it in a recent e-mail. The Daily Mail headline, “Is she really a HE?” obviously belongs in that category, although the actual report did not adopt that tone.

However, there has been more sober and serious coverage as well, with several reports and opinion pieces pointing out that the issues raised by the Semenya case are extremely complex. Some reports have opted to clarify scientific facts related to ambiguous sexual identity, including intersexuality. Germaine Greer has weighed in with her thoughts on the question, “What makes a woman?” The comment by Mark Lawson in The Guardian is one of the few that raises the possibility that Semenya could be a victim of misogynist prejudice.

But what is perhaps most shocking about much of the media coverage is its unquestioning repetition of the terms, ‘gender testing’ and ‘gender verification,’ which the International Association of Athletics Federations has used to describe what Semenya is being subjected to. It appears that both the IAAF and many journalists would benefit from going back to women’s/gender studies 101 to understand the difference between sex and gender.

These two articles on the subject put out by the South Africa based Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service raise many of these issues and are available for republishing and distribution (contact editor@genderlinks.org.za): “Semenya challenges our deeply ingrained stereotypes” by Colleen Lowe Morna and “Gender questions hurt women and girls in sport” by Gladys Muzirwa.

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