Caster’s running with a lightning rod into the coming storm
Who can tell Semenya she’s not a woman? No one. Because straight answers on the subject, like good men, are hard to find
“Vot is your surname,” Levi, a Joburg ancient as kindly as he is venerable who tells astonishing stories about growing up communist on a kibbutz, asked earnestly after struggling, several times, to say my first name on our first meeting.
“Vice,” I replied, and waited for what I suspected was coming. It did.
Levi jolted with joy.
His eyes, until then rheumy, leapt with life. He threw up his hands with happiness: “Weiss! Mazeltov! You bloody fucking Jew! Just like me!”
I didn’t disabuse him of the notion, not only because that would have been cruel but also because I didn’t want to. Before you take issue with that, try some babka. Chocolate, preferably.
Another question came my way from a woman at a charcuterie stall at Victoria Park market in London’s East End on Sunday: “Are you Jewish?”
She asked after our thoroughly Seffrican accents chimed and it transpired we had both come to the other hemisphere from Cape Town; she from Durbanville, me from Sea Point.
Hence her question. Sea Point thrums with Jewishness, from venerable ancients like Levi resolutely observing the sabbath, to kitke everywhere on Fridays, bagels everywhere every day, and homemade pastrami at the wonderful Kleinskys Deli in Regent Road, to the shul on Marais Road, a landmark to all.
“No,” I replied to her without thinking too much. But then I got to thinking …
Pieter-Dirk Uys discovered only after the death of his mother, Helga Bassel, in 2003 that she was Jewish. Which, technically, makes him Jewish. No one in my family has, to my knowledge, spoken of Jewishness in our genes. But my father was adopted. So who can know?
And who can tell Caster Semenya she’s not a woman? No one. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) denies they are trying to, but they cannot say they are not trying to tell us who they will allow to compete as women in athletics events meant exclusively for women.
The IAAF are attempting to say who – in their purview – is a woman. Or who they will accept as a woman. That’s hopelessly ambitious, because straight answers on the subject, like good men, are hard to find.
Here’s Medicine Net’s stab at it: “The traditional definition of female was ‘an individual of the sex that bears young’ or ‘that produces ova or eggs’. However, things are not so simple today. Female can be defined by physical appearance, by chromosome constitution (see female chromosome complement), or by gender identification.”
What, exactly, is a female chromosome complement? “The large majority of females have a 46, XX chromosome complement (46 chromosomes including two X chromosomes). A minority of females have other chromosome constitutions such as 45,X (45 chromosomes including only one X chromosome) and 47,XXX (47 chromosomes including three X chromosomes).”
Easy for them to say. Not so easy for radical feminist Julie Bindel, who was quoted as saying in the New Statesman in September 2013: “I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman. I don’t do gender. It is harmful and a total social construct that serves to reinforce patriarchy and women's subordination to men. I wish to eradicate gender – that is the feminist goal – but for now we need to keep the identity of ‘female’ in order to track how our oppression is effecting [sic] us, for example, how many women are raped, underpaid, killed by violent partners, etc.”
Who or what does the Oxford Dictionary recognise as female? “Of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilised by male gametes.”
That would seem to question the status of any apparent female who hasn’t yet procreated. Or who has procreated and no longer does, or might not. Reasons of age, health and personal choice don’t appear to matter: it’s all about having children. And when thou art done with that get thyself, barefoot, of course, back to yonder kitchen and chain thyself to the stove. Amen.
Happily, the Caster question is far simpler. Here’s what matters – Semenya is unimpeachably correct to maintain that she is as she has always been, naturally a woman, and is thus entitled to compete against other women. If those other women can’t keep up, how is that her problem?
Fine. Except if you’re those women, who know that Semenya leaves them in her dust because her body produces more testosterone than theirs. That is patently unfair: they are trying to beat someone who was born a drug cheat.
But how do you fairly instruct Semenya and others like her to wilfully dull the edge nature has given them? The National Basketball Association (NBA) doesn’t ensure the playing field is more or less level by amputating a few centimetres from the legs of taller players.
Thing is, only two of all the 450 players in last season’s NBA were shorter than 1.83m. Fifteen towered over 2.13m. So 433 of them – 96.22% – were within 30cm of each other: a more of less level playing field without the need for intervention.
Of course, height doesn’t govern ability on the court, as the superb Isiah Thomas, all 1.75m of him, has made abundantly clear. But what will happen when Thomas’s opponents loom at 2.44m and have arms as long as he is tall? Welcome, Semenya’s would-be competitors say, to their world.
No less sensible a figure as Martina Navratilova managed to support Semenya and rubbish the cause of transgender athletes all in the same few hundred words in the UK Sunday Times.
Navratilova wondered whether it could “be right to order athletes to take medication” and said she hoped Semenya wins her case on the issue at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But Navratilova also said that a man could by taking hormones satisfy sport organisations’ requirements to be considered a woman was “insane and … cheating”.
In December, she tweeted: “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women.”
Not so simple, is it? And exponentially less so when all sorts of opportunists have spied a chance to make capital out of Semenya’s situation.
Sports minister Thokozile Xasa reached, shamefully, for the nuclear option: “The world once declared apartheid a crime against human rights. We once more call the world to stand with us as we fight what we believe is a gross violation of human rights.”
Her time would be better spent helping her inept government find ways, nuclear perhaps included, to keep the lights on in failing Mzansi.
In April last year EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi tried to cover all the bases, albeit mercifully briefly: “The EFF views the action of [the] IAAF as a deliberate, sexist, racist and anti-African attack on our black female champion.”
He forgot to put the LGBTQI community on the list. Maybe they aren’t the bombastic, buffoonish beret brigade’s target market in a country where women are murdered for refusing sexual advances from men.
Cricket SA clambered aboard with a release on Friday in which chief executive Thabang Moroe was quoted as saying: “We stand here as the cricket fraternity joining all the voices throughout the world to denounce the IAAF Gender Regulations as an act of discrimination against women in sport.
“We state categorically and emphatically that women like Caster, who is born with intersex variations, should enjoy the same rights to dignity as all women. We honour, celebrate and recognise the equality of all women in sport … we call on all morally astute global citizens to rally behind Caster and vocally join in advocating for her right to continue competing at the highest level. This attempt at systematically ostracising potential and talent should be condemned in the strongest terms. Together, let’s hit gender discrimination for six!”
CSA should concentrate on tasking the “morally astute global citizens” in their ranks to ensure the women who play for the national team are paid as much as the men. That’s what equality and dignity mean.
Would Semenya’s cause be so vociferously supported if she wasn’t so successful? Or if her success didn’t override the gag reflex of a deeply conservative society that has next to no compassion for those who differ from the mob-like majority?
Or if more black South Africans were by now living the kind of lives they earned the hardest way, by defeating apartheid? Or if apartheid had been eradicated instead of entrenched on economic lines by an evilly cynical ruling class? Or if this wasn’t an election year? Or if the bellicose, bilious centre-right mess the ANC have become had a clue how to be the inspired revolutionaries they once were and need to be again if SA is to have a future worth having? Or if the hopeless misery that is the DA had any ideas of their own beyond flaccidly attacking the ANC? Or if the EFF weren’t such an unfunny joke? Or if Semenya was white?
We can’t really know who Semenya is. But we know what: a lightning rod for the coming storm.