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Political Physics: Ain’t I a Woman? – The Story of Sojourner Truth and Caster Semenya


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

Dear Mr. Diack –

Caster and Truth

Caster Semenya and Sojourner Truth

As President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), I appreciate your acknowledgement that the situation with South African runner Caster Semenya “could have been treated with more sensitivity.  I admit that we are unhappy; we could have done better.  But this is definitely not a case of racism.”

However, that might just be a bit of an understatement.

By publicly announcing the IAAF’s intention to gender-test Semenya on the eve of her participation in the 800-meter final, your organization set in motion a humiliating ordeal that could have life-long impacts on an 18-year-old girl.  You in effect sent her into her race the next day under a cloud of suspicion, which only gave credibility to those who questioned her win and transformed her into an international media spectacle.

You took away any of the “shine” of sense of accomplishment she may have felt before she even took to the track to win her gold medal.

As you know, last week Semenya began the gender testing process, which will take weeks to complete, require a physical medical evaluation, and include reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.  Semenya will basically be undressed physically and mentally as the IAAF attempts to ascertain if she is (a) XX, (b) XY or (c) something in between.

According to the Intersex Society of North America, “1% of live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity.  Between 0.1% and 0.2% of live births are ambiguous enough to become the subject of specialist medical attention, including surgery to disguise their sexual ambiguity.”  Intersexuality is a “general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”  There are around 20 to 30 types of biological “intersex” conditions, each of them affecting the body in different ways.

But this is not unfamiliar territory for the IAAF and similar organizations.

In the 1960’s, gender testing was common for female Olympians.  In the late 1990’s, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) abolished the widespread practice of gender testing amid widespread complaints and controversy.  However, gender testing continues on a case-by-case basis.  The real issue is that neither the IAAF nor the IOC has clear guidelines on when and why an athlete is subject to gender testing.  This is further complicated by the lack of consistent rulings regarding what the results of a gender test means.

For example, it was discovered after her death that Olympian Stella Walsh has “ambiguous genitalia” and could not easily be identified as either biologically male or female.  However, her Olympic record remained intact.  Conversely, Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of a silver medal won at the 2006 Asian Games after failing a gender verification test, disputing her eligibility to participate in the women’s competition.

And Mr. Diack, when you talk about how you could have treated Caster with more sensitivity, you should know that Santhi Soundarajan attempted suicide following the controversy.

Again, I think insensitivity is an understatement. 

The humiliation that Soundarajan felt and that Semenya feels could have long-term emotional impacts.

Is it worth it? 

Your general secretary Pierre Weiss said, “If the tests show that Semenya is not a woman, she would be stripped of her gold medal.”  But what if she is intersexed?  All of a sudden the decision in that case is not so black and white and history shows your actions have been varied.

With so much ambiguity on your part, is it any wonder people are questioning whether or not race is playing a role?

South Africa is a country still struggling to emerge from decades of institutionalized racism.  The IAAF treatment of Semenya has made some in South Africa feel as if the struggle continues.  The Young Communist League of South Africa issued a statement about the IAAF request that read, “It feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty.  It is this culture which has forced many African women to starve themselves with the objective of reaching the model ramps of Paris and Milan to become the face of this or that product or magazine.”

And according to Nadra Kareem from’s Guide to Race Relations, “The league may not be far off the mark.  Although their gender was never in question, tennis players Venus and Serena Williams have frequently been deemed too masculine by critics. First Lady Michelle Obama has faced similar criticism because of her muscular arms and 6-foot frame. Are black women in Western society unfairly pegged as masculine?”

Even though the gender testing of Caster Semenya has already begun, you can still call an end to the clear violation of this woman.  One that could have significant impacts on her emotional well being moving forward.  One that calls to questions some ugly thoughts about race and beauty.

One of my favorite women in history is Sojourner Truth.  If you don’t know, Sojourner Truth was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist.  At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, she delivered a speech entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?, where she questioned stereotypical gender roles. 

Because of her six-foot frame, powerful voice and independent spirit she was often accused of being a man.  At a speaking engagement in Indiana, when questions around her gender were shouted from the audience she exposed her breast to prove she was a woman.

Must you make Caster Semenya do the same thing?


Monique King-Viehland