Caster Semenya is “A Woman’s Rights”

2012 SUMMER OLYMPICS, LONDON. CREDIT: LEE JIN-MAN, AP

On Monday, June 3, the Swiss Federal Tribunal ruled to allow Caster Semenya to continue competing in her own body. “I am thankful to the Swiss judges for this decision,” Semenya said. “I hope that following my appeal I will once again be able to run free.”

Black women’s experiences of oppression — of misogynoir — are historically particular and often experienced in the body. Subjected to public scrutiny and medical abuses under cover of a history of science, exploited for profit and sexual gratification, black women’s bodies have been controlled, silenced, and disparaged. And perhaps ironically, perhaps predictably, one long-lived strategy for discrediting black women has been to question the very fact and nature of their black womanhood.

Image via Wikipedia

In May 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Caster Semenya’s appeal of the 2018 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruling that some women athletes would have to medically alter their natural testosterone levels to be eligible to compete. It is this ruling that on Monday the Swiss Federal Tribunal temporarily suspended, allowing Semenya to continue competing without taking hormone suppressants until her appeal has been finalized. The IAAF’s ruling seems to clearly target Semenya, whose impressive record as a middle-distance runner has been accompanied by increased bodily scrutiny and a series of attacks upon her gender. Semenya’s body has been subjected to public scrutiny disproportional to that applied to other athletes and the IAAF’s ruling has been decried by various people citing racism and sexism, questioning its gender science, and commenting on its larger ethical implications.

While the details of Semenya’s controversy are specific to her own body and historical moment, we’ve heard the underlying story before. Historically-minded thinkers connect the South African runner to her predecessor, Saarjie Baartman, whose body was subjected to display in both life and death, whose caricatured image circulated widely, and whose remains were only repatriated to South Africa in 2002.

Image via XCollektiv

The historical threads of misogynoir reach from Baartman forward to Semenya. The excessive scrutiny applied to black women’s bodies ironically frames those bodies as inscrutable, and thus inherently deserving of surveillance, inspection, dissection, and interrogation. As white supremacy framed normative bodily ideals, denying enslaved people’s gender identity was one strategy for dehumanizing them. This is why antislavery arguments strategically and deliberately pronounced black people “men” and “women.”

In a statement responding to the 2018 IAAF ruling, Semenya stated, plainly, “I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.” Just as the rhetorical question “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” linked gender and kinship, challenging the exclusion of black women from these categories, Semenya’s statement challenges exclusions. She asserts her womanhood and acknowledges her athletic ability, coupling these to defy the implication that these facts cannot coexist.

Semenya’s account of her womanhood also reminds us of the iconic rhetorical question “Ain’t I a Woman?” attributed to Sojourner Truth. In another (more probable) document of this speech, Truth states, rather, “I am a woman’s rights.” In this version, Truth frames her womanhood by noting what is due to her. She exposes how the problem “of” her body actually exists beyond her body — in others’ denial of black womanhood. She understood that a black woman would not be afforded the same rights and treatment as the black men or white women alongside whom she worked toward political and social revolution through abolition, suffrage, and desegregation.Truth likely never spoke the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” but, like Semenya, she did have her womanhood publicly challenged. At an 1858 antislavery speech in Indiana, Truth was heckled by racist white men. One (who happened to be a medical doctor) claimed that she was not a woman because, he said, “Your voice is not the voice of a woman, it is the voice of a man, and we believe you are a man.” His turn to Truth’s voice is, perhaps, apt; the power her speech might display was what most concerned him. To prove her womanhood, he urged Truth to “submit her breast to some of the [white] ladies present.” But Sojourner Truth wasn’t having it.

Sojourner told them that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those white babies had grown to man’s estate ; that, although they had sucked her colored breasts, they were, in her estimation, far more manly than they (her persecutors) appeared to be; and she quietly asked them, as she disrobed her bosom, if they, too, wished to suck!

Truth then exposed her breasts to the entire crowd, telling them “that it was not to her shame that she uncovered her breast before them, but to their shame.” [mic drop]

Truth’s appeal to her breasts is specific, as she describes a personal history of forced labor as a wet nurse. But to read this scene as a simple appeal to bodily proof of womanhood misses larger points: Truth’s hecklers were not concerned with her body but with disrupting her speech. They knew that Truth had breasts and they wanted to shame a free black woman by subjecting her to public examination.

The details of Truth’s body were a red-herring, an excuse – rather than a reason – for racists and sexists to try to discredit the power of her speech. What do Semenya’s critics want to discredit? The power of her speed.

Even as black women’s bodies have been the historical site of the violence enacted against them, these bodies themselves – though real and personal and operating within the bounds of particular material conditions that shape individual people’s embodied lives – do not explain that violence. Truth’s most profound power in this scene (beyond the epic moment in which she tells racists literally to suck it) lies not in whatever proof her breasts provide but in controlling the conditions for her bodily exposure and refusing to be ashamed by anything about her body’s state or past.

The details of Saarjie Baartman’s and Sojourner Truth’s and Caster Semenya’s bodies matter, but not in the ways their over-scrutinizers pretend. Lest we get too caught up in the details of women’s buttocks or breasts or testosterone levels, we would do well to apply our scrutiny elsewhere – particularly to the people and systems that have historically refused to recognize the diversity of black women’s bodies and lives.

Brigitte Fielder: Wants more people to listen to black women.