Gender and the Olympics
BY FATMA EMAM
The Olympics is a reminder that competition between nations need not be in the battlefield, but can be on the sports pitch, to spread tolerance and egalitarianism. And in London 2012 the blaring Olympic torch is adding another dimension: the fight against the darkness of stereotypes.
The Olympics is the season of patriotism, excitement and the show of human capability. It is also a platform that reveals the social, cultural and political dynamics of the world. Politics is unavoidable, such as in incidents like the refusal of Tunisian fencer Sara Besbses to compete against her Israeli counterpart. Racism too has reared its ugly head when a derogatory comment against black people disqualified a Greek athlete from joining the games.
London 2012 was also a forum for lively debates related to gender stereotypes. Many female athletes were not only defeating their counterparts, but also triumphing over patriarchal moulds and labels attached to women. This was not exclusive to one culture, but spanned African, Arab and Western athletes, interestingly in the very first Olympic games where all delegations include women.
For instance, Caster Semenya, the 21-year-old South African sprinter, was caught in the center of a unique gender debate following her surprise victory in the Berlin World Championships in 2009, after which she was stripped of her achievement and subjected to a series of humiliating gender tests to prove that she is, in fact, a woman.
And to prove that South Africa, whose constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens, is more progressive than many so-called developed western nations, Semenya was honored by carrying her country’s flag in the opening ceremony. Her rise to prominence flies in the face of arguments by sexists and misogynists and is a testament to the fact that gender is socially constructed, not genitally ordained. More complex than hormones, gender is not merely an issue of biology but of social orientation and sometimes personal choice.
Another heated debate involved Saudi Arabian female athletes who joined the games for the first time in history. It was a giant step forward for a nation which sees women as second class citizens requiring escorts (mehrem) simply to be allowed to travel; and are forced to live in segregated communities where their access to the public sphere is questioned, monitored and controlled.
The historic participation of the two athletes in judo and track, however, came at a price. The decision triggered a massive debate in the kingdom, reflected in the Twtiter hashtag “Olympics Bitches,” in Arabic, which was initiated by an opponent to female participation, but soon turned into a debate between the pro and anti women’s rights camps in Saudi Arabia. The issue has set in motion an open debate that cannot be stopped, but whose ultimate result will be determined by the political will to enhance status of Saudi women and influence social change through a progressive religious discourse adopted by women’ rights advocates and religious scholars.
While Semenya fueled a debate on identity, gender and physical prowess, the Saudi athletes raised questions about the accepted gender roles and patterns, two other female athletes raised the question of “femininity ” and its stereotypical manifestations.
American gymnast Gabbie Douglas, 16, is the first US gymnast to win gold in team and all-round competition as well as the first African-American to win her sport’s biggest prize. Yet all that seemed to be forgotten, when her victory only sparked heated social media comments over her “unkempt” hair. While the comments may seem shallow, they reflect ongoing debates about African-American women’s hair, and how the natural look has been used to assert identity and revolt against white standards of beauty.
And to wrap up, British weightlifter Zoe Smith took on her critics in a fierce counter-attack on her Twitter account and in interviews, slamming those who claim that female weightlifters are not “feminine” or “sexy.”
“How unfeminine, girls shouldn’t be strong or have muscles, this is wrong,” Smith wrote. “But maybe they’re right… in the Victorian era … To think people still think like this is laughable, we’re in 2012!”
Again dismantling stereotypes, Smith asserted that beauty does not only come in all sizes, but also in different ways and manifestations. Beauty is about the constructed and accepted standards, but there are always alternatives which are beautiful too, but in a unique and different way.
London 2012 is beyond being a platform for nations to compete and for athletes to make their dreams come true, it is also a forum for citizens of the world to debate gender phenomena across cultures and borders.
Fatma Emam is a Cairo-based commentator and Research Associate in Nazra for Feminist Studies.