Saturday, September 5, 2009

when is one consider a woman?

Tony Deyal

Whether you call it a paradox or a parable, a lateral thinking puzzle or just a riddle, the question "When is a woman not a woman?" becomes increasingly important as the fate of Caster Semenya, the young South African runner, is being decided by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). An Indian runner, Santhi Soundarajan, was stripped of a silver medal she won at the 2006 Asian Games after failing a "gender verification test" which indicated that she "does not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman". Santhi reportedly attempted suicide in September 2007.

So let's start with the predicament of the surgeon that I used to end last week's column. What I said was, "Tony Deyal was last seen talking about the boy who, although badly hurt, survived a car crash in which his father was killed. The surgeon seeing the boy on the operating table said, "I can't do this. He is my son." I promised the answer in this column. Most of you would have worked it out by now but those who still think the surgeon was the boy's step-father, a former milkman who is now a surgeon, the "horner man" as one Trini friend told me when he phoned to say he had solved it, are wrong. The surgeon is the boy's mother.

So where did people go wrong? That answer depends on the individual but much of it has to do with how we are brought up and the stereotypes or generalisations that are both cause and effect of who we are and how we view, as well as how we respond to, the world. In our culture, when we hear "surgeon" many of us invariably think of a man. We know at an intellectual level that there are women pilots, surgeons and nuclear physicists but the stereotype is a man. The stereotypes for teachers, nurses and dumb blondes are all female. What makes it worse is that while we may make exceptions, we don't change the stereotypes. We may say, Dr Armstrong is a good surgeon for a woman but that doesn't change the stereotype of surgeons being men. The list is endless, Tony is a really good person for an Indian, Jew, Bajan, Trini or whatever but that does not change the stereotypes we have of different occupations and nationalities. Interestingly, when I say gynaecologist, the stereotype is male. Carrie Snow, the comedian, seized upon this fact and quipped, "It's silly for a woman to go to a male gynaecologist. It's like going to a mechanic who never owned a car."

The problem is different for Caster Semanya. She might own a car but that alone is insufficient to qualify her as a woman in the eyes of the IAAF. Journalist Melonyce McAfee points out, "Is a 'gender test' as simple as it sounds? No. You can't tell for sure if an athlete is a man or a woman just by glancing at his or her genitalia." In Caster's case, the BBC reports, "A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, have started the testing procedure but it is uncertain when the results will be known. Weiss said testing was being done in Berlin and South Africa but admitted it was a complex issue. 'At this stage, it's confusing,' he said. 'Personally I have no clue what's going on. I rely on and trust our doctors. We would have preferred not to have had a controversy'."

Caster seems to be heading for the same situation as Santhi Soundarajan. A Time magazine report (September 1) states that Soundarajan was later diagnosed with AIS, or androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition in which a genetic male is resistant to androgens, the male sex hormones that include testosterone, leading the body to appear externally female.

As a parent with two daughters who, like Caster's parents or Santhi's, has seen them through childhood into adolescence, how can I accept that any of my daughters is not a woman, that my girl children are really boy children? Nietzsche the philosopher says that truth is a woman and wisdom is a woman. The IAAF, however, says that the daughter of a poor Indian family is not a woman and might say that the daughter of a poor South African family is also not a woman while at the same time ignoring all the steroid-pumping and testosterone taking East German and other Soviet-bloc "women" who won and got to keep their gold medals. Who will be next, Jamaican female athletes? Ethiopian?

So when is a woman a woman or not a woman? We can take it from the high ground of Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex), "But first we must ask: what is a woman? "Tota mulier in utero'', says one, "woman is a womb''. But in speaking of certain women, connoisseurs declare that they are not women, although they are equipped with a uterus like the rest.

And yet we are told that femininity is in danger; we are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity." Or we can take it from the low ground to which ultimately it will descend. I can see some coaches telling their young female charges, "The IAAF (or Olympics Committee or whoever) is now insisting that all women athletes do a sex test to prove you're not a man. Come upstairs to my room for yours later tonight."

- Tony Deyal was last seen quoting comedian Gilda Radner, "I love being a woman because you can cry, and you get to wear cute clothes. It must be great, or so many men wouldn't be doing it."