Racism is another hurdle in track star’s gender dispute

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A South African woman, barely out of her youth, faces a team of scientific and medical experts in Europe. She is stripped, both physically and psychologically, before the eyes of the world; eyes that see her body – the flesh that carries the heart and mind of a sensitive woman – as abnormal, freakish and inexplicably different from those produced by a scientific establishment that defines what a “normal” woman looks like. As a result, this woman is poked, prodded and put on display, as a watchful media become more and more infatuated with her difference.

Though this vignette is reminiscent of the humiliating tale of Caster Semenya, the swift South African runner whose win in the women’s 800 meters at the World Championships in Berlin earlier this month has been marred by athletic officials and sore losers who question her gender status, it is not her story.

Rather, it is the biography of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Venus Hottentot, who was stolen from her home in southern Africa in the early 19th century, and placed on display across Europe. Baartman became a public sensation because her full-figured body defied all stereotypes of the European female form. She was treated as though she were not a woman, not even a man, but as an animal, and was displayed, examined, and abused as if she were one until she died five years after her capture.

Fortunately for Semenya, her celebratory return this weekend to her home in Masehlong province in South Africa, marks a fate far better than Baartman’s, though their stories bear eerie similarities. While the world watches and waits for the results of Semenya’s “gender test,” examinations by a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and specialist in internal medicine, we should be asking ourselves why is any of this is happening in the first place.

Why, when a woman physically defies physical norms and expectations of the female body, do we question her gender? Strong female athletes force us to question our understanding of what women can do, and what, in fact, is possible. And although there is a long-standing history of gender testing in international athletics of women from various backgrounds – including a number from Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries such as sisters Tamara and Irina Press who won 5 medals in the 1960s which were then revoked when they failed gender tests, and Indian 800 metre runner Santhi Soundarajan who failed a gender verification test in the 2006 Asian Games – the hyper-visibility in Semenya’s case emerges from a difficult racial history.

The kind of privacy and anonymity that other female athletes have had when under this kind of scrutiny has been stripped away in the case of Semenya. The right to privacy and protection from public spectacle is a privilege not always extended to black women, and Baartman’s story stands as a lingering precedent. So as I look at Semenya’s situation, I cannot help but think her race has much to do with how her case has been handled.

The strange alchemy of racism and sexism has placed Semenya in the difficult position of stripping down with the world watching in order to claim her greatness. It is a spectacle that black women athletes have fought back against in recent memory by flaunting their femininity – think of Venus and Serena Williams’ chiseled bodies draped in couture, or even Flo Jo’s long thick hair and painted fingernails which seemed to enforce her womanliness despite her muscular body. Semenya refuses these markers of femininity, and she is paying the price.

I was happy to read that Semenya returned to her home this weekend with the kind of hero’s welcome that she deserves. Usain Bolt, whose record-breaking sprint at the same games, has spent the last several weeks basking in the glow of being one of the fastest men who has ever lived. We do not question his astonishing feat, because we think men can do anything. Semenya, on the other hand, still faces a long journey ahead in order to enjoy this kind of freedom.
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