South African Minister Writes UN to Decry Treatment of Semenya and “Patriarchy in the Sporting World”

Jodi Jacobson

In a letter to the UN, South African Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities states that the questioning of Caster Semenya's gender is based on a stereotypical view of physical features and abilities attributable to women, and demonstrates the extent of patriarchy within the world’s sporting community.

See also today’s piece by Katherine Franke of Columbia University Law School.

The Herald of South Africa reports that Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, the Minister for Women, Children
and People with Disabilities, has written to the UN’s Division for the Advancement
of Women (DAW), arguing that there has been a blatant disregard for athlete Caster Semenya’s
human dignity and requesting an investigation into whether
Semenya has been treated in line with its protocols on
gender and equality.

Semenya won a gold medal for the 800 meter race in the International
Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) meeting in last month.  Last week an Australian newspaper claimed IAAF tests showed her body contained both male and female organs.

Mayende-Sibiya argued that  in terms of South Africa law governing sex identification, Semenya is a woman.

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The Herald reports that:

The IAAF has not commented on this, but in the meantime Mayende-Sibiya
believes the matter violates at least three international commitments
governed by the UN on protection and promotion of rights of women.

Mayende-Sibiya argues that treatment of Semenya’s case:

  • undermines article 13 of the Convention on the
    Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which requires
    measures be put in place to eliminate discrimination and promote the
    rights of women to participate in sports;

  • violates the Beijing Platform for Action which calls for
    gender-sensitive program for girls and women of all ages and support
    in all areas of athletics including coaching and administration at the
    national, regional and international levels;

  • contradicts the Brighton Declaration of 1994 which called for a
    sporting culture that values and enables the full involvement of women
    in every aspect of sport.

Mayende-Sibiya wrote:

equal opportunity to be involved in sport for leisure or for
competition, is the right of all women and men, girls and boys.

“I would therefore like to request that the UN Division for Advancement
of Women investigates this matter as it has severe consequences for
women participation in sports globally,” she wrote in her letter to DAW
director Carolyn Hannan.

should be some degree of transparency from the IAAF about the sequence
of events that led to Miss Semenya’s gender being subjected to such
unjustified public scrutiny,” Minister Mayende-Sibiya states in her

“The questioning of her gender is based on [a] stereotypic view of the
physical features and abilities attributable to women. Such stereotypes
demonstrate the extent of patriarchy within the world’s sporting
community,” she said.

“Gender Verification in Sports:” We All Have a Stake in Caster Semenya’s Medal

Katherine Franke

When South African athlete Caster Semenya won the 800 meter track competition last month in Berlin, some observers questioned Semenya’s “real” sex and she was forced to undergo testing.

Katherine Franke’s article was originally published at the Gender and Sexuality Law Blog of Columbia University Law School.

As many will recall, the gold medal performance in the 800 meter track competition by Caster
Semenya, a South African athlete, last month at the Berlin World
Championships, sparked a “sex panic” when some observers questioned
Semenya’s “real” sex. 

Well, things have turned a troubling corner in
this matter this week.  An Australian newspaper reported today that Semenya’s “gender verification” test results revealed that she failed the female sex test.  
That is to say, the results are reported to show that her body does not
fall within the prescribed definition of a woman for competitive
international sports.

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I put the issue this way for a reason – failed the female sex test – because the International Association of Athletics Federations’s (IAAF) gender verification policy
applies only to women’s events.   Their testing is not designed to
determine an athlete’s “real” sex, but rather seeks to discover whether
a competitor such as Semenya is “enjoying the benefits of natural
testosterone predominance normally seen in a male.”   In essence, to
pass the test the competitor must show “female levels of testosterone” (my term).

Mind you, not all athletes in women’s track meets have their testosterone levels tested.  The
IAAF ceased routine gender verification testing in its events in 1991,
and now forces a competitor to undergo such testing only when a
challenge is brought by another competitor or a ‘suspicion’ is raised as to an athletes’ gender“. 

In this case, Semenya looked “too masculine” and a suspicion was
raised.  She tried to fix this problem last week when she underwent a
makeover to “feminize” her look and posed as a covergirl for South
Africa’s You Magazine.  But this performance came too late.  Suspicions had already been raised.

In the end, the nub of the matter, really, was that she didn’t run
like a girl – she ran too fast to be a real female.  It would have
been highly unlikely that “gender verification testing” would have been
ordered if she’d finished with the back of the pack.  In this sense,
Semenya shares something with Oscar Pistorius who, aided by two prosthetic legs, runs too fast to be human and was disqualified by the IAAF from competing in the Olympics.

Castor Semenya has reportedly gone into hiding now that the results
of her “gender verification test” have been made public.  Her athletic
career has likely ended (unless she is willing to undergo transgender
surgery, in which case, ironically, the IAAF will allow her to compete)
and the public humiliation and ridicule she may suffer for being an
“hermaphrodite” and not a “real woman” are likely to be crushing. 
Recall that when Santhi Soundarajan underwent a similar public inquisition several years ago she attempted suicide.

We would be all well advised to pull Donna Haraway’s Cyborg
Manifesto off the shelf for a re-read.  Haraway’s groundbreaking
deployment of the “cyborg” challenged naturalist and essentialist
notions of “real” women and “real” men by exposing the ways that things
considered natural, like human bodies, are not, but are constructed by
our ideas about them.  These legally and culturally enforced notions of
normality are enforced even in a case such as Semenya’s whose body and
capacities are absolutely part of the natural variation of the species,
but who is rendered unnatural and abnormal by virtue of a test that
arbitrarily locates her outside the domain of “real women”.

To those of you who say: “I don’t think it’s fair that someone with
such high testosterone levels be allowed to compete in the women’s
track events.  What’s to stop men from competing in these events and
winning all of them?”  I have the following answer: Then don’t call
them women’s and men’s events, define the events by testosterone levels
– those with levels up to some ceiling run in one event, those with
higher levels run in another event.  Collapsing “female” and “male”
into testosterone levels is both bad science and bad social policy. 
Sexual categories are, after all, social and cultural categories, not
biological ones.

all have a stake in Caster Semenya’s ongoing treatment.  That
suspicions about how she looks can lead to having her identity as a
“real” woman publically revoked communicates a clear message to all of
us who consider ourselves female:  Don’t talk too loud, don’t throw a
ball too well, and don’t look too comportable in pants or walk with a
“masculine gate.”   And whatever you do, don’t look too triumphant when
you run really fast.  The gender police are out there looking for you.

One last thing: for accurate information on the definitions of,
incidence of, and “treatments” for a range of intersex conditions, go
to the Intersex Society of North America.

Female South African Athlete Asked to Prove Gender

Emily Douglas

Just how many experts does it take to assign someone a gender? The female South African winner of the 800m race at track and field world championships in Berlin has been asked to prove that she is a woman.

Just how many experts does it take to assign someone a gender?

The female South African winner of the 800m race at track and field
world championships in Berlin has been asked to prove that she is a
woman, the Guardian reports.  And to prove herself female, she must submit to and pass a battery of tests:

Nick Davies, a spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)…described the tests necessary to determine the gender of an
athlete as "an extremely complex procedure" involving medics,
scientists, gynaecologists and psychologists, the outcome of which is
not expected for several weeks.

Caster Semenya, 18, had never competed outside of Africa when she logged this year’s best time. Her youth and her relative lack of experience led officials to question her gender.

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While Semenya herself has not commented on the investigation, her father, Jacob, said: “I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman, and I can repeat that a million times” (via the New York Times). 

The Times coverage of the story underscores how many different factors play into sex determination.  Genes, hormones and genitalia can align in ways other than strictly "male" or "female," the Times explains:

Complicated cases are common. For example, a disorder known as
congenital adrenal hyperplasia gives women excess testosterone from a
source other than the testes — the adrenal glands. In mild cases,
genitals may appear normal and often no one suspects the problem. Women
with the disorder are allowed to compete as females…

Then there is a list of rare genetic disorders that can
confuse sexual identity. Some genetic males, for example, have
mutations in a gene needed to form testes. Although they look like
women, genetically they are men, with an X chromosome and a Y


Will this story force us to examine just how constructed our definition of gender actually is?  Or will we keep telling ourselves it’s just one percent of the population that’s “abnormal”?