/ 31 August 2009

We celebrate otherness today

Long before the Caster Semenya sex-test row hit the headlines, South Africans in all their corners were questioning her identity.

Inevitably questions such as ‘would you want to be seen with her”, ‘would you marry her” and ‘she must be a lesbian” peppered conversation. It’s wonderful how the rainbow nation has rallied around its ‘golden girl”. But how deep, how broad, how far and for how long will this celebration of otherness last?

Remember, Semenya’s agony did not start with (though it will be considerably aggravated by) being thrust under the global media spotlight. It started with being a little girl who liked playing soccer in the dusty plains of Limpopo, who has been refused entry into public toilets and whose humiliation did not start in Berlin.

As I watched the headlines progress from ‘She’s a lady, man” and ‘Yes, she’s a girl” to ‘All black, all gold, she’s our girl”, I could not help but remember the story of Marco Ndlovu, one of many women who annually participate in workshops to chronicle their lives at Gender Links.

The following are a few lines from her testimony, written under the header ‘Finding the real me”: ‘I am a 39-year-old black lesbian born into to a family of eight, of whom only five survived. Gender violence has been so much a part of my life that at times I wonder if there is such a thing as a life free of violence.

‘As a lesbian, hate, violence and misogyny follow me wherever I go. I became pregnant as a result of being raped by a man I believed to be a friend. I have been beaten almost to pulp because of my sexual orientation.

‘I have a female lover, but since she is not ready to be open about our relationship, we have to keep it secret. While I look for whatever job I can get so that I can build a home for my children and grandchildren, I write poetry and create the world of my dreams with the words that flow from my pen.

I am Marco, a proud woman, who loves her two daughters, who loves other women, and who — despite the pain and suffering that I have endured — is finally finding the real me.”

I remembered Marco, because like Semenya she is athletic, muscular, flat-chested and could easily be mistaken for a man. Unlike Semenya, she will not have a hero’s welcome, meet the president or have the whole nation proclaim her right to be.

As we welcome Semenya home, it behoves us to ask how many others there are out there, men and women, who have refused to conform to societal templates, and whether we will stand up for them in the same way.

In the very same newspapers that have now shown us every angle of Semenya’s face, her facial hair, her crotch, her braided hair and her muscular body (whenever before has a woman athlete featured so prominently on the front page of any newspaper?), we have the obligatory blonde, blue-eyed, skinny pin-up girls from Planet Hollywood pasted on back pages.

On the same page heralding Semenya’s red-carpet welcome on Tuesday, one paper reported on Miss South Africa, Tatum Keshwar, saying she hopes she has done the nation proud by being selected seventh in the Miss Universe contest.

So now its official: women come in all shapes and forms. Why is that important? Because although sex is a biological given (though even that, we have learned, is far from straightforward), gender is a social construct: how society expects women and men to behave.

Precisely because girls are expected to be pretty faces with limited strength and thinking capacity, they retreat or are forced to retreat from sport, from public life, from hard beats in the media, from boardrooms and management, from entrepreneurship and jobs such as mining and security.

Stereotypes also limit men: they should not cry, feel, care or engage in ‘women’s work”. In the past several years we have been running a course called Business Unusual in different parts of Southern Africa.

In Tanzania we found Masai men making money by using their skill in braiding hair to run salons in a local market, describing how, by challenging their socialisation, they are doing a rip-roaring trade. Bravo to them.

Will women in South Africa, come the World Cup in 2010, get to play the game, drive taxis and build highways? If we fail to use this extraordinary event to breathe life into the celebration of diversity envisaged in the Constitution, our large turnout at Oliver Tambo Airport this week will have been little more than a fleeting show of national unity.

We will have raised a middle finger to the rest of the world but retreated into our cocoon of black and white, male and female — not the rainbow nation we claim to be. Unlike Marco, we will still not have found our true selves.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links.