Last month, the IAAF reversed the decision clearing South African elite middle distance runner Caster Semenya, to continue competing as a woman. This ruling means Semenya will be unable to defend her title at the world championships this month or to compete in the future unless she submits to testosterone-reducing hormone treatments.
Weighing in on the decision was IAAF board member, former head of Spain’s athletics body and biochemistry professor José María Odriozol. In supporting the reversal, Odriozol referred to Semenya as a “biologically a man,” claiming her testosterone levels gives her an “enormous advantage” over other women. Comparing her case with that of transgender athletes, he argues that they may say, “they feel like women but physically they are men.”
It’s a familiar argument: that our womanhood is determined by our biology and that this in turn determines our socialisation. The case against Semenya, however, shows how quickly this argument can unravel.
Semenya is not trans, she is cisgender. Unlike transwomen, Semenya was assigned female status at birth, meaning regardless of her appearance or the “internal biology” that is now being used against her, she was socialised as a girl and has lived her entire life as a female. It is only now that she is so thoroughly outperforming other women, that she is being punished by being exiled from the very category that was determined for her as a child.
Unlike transwomen, Semenya was assigned female status at birth, meaning regardless of her appearance or the “internal biology” that is now being used against her, she was socialised as a girl and has lived her entire life as a female.
As trans writers and activists have been telling us for quite some time, the concept of binary sex, that there are only two non-overlapping sexes and one is either one or the other, is not as clear cut as many claim. The efforts to bar Semenya also demonstrates how easy it is to undermine women, in particular racialised women, by shifting the goalposts and requirements for entry into womanhood.
For years, Semenya’s body has been publicly discussed as if she is both a freak of nature and public property. As far back as 2009, Time Magazine even asked, ‘Could this Woman’s World Champ Be a Man?’ With every victory came whispers and demands her gender be tested and retested. According to a Ghanian newspaper, at one point she resorted to walking around change rooms naked just to prove to rivals she is female.
This scrutiny is reminiscent of that which greeted Sara Baartman, the so-called 'Hottentot Venus,' who was taken from her home in 19th century South Africa to be exhibited across Europe as an example of defective and undercivilised black women. This indignity did not end with her death; Baartman’s body was dissected and her genitals embalmed and kept on display for decades. She was not buried until finally returned home to South Africa at the behest of the post-Apartheid government mere decades ago.
This perception of the bodies of black women, and to a lesser extent, other women of colour, was driven by the scientific racism of the time.
This perception of the bodies of black women, and to a lesser extent, other women of colour, was driven by the scientific racism of the time. Evolutionary race scientists claimed true differentiation of the sexes to be a status that had only been achieved by the more highly evolved white Europeans. Baartman’s body was regarded as a physical manifestation of her inferior culture: she was not seen as a woman but something lesser, something both more animalistic and more masculine than the European women who flocked to gawk at her body.
Sex difference, then, is racialised. To be a ‘real’ woman meant to be white European or European-derived. By placing the bodies of women of colour outside the construction of womanhood, western society justified their colonisation and mistreatment.
That the enforcement of binary sex is now being used not only to exclude trans women from womanhood, but to justify excluding high performing cisgender athletes already has implications not only for Semenya but for other black female athletes who are considered ‘too masculine’ to compete with more ‘feminine’ (read: white) runners.
Semenya has vowed to keep fighting the ruling. She also noted she has not received much support from her fellow female athletes.
Indeed, some of these athletes have been among her biggest detractors. That the attacks against Semenya are highly racialised becomes obvious when we look at some of the comments made about her and other African runners by white athletes that resent competing against them. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Polish runner Joanna Jozwick finished in fifth place – well outside the medal placings – but nonetheless told media she “feels like a silver medallist.” Semenya won that race with Francine Niyonsaba (Burundi) and Margaret Wambui (Kenya) rounding out the medals. Canadian runner Melissa Bishop finished fourth.
According to Jozwick, all three “look how they look and run how they run” because their testosterone levels are “similar to a male's.” She left little doubt as to her racial worldview when she added, “I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white.” Meanwhile, Great Britain runner Lyndsey Sharp burst into tears during her post-run interview, begging “those on the top to sort it out.”
The decision to disqualify her was made on the back of the findings of a study that other scientists are now claiming was seriously flawed.
“Sort it out” they did. The decision to disqualify her was made on the back of the findings of a study that other scientists are now claiming was seriously flawed. If history has taught us anything it has taught us that this won’t stop with Semenya. We are still privileging the white European body when it comes to what makes a ‘real’ woman. The problem with Semenya is not her body: it is our insistence that humans can fall neatly into two mutually exclusive categories that were created by and designed to privilege the white, European body.
This not only erases the existence of people like Semenya, it threatens us all with similar punishment or exclusion should we fail to conform to its standards and specifications. Not least because these standards continue to be set and policed by those with a vested interest in excluding women of colour.
Ruby Hamad is the author of White Tears Brown Scars, published by Melbourne University Press.