An open letter to Caster Semenya
Published Sep 9, 2009 4:48 PM
Mokgadi Caster Semenya is a South African runner who won the
women’s 800-meter gold medal at the 2009 World Championships. She was
subsequently challenged by competitors to prove her gender and subjected to sex
tests by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Below is a
commentary by South African gender and political analyst Nomboniso Gasa that
first appeared in the Cape Times Daily Star News, Aug. 27. Gasa edited
“Women in South African History” (2007).
First, congratulations on your success; it is no mean achievement. This is your
finest hour. And this must not be lost. Like so many others who have been
following the developments, I have been at a loss for words, have felt rage and
above all an incredible sadness at what you have been forced to experience.
Looking at your photograph in the front page of The Saturday Star, with the
South African flag draped over your shoulders, I was drawn to your grace,
dignity and composure with which you seemed to handle yourself in these times.
I looked closely, at the smile playing at the corners of your mouth and it
seemed to me, on some level you were wondering—what is the fuss all
about? You won. You worked hard. You deserve the accolades, recognition that
honor and affirm your discipline and hard work. For many of us, as a young
Black woman, there is much we are learning from you, even though you have said
a few words and generally been silent.
In that silence, my sister, if I can call you that, there lies a deeper message
of self-knowledge, pushing oneself hard to realize one’s dreams. It is a
discipline and approach that many of us continue to aspire to. It is a
discipline that remains elusive to many of us. How you have achieved it at so
young an age is testimony not only to your personal strength but the loving
support of your grandmother, parents and the community that has celebrated and
affirmed you. Children growing up in such an environment start at an advantage,
despite material disadvantage which [has] ... been so widely written about in
your particular experience.
I have also been disturbed by the manner in which even those who defend you
have taken it upon themselves to define what your struggle is and how best it
must be articulated. Whilst this may come from good intentions, this too is a
form of disrespect and a patronizing attitude that is not only disempowering
but is in fact undermining.
Looking at the unfolding events and the voices of protest against your
treatment, I have felt a rather ambiguous pride that South Africans, in
particular, have refused to let this go and took up the battle. I am proud that
in our country we have people who are ready to say, `This treatment is not
fair. This is humiliating and we shall share the pain and battle together with
the person who is the primary target.’ I said I have ambiguous pride; why
As I listen to the voices of protest I miss your own voice amidst the noise. I
find myself wondering, shouldn’t the starting point be to ask you, Ms.
Semenya, how best can we support you in this struggle? How have you coped with
these battles before? It seems from that experience of handling these
situations we can perhaps learn the strategies and coping mechanisms you have
deployed. Not only will we be enriched by your experiences and empowered by
your own power. In our own minds we will move from the tendency to see you as a
victim and see you as the tenacious warrior you are.
I have also wondered at the dominance of race over gender in the public
discourse and wondered whether this is how you would self-represent. It seems
to me that in this case as it often is race and gender are inextricably linked.
To emphasize one over the other is in itself another form of erasure and
imposition of what identity is most important to you.
The tendency to conflate racism and sexism in your case also plays itself out
in the dialogue that often refuses to see Black women as having specific
struggles which sometimes may be common and at times different from those of
Black men. To reduce your experience to a racist incident only, is to silence
and erase the historical experience of international competitive sports as
We know from history that often, women from Russia and other European countries
have been probed on so-called gender grounds. It would seem there belies an
assumption based not only on physicality but also on what women can or cannot
achieve. Your finishing speed attests to this. One wonders whether had you not
achieved such a fine finish, whether the noise would have been at so high a
volume about your gender as it has been.
Sadly, some of the people who have had to shield you from this intrusive
exposure have also shown a lack of understanding of the complexity of gender.
At some level, saying `ask her roommates, they have seen her naked’ is an
admission that there is a way to prove one’s gender in clear-cut terms.
We know, and many scientists will agree, that there are so many grey areas that
even the tests themselves can never fully prove this question. So, let’s
say one has XX chromosomes, does that make one undoubtedly female? What if in
fact the test shows XY chromosomes and yet is female in every other respect?
What will have been proven?
Gender and sex are often confused and used interchangeably in ways that are
insidious, as we have seen in your case. As in so many other areas of life,
one’s right for self-identification is in fact the most central aspect of
being a free person. The tendency to impose an identity from outside is a
result of a patriarchal construction of what gender is. In your case, despite
all evidence that your womanness is beyond doubt for yourself, other signifiers
are introduced. How fast can a woman run? How strong can she be?
“Some of the papers—even those voices who are supposedly supporting
you—have found labeling [has] been hard to resist. And it is labeling
that is done with such carelessness and lack of regard for individual choice
and the inalienable right to self-identify. Why use the word androgynous to
defend someone who self-identifies as a woman? Androgynous as we know, means
somebody who is in fact genderless, to choose a less problematic definition.
This is in itself a category of identification deeply embedded in a specific
social construction of gender not as neutral as the word may suggest. In your
case, you are a woman and self-identify as such, this being an identity with
which you were not only born but have also continued to use in the face of
humiliating experiences. That should be the end of it.
I have also looked at the women in your family. I have been struck by the
resemblance with your grandmother and to some extent your mother. I wonder
whether they too at some stage have [had] some of these undermining questions
and gazes directed towards their physical appearance. For those of us who try
to think this through, why have we not taken such resemblance as an indication
that like in many families, your looks are part of your family traits and
heritage—something to be proud of? Why have we needed more explanation
than that? Why an explanation at all? Perhaps the answer lies in a much more
powerful understanding of what gender actually means.
As I watched you sitting in the press conference after you landed back home, it
occurred to [me] that your victory comes a few months after our national
election. During the last electoral campaign, we saw the public discourse on
gender and physicality descend to levels that we have not seen before. I recall
a politician’s jibe about Helen Zille’s looks. When is it
acceptable to make rude insulting comments about a person’s appearance,
even if one disagrees with their ideology?
Perhaps, another major contribution you have made, Ms. Semenya, is one that
requires a serious leap of imagination—to simply understand that human
beings, men and women come in different shades, shapes and sizes. Perhaps the
most discomforting aspect of this whole drama is not only that you have taken
it within your stride and incredible dignity, but your resilience and refusal
to explain yourself.
When one gives narratives of a childhood filled with girl-child chores and
being comfortable with playing with boys, in the eye of a storm about
one’s gender, there is something incredibly defiant and subversive there.
In not explaining or justifying yourself, you have asked for no sympathy or
understanding. And why should you? There is none to be asked for or given. All
we have to give is that which we all require for ourselves—respect for
the dignity of another human.
That, Ms. Semenya, is more powerful than the medal you have brought home. That
level of self-knowledge is elusive to many athletes, artists, scholars,
politicians and many others who have accomplished much more and who are decades
older than you. Not because of how you look but because in the way in which you
live your own life we see a celebration of humanity. What remains to be said is
to thank you for the lesson of your life. What remains is for us as a country
and as a people to affirm and celebrate your achievement and say yes, she is a
runner who has made history. No one can take that away from you.
Go then, daughter of the soil, go ahead and achieve much more. Go, knowing that
you are in the footsteps of your forebears who rose against their most humble
origins and defied all odds.
And if you do not mind, please pass my heartfelt greetings and salutations to
the men and women of your family. Thank them, for many of us who need role
models every day in our lives, despite the strides we may think we have
With great admiration,
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