Dressing up, dressing down

Caster Semenya is all glammed-up on the cover of You. Harassment or harmless teenage fun? Also read Counterpoint

If ever we needed a case study to show that gender—not race—is the primary power hierarchy in this and other societies, the harassment of Caster Semenya by athletics authorities and media organisations, local and global, is it.

Last week high-circulation magazines ran photos showing Semenya’s powerful body subdued with trite accoutrements of femininity into a form that she has, by all accounts, rejected her whole life.

She had reportedly “asked” not to be squeezed into dresses and heels, but that’s how she ended up; her funky corn row hairstyle combed out into nondescript curls. Instead of the expansive hand gestures seen in other photos, she poses demurely, hand on hip.

This courageous young woman, who survived “sex tests” in school toilets to win gold in Berlin, has been reduced to the blank facade of off-the-shelf femininity.

In recent years black women have died in this country for daring to subvert gender.
What is being done to Semenya is also violence.

It can’t be coincidental that the “heroine’s welcome” on her return from Berlin was followed up with a “corrective” magazine display of Semenya acquiescing to the prescriptions of a dominant femininity, euphemistically presented as “the glamour girl”.

After all, newspaper posters held by supporters at the airport were exposed as gender myth-making the moment her muscular frame appeared in the arrivals hall looking nothing like the straitjacketing labels “lady” or “little girl”. Pervasive gender policing means her particular expression of feminine masculinity, deemed too transgressive, requires erasure.

Politicians feted the gold medallist because they correctly interpreted part of what happened in Berlin as being about race. ANC MP Peace Mabe’s Saartjie Baartman comparison was apt. But Baartman and Semenya are not rendered spectacles only because they are black. Though 200 years apart, both cases demonstrate how women’s bodies are scrutinised, regulated and sometimes violated, as opposed to men’s.

With gender being a fraught issue for the Zuma-ites, they have emphasised race. This way they can embrace Semenya while remaining silent about the black women killed because of their non-compliant gender identities.

Athletics South Africa (ASA) seems guilty of collusion by duping Semenya into a sex test in July this year, as former national athletics coach Wilfred Daniels revealed. The photo shoot, which involved ASA, also happened under false pretexts as the 18-year-old was dolled up contrary to her request. ASA president Leonard Chuene wasn’t kidding when he declared “we’ll define our child”.

The photo spread confirms the official support is conditional, revealing the investment in standardising Semenya’s body to fit the strictures of patriarchal femininities.

Womens’ exercising of their human rights after 1994, among other factors, so threatens the gendered order that we are witnessing a clampdown. It’s all about control—about reminding us that no transgression of gender norms will be tolerated. The media-facilitated hounding of Semenya sends a message to all women and all men: stick to the gender script, or else.

Christi van der Westhuizen is an author and a journalist

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