When Trevor Noah went to the United States for the first time, he joked about how he expected to be racialised differently, as black, and not coloured, as he often is in South Africa. What Trevor knew, as we all know, is that race is not a universal, globally consistent construct. As his joke goes on, instead, Trevor was racialised as Mexican.
What the latest ruling from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) explodes into focus is that gender, too, is not a universal, globally consistent, self-evident truth of the universe. It is partly a social construct that is specific to culture, context, history and politics.
In The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, Oyeronke Oyewumi begins by showing that gender is not a self-evident fact that comes down from heaven and emanates from our bones and the testosterone levels per nanomole in our blood. She shows how in precolonial Yoruba, in Southwest Nigeria, people did not gender in the ways the West does.
There was no system of assigning roles, personality, attire, power and leadership by looking at the body’s anatomical sex. Put differently, the body was not a resource from which to mine status in society. Instead, the Yoruba society structured its world around seniority and a more contextual arrangement of relations.
This is not unfamiliar to Xhosa gender practices in South Africa. When a man gets married to a woman in the Xhosa tradition, the husband’s sister introduces herself to the wife as “Ndodakazi”, to say “I am also your husband.” This is to show that South African gender practices are contextual and display a more complex arrangement of gender that is not bound by what Oyewumi calls “Body Reasoning” — constructing a society based on the acontextual anatomy of the body.
When Caster Semenya first appeared on the international athletics scene, her body was looked at — her broad shoulders, her wide jawline, and her firm chest — and the rumours began spreading that she could not be a woman. Caster is not petite, demure, traditionally feminine or subservient.
Caster was then put under microscopes, her blood taken, analysed, interrogated, critiqued to verify if she was, as a matter of scientific fact, a woman — the IAAF used “body reasoning” down to the microscopic level to determine what Caster is and what Caster is allowed to do. What the IAAF found was that Caster’s body produces more testosterone than the other women she competes with — and instead of celebrating her natural gifts the way it celebrated Michael Phelps’s, it scandalised and pathologised Caster.
The IAAF then amended its regulations and stated that female middle-distance track athletes with testosterone levels above the new threshold would have to take testosterone suppressants if they wanted to continue competing.
“Body Reasoning” is a practice we all participate in, especially in westernised societies such as South Africa. It allows us to not only determine gender, but to also assign values, power, beliefs, competencies, value and status by drawing conclusions based on the shape, form and movement of the bodies we are presented by people.
The IAAF was not unique in victimising Caster Semenya if the victimisation was policing what bodies are allowed to have what chemicals, wear what clothes, love which other bodies and behave in which ways. In these ways we all participate in the dehumanising violence the IAAF inflicted on Caster.
On 8 May, reports came out of the IAAF saying that Semenya and other women like her can run in the men’s division unrestricted. This was in response to the World Medical Association’s letter urging physicians not to enforce the IAAF ruling on ethical grounds because raised testosterone levels are not pathologically or medically problematic, and there is a risk of harm by giving female athletes medication to lower their testosterone levels. This latest decision is violent, dehumanising and co-operates with the line of abuse Semenya has faced from the IAAF.
After the Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed the initial IAAF ruling on the matter, South African law professor Steve Cornelius resigned from his post at the athletics body, stating that he could not apply the new policy against female athletes in good conscience. Cornelius believes the ruling is a violation of human rights and unlawful in many jurisdictions around the world.
In the interests of fairness and competition, it is certainly within the IAAF’s jurisdiction to regulate the chemicals and hormones of the athletes that compete under its remit. However, being the international governing body on athletic sports, not only do its decisions have far-reaching global implications, but the world also has deeply entrenched national and social interests in the decisions it makes. The latest ruling regulating testosterone levels in middle-distance female track athletes is a painful, puzzling, and peculiar ruling to receive.
According to IAAF president Sebastian Coe, the ruling is not about policing the definition of what a woman is, but rather “about levelling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors.”
However, the regulation problematises naturally high, otherwise medically benign, levels of testosterone in female athletes and states that women with levels of testosterone higher than the threshold must take hormone-suppressing medication in order to compete.
The concern is that the regulations are disproportionately focused on regulating the female category, and no such regulations measure “maleness” in the interests of fairness and competitiveness for men. Notably, consider Michael Phelps’s unproblematised genetic advantages: His double-jointedness that extends the range of motion of his ankles, knees and elbows; his disproportionately longer “wingspan” measuring 203 cm from fingertip to fingertip compared to his 193 cm height; and the fact that Phelps produces half the lactic acid of a typical athlete, meaning his muscles fatigue at half the rate of common athletes.
Similar to Phelps’s genetic singularity, Caster Semenya’s body produces more testosterone than her competitors. The difference is that her singularity defies the simplistic social understanding of what a woman is, or capable of being. Further, the regulations only apply to events in which Caster has dominated, and does not apply to pole vault and hammer throw, although the IAAF’s research shows testosterone provides a competitive advantage in these events. A host of scientific and academic forums and communities have come out and stated that the ruling defies settled science on the presence of testosterone in female athletes as well as ethical guidelines on medicine.
Scientific communities have also stated that it is difficult to measure the actual benefit of testosterone in athletes. Both males and females produce testosterone in a wide variety, with a significant percentage of females having higher levels of testosterone than many males, and, as Justin Garcia, director of research at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, notes, “the notion that there is just male and female is patently unsupported by evolutionary biology and cultural evidence”.
It is uncertain whether the public indignation towards the IAAF ruling is cult support for Caster Semenya, a black woman, a South African, or if there is a genuine public consensus that testosterone is not a male exclusive/male dominant hormone and/or if the outcry is about the rationale of the IAAF instructing an athlete to take drugs to limit their naturally occurring advantages in this case and not in others. However, for some, the ruling reaffirms the belief that testosterone is a male hormone — contradicting scores of scientific communities and academics stating that this is a particularly simplistic and untrue conception of gender.
When the IAAF discovered that Caster Semenya and other female athletes had higher levels of testosterone than their competitors, it did not have to regulate it as they do not regulate levels of testosterone for male athletes in the interests of fairness. However, if compelled, what that discovery offered was an opportunity to create a more complex and contextual gender arrangement. It could have used the opportunity to redefine the categories on scientific lines, and cluster competitors on testosterone levels, bone density and muscle mass after proving particular competitive advantages in particular competitions.
It could have welcomed and celebrated Caster, admitted its assumptions and rethought its regulations to promote substantive fairness in athletics across the genders. This would have removed the European cultural bias in international sport on the definitions and categories of gender, and also opened the door for transgender and transsexual people to legitimately compete without being stigmatised and ostracised as strange, alien, foreign, inconsistent and unwanted.
The implication of this would reach further into society and insist that we all rethink our assumptions on gender. This would have promoted the legitimacy of gender nonconforming people, transgender and transsexual people. This would be a far more scientifically consistent disposition to gender.
However, as it stands, the regulations problematise the gender practices of nations outside Europe and display particularly barbaric, essentialist, inhumane and violent dispositions towards all of our identities and genders.
This piece was originally published in the Daily Maverick.