After a whirlwind media frenzy, the Caster Semenya headlines have finally died down. At least until the release of the results of the controversial test, when we will likely again be bombarded with many interpretations of what this means. Yet in many ways media missed the scoop reporting on this issue, misinformation and stereotypes characterised most coverage over the last few weeks.
What was missing was the bigger picture - how her story relates to the thousands of other women out there who do not conform to what society thinks women should look and act like.
Headlines from many local newspapers were exuberant when she arrived last Tuesday morning, 25 August 2009, at OR Tambo Airport from Berlin, Germany. Some of the headlines read: Welcome our golden girl, Golden Beauty, You simply the Best, Bring on the gold
It was great to see people gather for this event at the airport, some chanting political slogans, singing, dancing, and waiting for her arrival. Of course, some were present more for spectacle than support. One ignorant person even said they came to the airport to check if she was truly a man. On seeing Semenya, this same person commented that she was too small to be a man. Perturbed
Yet, not all the media headlines and attention were so supportive. Prove you're not a boy!
challenged the front page of the Daily Sun
. Speculation of Semenya's sex and gender (and they are different) was central in the media, a spectacle for all to read and see. As a media-monitoring organisation, the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network, we are quite perturbed at how this unfolded.
The images and photos of Semenya seemed geared to raise questions about the controversy, her celebration forgotten. At the same time, media treated consumers to a host of images of other such “gender questionable” athletes, maybe intended to show that this is not the first such controversy in world sport, but which only perpetuated stereotypes of women such as Semenya.
Amid all the noise, media failed to mention that Semenya has not even made it to the top ten fastest women's
800m world runners. So what is the problem? I would have presumed the media would speculate this issue further and educate us all. Rather, print media featured offensive and degrading cartoons of her being a boy and people at the airport calling her a sheman. This is not right.
What does a real woman look like anyway? Women come in all shapes, sizes, and shades; some are bold, dreadlocked, weaved and braided hair wearers. Confusion
Media coverage locally in South Africa and internationally showed big confusion - what is sex and gender? Sex is described as the biological difference between women and men. For example, men produce sperm while women become pregnant and breastfeed. Gender is socially constructed differences between men and women, which can change over time and can vary within a given society from one generation to the next.
If sex is the issue, then we know to date that Caster is a young woman, who physically looks like a woman, and has bought menstrual napkins on a monthly basis because she actually has periods. She does not have a full chest, but that does not make her less of a woman. In another juicy media detail, we all know that she has bathed with women who witnessed her genitalia. So the sex issue is definitely not an issue.
Athletic South Africa (ASA) admitted that it had no idea of what a gender test consisted of. I would think that there are policies governing all sports associations to protect their own athletes; you participate as either a woman or a man. In fact, a high-level person in that office was quoted saying that they are mandated to train the athletes only, thus their wellbeing is not their problem to deal with. However, now that the media has unfairly brought this to the world, will they revaluate their role in such circumstances?
In the aftermath, and before we begin again with the test results, I challenge the media to probe some of these questions. What should the role of the ASA be in making sure that Semenya, and others like her, are treated with respect and that her rights are not violated. What is a gender test? How do national sports treat women?Does not end the issue
Meeting the president, women's league and youths of political parties to have a press conference of refuting the charges made by IAAF does not end the issue. It also does not end with Semenya - in reality, there are many other women like her chastised for looking like men.
Long before she made world headlines, Semenya dealt with these gender questions as a small girl growing up in Limpopo. In fact, there are many other women in her shoes. Many women have been brutally attacked for looking like men and raped to see if they will get pregnant. Others have suffered “corrective rape” in an effort to correct their womanliness, especially lesbians, who have also been killed for looking and acting like men. Where is that media coverage?
Many of the brutal killings that have happened in the past to women are symptoms of a society that does not want to accept those that are different. There is need for gender equality within the media and stop perpetuating the stereotypes that are very dangerous to our society.
As an agenda-setter, the media has a duty to portray not just what is, but what could be; to be exemplary in its own practices; and to open debate on the complex issues surrounding gender equality.
I am proud to know women of all shapes, sizes, six-packed or not. Alex Wek is a Sudanese supermodel, gorgeous and she has a flat chest too. Imagine, there is great variety of beauty out there.