Caster Semenya and the story of the Amazons of Dahomey

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The challenges that Caster Semenya faces today, reminds me of the most untold story about the women warrior in Benin during the pre-colonial epoch. The women were known as the Amazons of Dahomey. The Dahomey Kingdom existed in Benin, unlike other kingdoms at the time, the warriors were made up of women. They fought many battles against men, and defeated them. They possessed great skills, talents and tactics in wars, in most cases they protected their civilization and kingdom. Before participating in a war they would chant in unity and then fight in unity. One of their chants, stated that, “Lionesses are more fearsome than lions. Because she has her curbs to defend. And we, the Amazons, have you to defend. The king, our king and our God, ki-ni” 

It is sad that very few history books have been written about the warrior women. While nothing gets written about the role of women in Dahomey and their story is not told. A lot has been said about Caster Semenya, like the Amazons of Dahomey, she faces struggles; but not against men in their spears and weapons. But against fellow women (she competes with in the race track), institutionalised patriarchy, venomous and backward elements of homophobia and racism. For over a decade now, these challenges have been exerted in the shoulders of Caster all the time she tries to compete with other athletes and do what she loves the most; running faster. While other athletes worry about reaching the finishing line quicker, Caster worries about how her victory will be viewed by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). 

Caster herself best describes the struggle before her in the race track, when she said that, “I know that the I.A.A.F.’s regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the I.A.A.F. has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the C.A.S. will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.” While a lot of us were still shocked by the ruling made by the Court Arbitration for Sport Caster Semenya cruised to a victory over in the 800 meters race in Doha. Her words and victory proves the authenticity of the poem by May Angelou Still I Rise. The great poet writes; 
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

While the racist, patriarchal and homophobic agenda against Semenya continues, she keeps doing well in the race track! This is the best sportsmanship ever, athletes are not concerned about everything that happens outside of the field. They use the field as a platform to heal broken souls, bring smiles to a sad face, and unite a divided nation. Therefore sports is about pure meritocracy, without any use of artificial developments to assist the sportsmen.  Sportsmen do not need to use drugs, this will make the sport monotonous. It becomes confusing when the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) coerces Semenya to use medication to reduce the level of natural testosterone in her body and become someone she is not. Isn’t that sports is based on using your body to the best of your abilities? 

In soccer for instance, the players are not the same, some have great pace, weight and height, which they individually use to the best of their abilities to compete in the field. Just imagine Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo being told by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to reduce their pace and skills, because other soccer players cannot match them. This is not only absurd, but it is highly impossible and would undermine the authenticity of football. Meritocracy, talent and skills are not only observed in sports; even in other professions, the capacity of different professionals is measured by their performance. One cannot expect an attorney in a law firm not to use her creativity and critical thinking to apply relevant legal principles to her client’s case, because the opposing attorney does not have the similar skills. 

It seems like the absurd rules, are not only targeted at Semenya but to women’s sports as a whole. The rules indicate the level of stereotypes attached to the capacity of women- that only men are allowed to run faster, because they are perceived to be “stronger.” Such stereotypes neglects the fact that, a person’s mental state, plays a huge role in sports. Athletes do not just run, they use their site, mind to stay positive and focused, and they also use their intellect; to be able to change their pace anytime they want, while in the race track. Therefore running an 800 metre race, requires more than just “testosterone.” Even the Amazons of Dahomey were able to defeat men during wars, because wars are not just about physical strengths. They involve training, tactics, particular ideology and skills. 

It is also important to question the fact that, “testosterone” is used to measure the ability of a woman. It is clear that, natural features of a man in a patriarchal society, become dominant indicators, of what a woman can and cannot do. This is not only patriarchal, but it is problematic in a modern society which has made strides to raise awareness and education on the existence of other sexual orientations; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex (LGBTQI). Does the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) imply that the LGBTQI society is not part of “society’’? That there must be distinct sports specifically made for people with different sexual orientations? These questions are important, they indicate the fact that, the challenges faced by Caster Semenya symbolises deep societal problems that must be addressed. 

Some have argued that, with the challenges faced by Caster Semenya lies the primary question, on who falls under women sports? The shortcoming with the question, is that, it firstly assumes that sports is for men, and that women sports is a sub-category of sports for men. The challenges faced by Caster Semenya are not in isolation from systematic racism, institutionalised patriarchy and backward homophobia. The challenges have nothing to do with the definition of women sports, at the end of the day, sports remains sports! 

Rhulani Thembi Siweya is an NEC member of the ANCYL and Patton of Africa Unmasked



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