Monday, August 31, 2009

Gender, sport and race in South Africa

The case of Caster Semenya is fascinating from what you might want to call a 'purely bioethics' point of view. Semenya blew away the field in the women's 800 meters at the world athletics championship in Berlin. In fact, the margin of victory was so great, and the improvements in her recent race times have been so radical, that it makes you suspect some kind of artificial enhancement. But that is not it. Along with these achievements, Semenya's outward appearance (body shape, facial hair, deep voice) have raised the possibility that Semenya is not an enhanced woman, but simply a man. No, that is not right: 'simply' is the wrong choice of words. She may be biologically too much like a man to fairly compete against other women. Which leaves us (as well as the International Association of Athletics Federations or IAAF) with the unsimple question: where do you draw the line for biologically 'man-ish' women in competitive sport?

In South Africa, the question is even more fascinating, or more depressing, depending on your perspective. Caster, after all, is South African, and the debate here, reflecting local realities, turned instanteously to questions of race. The whole sticky biological question was sidelined in favor of another question: is the questioning of Caster's gender racist? A number of prominent government officials were ready to answer in the affirmative, and ventilate their righteous indignation in front of press and cameras. The idea was that Caster's gender would not be in question if she were white; she is being unfairly discriminated against. When it was pointed out that gender tests were applied also to white athletes in the past, some took a new line of argument: that the South African media did not rally sufficiently behind Caster, too easily giving in to suspicions about her gender, and this proving that the media continues to be controlled by whites. According to this view, the Caster Semanya story exposed the South African media as racist, and if you don't want to deemed a racist yourself, it is best to regard Caster as a woman. (A woman, a whole woman, and nothing but a woman.) It is unfortunate that, at least in South Africa, strange new dilemmas about gender and sport have taken a backseat to posturing about race.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Forced circumcision case in South Africa

The ancient practice of circumcision never fails to stir things up. Neonatal circumcision, whose popularity has steadily declined in Europe and is on the wane in the United States, is a reliable flashpoint for ethical debate. The debate over the costs and benefits of circumcision has been stimulated by research indicating that being circumcised significantly reduces a man's chances of getting HIV via hetrosexual intercourse. In South Africa, there has been much discussion about the state of traditional circumcision rituals, given that a significant number of young men die from circumcision-related causes each year.

An ongoing case in South Africa adds some new wrinkles to ethical and legal debates about circumcision in Africa. Bonani Yamani claims that when he was 19, he was abducted from his home, taken into the bush, circumcised against his will and forced to eat his own foreskin. His father apparently arranged or otherwise had knowledge that the abduction/circumcision was to take place, and it is his father that Yamani is suing. As it turns out, Yamani had undergone a (partial?) medical circumcision some months before. So Yamani is not against circumcision per se; he is opposed to traditional (Xhosa) circumcision, which he believes is contrary to his own Christian faith. And he is naturally opposed to having had it forced upon him.

The case brings out conflicts in a number of directions. There is the conflict between the father and son. The conflict between different views of circumcision: medical, traditional and (adopted) religion. But there is also a conflict between traditional leaders (in particular, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa or Contralesa) and the South African constitution: according to traditional norms, a male Xhosa who refuses to be circumcised is to be ostracised from his community. Traditional circumcision is not a matter of informed consent. It is just simply done, as part of being a Xhosa man, and refusal is not accepted. On this view, non-traditional circumcision and community membership are mutually exclusive. Yamani's legal defense will be arguing that not being able to live as a non-traditionally circumcised Xhosa should be regarded as discrimination under the South African constitution. Members of Contralesa have publicly stated that the constitution really has no grip on this area of South African life. This should be one to watch.

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