This text questions the support that Caster Semenya received in the name of patriotism, arguing that the heteronormative and patriarchal home base of nationalism, its gendered matrix so to say, reflects a dilemma: the popular support for Semenya reinforced the very concepts which led to her painful exposure and the violation of her human rights in the first place. By exploring various recent public debates and political controversies, this article is not so interested in finding an essence within public opinion about contested, gendered issues. Instead of a classic question, thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach, it rather seeks to unfold the discursive networks of gender, sexuality and race within national iconography and rhetoric. As such anecdotes, images, expressions, clichés and pop-cultural artefacts illustrate contemporary intersecting and sometimes contradicting social and political phenomena revolving around body politics and nation building and normative power relations.
The so-called Caster Semenya debacle can be seen as one moment in a chain of ongoing events in South Africa: from homophobic hate crimes to reinforcing dress codes, to censorship of the arts in the name of `proper’ femininity, culture, morality and nation building. The right to female self-determination is not only challenged on the ground. At a political level the threats to the Constitution by Christian right-wingers in dialogue with members of the Government target the right to abortion, the decriminalisation of sex work and the right to same-sex marriages. Normative understandings of womanhood seem to gain grounds in multiple ways (Schuhmann, 2009).
For several days in 2009 Caster Semenya, South Africa’s celebrated `Golden Girl’, received widespread and energetic support across the country for her outstanding victory at the Berlin Athletics World Championship. What to make out of a situation where a woman who looks, sounds and performs like what we label as typically male, whose body is questioned as transgressing our rigid two-sex model, nevertheless is celebrated by the national collective? At first glance such support seemed to show an encouraging disregard for a woman’s non-conforming gender performance something one can not take for granted at times where women are abused for wearing pants or skirts considered to be too short, and are facing `curative’ rape for being or looking like a lesbian looking like a woman who does not know her appropriate place (Schuhmann, 2009).
Shoring up assertions of Semenya’s unambiguous female identity became even more necessary for the nation after an Italian athlete questioned her sex and complained about Semenya’s 800 m World Championship victory as being unfair. As a consequence, the International Association of Athletes (IAAF) openly started a process, including physical, hormonal and psychological tests, to investigated Semenya’s sex status. With statements such as “She is a woman”, “I bathed with her, I must know it” and “She is a beautiful first lady of sport”, the real message of the patriotic-driven support Semenya received was “We support you for the price of dress, walk, if you change nappies or repair cars or, to put it differently, it is about how we perform what we understand within a given historical, local and cultural context as feminine or masculine.
Looks, clothes, gestures, hormones, hairstyle, physiognomy, movement, voice, chromosomes, psychology, attitudes all these are seen to divide us, yet we’re supposedly equal. Do we all know our chromosome status and testosterone levels (maybe some are in for a surprise)? What is it that makes a woman a woman? Is it the ability to give birth? If so, after menopause am I a woman no longer? Why do we need to be sure about someone’s sex at all?
One could argue that the support of an athlete whose gender performance is not what a typical, young black woman in South Africa is supposed to look like, is a rather progressive act, as it destabilises the norm that sex and gender must be synchronised; by doing so it potentially authorises Semenya’s right to self-determination and selfidentification: no matter how I chose to look, I define myself as a woman.
Contextualised with what became known as the Caster Semenya saga and the lived realities of many women in South Africa, a simple positive reading of the support Semenya received seems illusory. Why do we need to have our biologically allocated reinforcing your sex as female, and as long as you play along we are willing to overlook your masculine gender performance”. From this point on most commentators reported on Semenya’s gender testing, confusing the dominant gender/ sex division, which I briefly outline below to problematise the concept. Sex is commonly understood as the biological hardware, the body, with its signifying genitals, hormones, facial features, reproductive organs, bodily hair and so forth. According to societal norms, sex is supposed to be coherent with the gender of a person, which is seen as socially learned ways of how to conduct oneself as a gendered being. Gender is about how you sit,sex in synch with our gender performance? While we are celebrating an athlete’s achievement, why aren’t we doing so on the grounds that she as all of us could be anything and everything? The reiteration of her femaleness reinforced that Semenya must be what the public needed her to be: a woman; a South African woman; a black South African woman; a black, South African, heterosexual, woman; a `normal’ woman.
Female body as symbol for society
A body never belongs to an individual woman only the female body serves as a symbol for society. Unfolding the cultural history of virginity in the West, Bernau (2008: 139) argues that “shame and the threat of ostracism … are summoned to police the young woman’s sexual behaviour; her body and desire are not hers to do with as she pleases, for her body possesses a significance and a worth that goes beyond the merely personal”. Across time and place the female body stands in as a symbolic signifier for the father’s, the brother’s, the husband’s, the family’s, the collective’s the nation’s honour.
The collective imagination of a nation is inherently gendered and as such based on the metaphoric signifying of the nation as a collective of families – of heterosexual, patriarchal families of course. Expressions such as “the mother of the nation”, “the first family”, “you educate a woman you educate the nation” are indicators that the dominant iconography of the nation depicts it not only as gendered but also as deeply familialistic. As such, the common notion of the national collective is still structured around heteronormative and patriarchal modes of representation, irrespective of emerging gay-friendly and gender mainstreaming policies.
As body politics revolve around power in relation to sexuality, gender, class, age and so forth, all of course intersecting with the notion of race, we need to add another dimension when trying to understand the core aspects of nationalist discourses today and their legacies.
The axis of race, age and gender dominate heterosexual, patriarchal families. Projecting these quasi `natural’ power relations (papa dominates mama, parents the children, etc.) onto other social entities such as a national collective or the relationship among nations makes socially produced hierarchies appear to be natural, static, essential and unquestionable. The colonised territories, for instance, were referred to as the children of the mother colony, suggesting that they needed parental guidance for their development towards maturity/civilisation.
In colonial times foreign shores were described as virgin lands ready to be penetrated and conquered. In today’s conflicts, the rape of women ’belonging’ to the enemy is understood as symbolical penetration of his land, of emasculating him by bringing shame on him for not being able to protect his property. We find the violent analogy of the female body equals territory/the social on the level of representation in our language: the “Rape of South Africa’s Economy” a vulnerable and helpless entity, “penetrated” by China or multinationals. We find it within legitimisation of xenophobic violence when women are referred to as collective property: “They steal our women”. The word rape originates from the Latin ‘raptus’, meaning theft or seizure. We find it in the
experience of women, whose violation during conflict is understood on both sides as an insult to the other collective rather than to female individuals. The realities of historic subjects as well as the politics of representation speak to the racialised/ethnicised gendering of national discourses, of violence, and of the violence of national discourses.
Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias (Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 1989: 7) define five ways in which women and nationalism are bound together. Women are seen as the biological reproducers of national collectives, they reproduce the boundaries of national groups, for instance through restrictions on sexual and marital relations, and they serve as active producers of national culture. Furthermore, women are the symbolic signifiers of national difference as well as active participants in national struggles.
McClintock (1997: 90) argues that nationalism is from the very beginning a gendered discourse, something only a few feminist scholars have analysed so far. She calls for developing a fourfold
feminist analysis of nationalism: “investigating the gendered formations of sanctioned male theories; bringing into historical visibility women’s active cultural and political participation in national
formations; bringing nationalist institutions into critical relations with other social structures and institutions; and at the same time paying scrupulous attention to the structures of racial, ethnic and class power that continue to bedevil privileged forms of feminism.” I would like to add heteronormativity as another element of privileged feminism.
`Compulsory’ heterosexuality within dominant, nationalist discourses
A scandal in 2009 around the South African Minister of Arts and Culture illustrates very well how hegemonic understandings of race and gender are intersecting with compulsory heterosexuality within dominant, nationalist discourses that despise the transgressions of norms. Ms Xingwana1 refused to open the Innovative Women art exhibition funded by her own department, after previewing photographs of the internationally acclaimed artist and lesbian activist Zanele Muholi. The Times of 1 March 2010 reported “that after she saw a series of photographs …, of naked, black women embracing each other, Xingwana slammed the work as `pornographic’, spoke to her aides, and left in a huff … In a statement read by her spokeswoman Lisa Combrinck, Xingwana said: `Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this’. `It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.'”
The Minister of Arts and Culture is right: the values displayed in the photographs of Zanele Muholi are at odds with promoting a heterosexual, patriarchal family and as such they do challenge hegemonic nation building, relying on the restoration of existing power relations. She is not alone in her crusade, and it is not new. Erlank (2003) explores the historic ties the ANC has with boosting hegemonic masculinity in relation to national liberation, and McClintock (1997) unfolds the patriarchal similarities of Afrikaaner and ANC national identity and their respective celebration of maternity as an idealised role for women.
Conservative Christian groups today intensify their lobbying for values partly already promoted through the State-driven moral regeneration movement (de Nobrega, 2008). The recent formation of the National Interfaith Council facilitated by the Rhema Church and its association with President Zuma, who responded to their demands to revisit laws legalising samesex marriage and abortion, with “Everything is up to debate” (Mail & Guardian, 4 October 2009) is worrying but should come as no surprise. In some ways their attempt to protect the patriarchal, heterosexual family, a moral value system that condemns the decriminalisation of sex work, which is seen similarly to homosexuality as a threat to the family and as such as a threat to the health of the nation, corresponds with certain aspects of patriotic discourses. The gay kiss in the South African TV soap opera Generations and the following controversy indicates clearly that South Africa, as many other countries, is caught up between celebrating diversity for nationbuilding purposes and the rejection of everything ‘other’ to the norm. Embracing the ‘other’ is branded to symbolise modernity, progress and the level of civilisation of a nation, in line with a global human rights discourse. Yet at the same time the ‘tolerance’ of the ‘other’ is also conceived as a threat, out to destroy privileges. In spite of claiming human rights and gender-neutral citizen rights such as self-determination, a right to privacy and so forth as part of the major framework of national self-imagination and idealisation, the ideological cement of the above outlined backlash seems to be a patriarchal entitlement to control the female body and sexuality. Since women are no universal category, black women, old women, single women, married women, upperclass women, rural women, disabled women, migrant women are regulated differently in the name of morality, religion, tradition, culture, nation building – you name it.
We can observe in many countries that in times of socio-economic tensions, citizen rights and specifically the protection of groups thought to be more vulnerable, such as women, immigrants and other minorities, become scapegoats in the name of patriotism, which often includes references to an assumedly shared homogenous tradition. It is rather the abject `other’ (immigrants, perverts, criminals, hIV/AIDS positives, prostitutes, homeless the dangerous classes) that is made responsible for threatening the inner peace than, for instance, hegemonic notions of violent masculinity or specific class interests. Diverting the attention to scapegoats goes mostly hand in hand with tightening inner security measurements, enforcing territorial border controls and a symbolic boundary management in which the female body serves as a multidimensional signifier. Rigid bio-politics revolving around purity, authenticity, belonging, sacrifices, values, appear to secure collective boundaries mainly via policing women’s bodies and behaviour in the name of nation building.
In South Africa feminine masculinities and masculine femininities are normally not celebrated overtly throughout a country known for the worldwide highest levels of violence against women generally, and specifically against those who transgress norms. Women looking, dressing and moving like Semenya, women who don’t buy into gender-stereotypical behaviour, are often
the targets of hate crimes, “curative” rape and homophobia, constantly ‘reminded’ of who they are supposed to be.2 That’s why the kind of support Semenya received, with its insistence on
her womanhood and reiteration that her treatment was unfair to a ‘lady’ – rather than unfair to anyone, whatever their sex and gender identity reinforces the a limited binary: men have to be men and women have to be women; assumedly there is no third space in between.
In the light of the normative powers of nation building, not only the support for Semenya appears shady, but feminist politics need to interrogate their relationship with nationalist and patriotic discourses, asking which price we are prepared to pay in relation to their re-enforcement of a normative understanding of gender performance and sex status, and how both can be linked to compulsory heterosexuality. Is it possible to struggle for inclusion in the name of women’s rights, yet at the same time utilise concepts and discourses which are reinforcing new exclusion by simply pushing the margins further? Activists, artists and intellectuals are more and more challenging the two-sex system and its violent normative powers as a human rights violation (Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, 2005).
Compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1980) reinforces a norm, which needs two clearly identifiable and opposed entities men and women. Everyone blurring this line is perceived to be a threat to this norm. As such, the `makeover’ photo shoot in YOU magazine, `Caster enjoys going Girly’, which saw Semenya posing in stilettos, silver glitter and make-up, only served to confirm that she is not `deviant’ in the common sense masculine femininities are normally not celebrated overtly throughout a country known for the worldwide highest levels of violence against women generally, and specifically against those who transgress norms. Women looking, dressing and moving like Semenya, women who don’t buy into gender-stereotypical behaviour, are often the targets of hate crimes, “curative” rape and homophobia, constantly `reminded’ of who they are supposed to be.2 That’s why the kind of support Semenya received, with its insistence on her womanhood and reiteration that her treatment was unfair to a `lady’ rather than unfair to anyone, whatever their sex and gender identity that her sex status is not matching her gender performance.
In order to get her masculine gender performance in synch with a sex that allowed her to run as a female athlete, the collective appropriation of her body as female needed to silence her masculine performance. This tabooisation became more difficult once rumours about the date of official unreleased results became louder. her testosterone levels were said to be higher than those of an average woman, her voice is deep, her facial hair unusual, “reports allege that she has been found to have no womb or ovaries — that is feasible. They do not allege that she lacks a vagina
… They do allege that she has testes, presumably in her abdomen …” (Gross, 2010).
of natural sciences, medicine and other disciplines unfolded their normative power to regulate bodies, to classify health and pathology, to define who is human. The rise of colonial empires intensified the need to dissect, to explain, to categorise and classify populations even further, and often traditional systems of gender relations and body politics were overwritten. Ifi Amadiuma (1987) is only one among other authors such as Tarikhu Farrar (1997) or Robert Edgerton (2000) who try to recover realities different to European patriarchal regimes. In her book Male Daughters and Female Husbands, Amadiuma (1987) argues that in pre-colonial societies, sex and gender did not necessarily match and roles were neither rigidly feminised or masculinised.
A very young invention
If we agree with one of the essential paradigms of equality the claim that inequality is not a natural fact due to essential difference but socially fabricated then inequality becomes changeable. If we do agree that our understanding of gender is based on conventions and socialisation and as such is a historic category, we create a space to understand that gender relations did and will transform. If we do agree with this, we consequently need to consider what all this means for our understanding of body politics. Judith Butler (2004: 9) summarises the complex consequences as follows: “To understand gender as a historic category, however, is to accept that gender, understood as one way of culturally configuring a body, is open to a continual remaking, and that `anatomy’ and `sex’ are not without cultural framing (as the intersex movement has clearly shown)”. What she means is that our gaze on the body is in itself a gendered gaze, our language is in itself a gendered language, and consequently the knowledge we produce and reproduce must be inherently gendered and as such is limited to the narrow boundaries of a two-sex system. This system is constantly reinforced, from toilets to cosmetics, to sporting categories, to national identity documents. We have no language beyond the duality of she and he. Because all this is a fact? Is a binary understanding of gender reflecting an ahistoric common sense saying that women have a vagina, breasts, become pregnant and men have a penis, are stronger built and produce sperm?
Is it really so simple, and was it always like this? A growing body of scholarly work and social and cultural practices challenge this assumption, arguing that the dual-sex system with its rigid boundaries as we know it today is actually a very young invention (Laqueur, 1990; Voß, 2010). It developed with the rise of modernity in the context of enlightenment. The growing domination of natural sciences, medicine and other disciplines unfolded their normative power to regulate bodies, to classify health and pathology, to define who is human. The rise of colonial empires intensified the need to dissect, to explain, to categorise and classify populations even further, and often traditional systems of gender relations and body politics were overwritten. Ifi Amadiuma (1987) is only one among other authors such as Tarikhu Farrar (1997) or Robert Edgerton (2000) who try to recover realities different to European patriarchal regimes. In her book Male Daughters and Female Husbands, Amadiuma (1987) argues that in pre-colonial societies, sex and gender did not necessarily match and roles were neither rigidly feminised or masculinised.
The European conquerors, missionaries and traders were unable and not willing to recognise this. In order to place bodies in hierarchical structures, such as mapping the genealogy of humanity as a tree with the `inferior’ races on the lower branches, one needed to generate reliable `facts’ about bodies, their races, their gender, their sex and conditions. Classification systems based on mutually exclusive and always gendered and racialised binaries spread. White women and black people are said to be closer to nature, less rational, and so forth. Once allocated, you cannot change your ascribed collective position. Order means control transgression a threat to the order. Today our world revolves around hierarchically placed differences and we learn which ones matter and which ones do not. Big ears versus small ears are not as significant as beige versus brown skin. We learn what needs to be straightened if it is too queer.
The globally emerging transgender and intersex movements are challenging the notion of a two-sex system beyond the claims of lesbians and gay people for recognition and protection of their same-sex desire; a desire that is still based on two sexes which simply match the other way round.
How do feminists and women’s rights advocates respond to queer interventions, which destabilise hegemonic notions of kinship and family by questioning stable identity markers, who attack the violent social, legal and medical enforcement of unambiguous, never-changing gender and sex identities, and by doing so open up spaces to revisit our understanding of humanness?
Butler (2004) revisits Fanon, who critiqued humanism as racialised when saying `the black is not a man’, as well as disguising humanism’s investment in masculinity, racialised masculinity with the white male as dominant norm of being human. Butler concludes that “these formulations show the power differentials embedded in the construction of the category of the ‘human’ and,
at the same time, insist upon the historicity of the term, the fact that ‘human’ has been crafted and consolidated over time.” Having said this, she unfolds how the “norms of recognition” constitute the ‘human’ and “encode operations of power”. “Logically the future of the ‘human’ will be a contest over the power that works in and through such norms” (Butler, 2004: 13). Our understanding of what constitutes a ‘human’ is likened to recognition and its denial. “Those deemed illegible, unrecognizable, or impossible nevertheless speak in the terms of the ‘human’ opening the term to a history not fully constrained by the existing differentials of power” (Butler, 2004: 14).
In the case of Semenya, the revelation of her `condition’ intensified the run to lay claims about rightful representation as well as the right to represent. More and more Semenya was referred to as a `child’. Using gender-neutral language seemingly erased the tensions around her ambiguous sex status. This culminated in an ANC Youth League statement, which linguistically exterminated people who transgress the norms of the two-sex system. By denying the existence of intersex people, the ANCYL denied their right to exist, and used these genocidal linguistics as an amplifier for their anti-racist authenticity (Shivambu, 2009):
“Even if a test is done, the ANCYL will never accept the categorisation of Caster Semenya as a hermaphrodite, because in South Africa and the entire world of sanity, such does not exist. The basic, traditional and known method to determine gender has classified Caster Semenya as female and to us she will remain a female.
“The ANCYL is also very concerned by the fact that all the media reports about Caster Semenya are generated in Australia, which is the most lucrative destination for South Africa’s racists and fascists, who refused to live under a black democratic government. The maltreatment of Caster Semenya is evidently a coordinated racist attack on Caster Semenya, an African woman whom the racists never thought will represent South Africa with excellence.”
Sex tests do have strong ideological undertones, yet I would suggest a very different perspective. During the Cold War it was the Eastern Bloc that was suspected of `cheating’; in relation to Semenya’s sex testing, Western newspapers reported that particularly Third World countries send men disguised as women to international sports competitions. The point here is not that no person, black or white, should be subjected to the colonisation by heterosexual gender norms that Semenya had to undergoconstruction of the category of the `human’ and, at the same time, insist upon the historicity of the term, the fact that `human’ has been crafted and consolidated over time.” having said this, she unfolds how the “norms of recognition” constitute the `human’ and “encode operations of power”. “Logically the future of the `human’ will be a contest over the power that works in and through such norms” (Butler, 2004: 13). Our understanding of what onstitutes a `human’ is likened to recognition and its denial. “Those deemed illegible, unrecognizable, or impossible nevertheless speak in the terms of the `human’ opening the term to a history not fully constrained by the existing differentials of power” (Butler, 2004: 14). In the case of Semenya, the revelation of athletes from the First World are not subjected to sex tests too. It is rather that given the history of slavery and colonialism, the exposure of a black woman’s body creates a very specific context in relation to various technologies of violence: the power of definition and lassification, linked to a penetrating and curious gaze regime, deeply involved in hegemonic politics of otherness. Today’s sensationalism in Western media, exposing Semenya and labelling the `Bantu as often being hermaphrodites’ echoes the treatment of Saartjie Baartman, a khoi khoi woman exhibited in 19th century Europe as a freak. After her death her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were displayed in the Musée de l’homme in Paris. In 2002 her remains were brought back to postapartheid South Africa after long negotiations with the French government. her life has been appropriated as a symbol for the battered history of a nation in the making.
In Baartman’s painful `herstory’ we recognise aspects of Semenya’s public exposure driven by various interests in the West and at home. Post-colonial Western ignorance of colonial legacies, infiltrating the racist representation of the Semenya case, accelerated a highly gendered, potentially homophobic anti-Western popularism in South Africa. The mutual reinforcement of racism, sexism, and heteronormativity were intensified by science, public spectatorship and an interest in the commodification of her body. No person, black or white, should be subjected to the colonisation by heterosexual gender norms that Semenya had to undergo. having one’s sex questioned for the purpose of its enforced reclassification, or having it reinforced for the price of denying a person’s transgressions both limit an individual’s agency to determine their own sense of gender. I can only determine my own understanding of my gender if there are social norms which enable me to claim my gender for myself. “In this sense, individual agency is bound up with social critique and social transformation” (Butler, 2004: 7).
A transformation the ANCYL obviously still has to happen. Yet the more interesting question is: if such a kind of social transformation, which includes complex issues related to changes in kinship structure, debates on gay marriages, pathology and collective identities in relation to individual identities, is also driven by those women who understand themselves as agents of change?
To go back to the Minister of Arts and Culture, responding to the critique of her being homophobic and unprofessional, she stated: “To my mind, these were not works of art but crude misrepresentations of women (both black and white) masquerading as artworks rather than engaged in questioning or interrogating – which I believe is what art is about. Those particular works of art stereotyped black women. … What I think is necessary in our country today is a long overdue debate on what is art and where do we draw the line between art and pornography. What do we wish to encourage as a community concerned about the imaginative possibilities of art to shape our nation and our future? South Africans last engaged in such a debate before the democratic era. It is time that we open this discussion in the context of moral regeneration, social cohesion and nation building”.3
Developing frameworks of gender/ sex diversity
How do we deal with the hijacking of women’s empowerment discourse (Gqola, 2006) by conservative groups and agents of a backlash within the ruling ANC? In the name of representing gender equality, national uplifting and an anticolonial attitude which claims to strengthen non-Western traditions irrespective of their patriarchal inequalities, they re-enforce a narrow understanding of gender relations and the diversity within femininities and masculinities of all shades.
Another example for the silencing powers of intersecting anti-Eurocentrism with safeguarding patriarchal privileges is the controversy about Mandela’s grandson:
“More than 40 women and men from some of the remotest rural enclaves of the country trekked to Parliament this week to beg sometimes in tears the portfolio committee on rural development and land reform to disband traditional authorities created by the 1951 Black Authorities Act (BAA). And the MP who spearheaded the defence of traditional leadership was none other than committee member Zwelivelile Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson and chief of the Mvezo traditional council in the Eastern Cape Mvezo is the village where the former president was born. `We as women don’t really like the chief that much’ one woman told the committee. `We ask this Parliament to disband the current traditional authority and court.’… At the hearings he made an impassioned speech about the wholesomeness of ukuthwalwa, the marriage custom meaning `to be carried’ which implies the abduction of often prepubescent girls, who are then forced into marriage. Speaking in isiXhosa, Zwelivelile Mandela reprimanded one of the rural woman who had criticised ukuthwalwa as a distortion. `What is her culture that informs her that [ukuthwalwa] is a distortion?’ he asked. `When a man sees that this one is ripe for marriage, then she is taken and she is put through a ceremony and then she’s ready. Don’t bring in white people’s things such as her age,’ he snapped.” Pearlie Jobert, `Fury over Traditional System’, Mail & Guardian, 23 July 2010.
As the Arts and Culture Minister’s self-righteous reaction to the photograph of two nude black women embracing each other illustrates, nation building is often tied to hegemonic discourses around gender, sex, sexuality, and the patriarchal family. In which ways should feminism relate to normative forces and their related discourses, often re-enforcing regimes of power and dominant body politics and gender relations?
The controversy around Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandchild and a local chief, shows very well how (re)claiming patriarchal traditions delegitimises the critique of women in the name of anticolonial/-Western/-white politics. We need to break down the illusionary universality of women in relation to their different positionalities what does this means for women targeted by this, what does this mean for white women? To be able to be in non-paternalistic solidarity with women who are targeted today by the patriarchal utilisation of the legacies of Eurocentric subordination of indigenous cultures, white feminists need to find ways to politically relate to and take responsibility for past colonial and apartheid atrocities perpetrated by a collective they are inevitably identified as part of.
Undermining the struggle for gender equality by ignoring the differences within and at the same time, limiting the struggle by reinforcing hegemonic identity impositions such as the prevalent paradigm of a narrow two-sex model, mean to subscribe to various forms of exclusion. Denying the possibilities of transgressing into a third space of fluid gender identities and ambivalent sex status beyond a male-female binary and the congruence of sex and gender performance is limiting. Feminism that is directly invested in politics of otherness essential for hegemonic nationalism invests inevitably in normative body politics and as such reproduces regimes of violence.
The challenge for today’s feminisms is how to respond more efficiently to public debates which often simplify complex and paradox issues. In the light of what happened to Caster Semenya this means also developing frameworks among ourselves as to how to complexify our understanding of gender/sex diversity. For instance this could mean acknowledging the existence of more than two sexes, recognising transgressive gender performances like many trans-organisations demand or, as deconstructive feminists argue, to challenge the very binary of `social/natural’ itself.
To extend our critique from the very notion of a person’s gender as being fixed to questioning a person’s sex as culturally framed also requires acknowledging that gendering always goes hand in hand with racialising bodies, and that both imply the violence of identification which inevitably includes the violence of denying recognition for those who transgress existing identification categories. “That feminism has always countered violence against women, sexual and nonsexual, ought to serve as a basis for alliances with these other movements, since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins antihomophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism” (Butler, 2004: 9).
There is a clear need to build alliances, but this requires a much better understanding of how different forms of exclusion and violence are interlinked and reinforce each other, often through the backdoor of language, concepts, and aspects taken for granted, and which reveal their investment in the upholding of hegemonic power relations only at a second glance. “history is larger than personal goodwill, and we must learn to be responsible as we must study to be political” (Spivak, 1998).