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1 August 2019
REDEFINING WOMANHOOD - Breaking barriers on and off the field

(Published - 1 August 2019)

Female participation and leadership in sport have become more pronounced, with incredible performances on and off the field. However, female athletes still have to tackle issues of marginalisation and sexualisation, even having the parameters set on what dictates a respectable and acceptable silhouette of womanhood. These parameters are negotiated by men in the industry.

Despite increased participation opportunities for women in sport, they are still under-represented in coaching as well as other leadership positions. As women’s sport became more professional and lucrative, coaching, directorship and governing body positions were filled by males.

Women have always been thought of as natural nurturers and, as a result, the high-performance environment of sport leadership was seen as “too tough” and time-consuming. Ilhaam Groenewald, the first female executive council member for SA Rugby, and Desiree Ellis, head coach of Banyana Banyana, are local examples of women who are resilient in raising the profile of women in sport.

Female athletes who have taken coaching and leadership positions are creating visibility and challenging stereotypes about women being unable to take up leadership positions due to having more domestic responsibilities than men or being the “weaker sex”. They have also become role models for other women athletes and are challenging hiring practices dictated by the mentality of keeping sport leadership and directorship within “the old boys club”. They are also demonstrating that coaching and sport governance positions are an option for female athletes.

The battle, however, is far from over — the fight for an equal, gender-neutral playing field within the sports domain is a burden that every female athlete will unconsciously bear.

This battle is brought into sharp focus by Caster Semenya’s legal dispute with the IAAF, who has said the 800-metre runner must take medication to suppress her natural testosterone levels or compete over a different distance — a practice which is not present in the sphere of male athletics.

Ever since Semenya arrived on the global scene a decade ago, she has been subjected to constant scrutiny as the media, the public and even fellow athletes speculated about her genetic make-up, misinterpreted her gender and argued that she should not be allowed to compete against other women. Her story is disguised as being about ongoing efforts by the IAAF and other governing bodies of sport to develop gender divisions that are fair to all athletes. But it is really showcasing what happens when an athlete — especially a black athlete — does not conform to traditional ideas of womanhood.

Ironically, while women’s sport has always been under-represented in the media, coverage of Semenya’s ordeal has highlighted gender inequality, sexism, racism and classism that has long been prevalent in sporting culture. By refusing to back down, Semenya has become an ambassador for change, forcing global society to pay attention to female athletes and the extent to which society values them, and forcing other female athletes to re-evaluate their own self-worth and industry value.

Another pressing issue is the fact that within the small amount of media coverage women’s sport does receive, female athletes are often more likely to be portrayed off the field, out of uniform, and in highly sexualised poses where the emphasis is on their physical attractiveness rather than their athletic prowess. Tennis sensation Serena Williams made a fashion statement at the 2018 French Open, wearing an all-black Nike catsuit paired with sparkly tennis shoes.

French Tennis Federation Chief Bernard Giudicelli has since announced that, at the 2019 French Open, a much stricter and more traditional dress code will be in effect. He specifically called out Williams’ one-piece catsuit saying “one must respect the game and the place”. The catsuit, however, served an important medical function: To improve blood circulation as the tennis pro suffered life-threatening blood clots after giving birth. Her experience illustrates the way women, specifically women of colour, are scrutinised when they seem to fall outside prescribed gender norms.

The catsuit covered Williams’ entire body, so why would the French Tennis Federation deem it an inappropriate alternative to the traditional tennis skirts that show a lot more skin? And why should sport governing bodies police and dictate what female athletes wear and what is appropriate and respectable in terms of womanhood?

Williams is a black woman participating in a predominantly white sport and has regularly been body-shamed for her figure not resembling that of her competitors. Society has always objectified and sexualised the bodies of women, especially black women, which makes it very difficult for athletes like Williams who use their bodies to compete and perform at an optimum level but are instead reduced to mere sexual objects. Williams showed that she would not be silenced and would continue to display womanhood her way by showing up to the 2019 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala (also known as the Met Gala) in a floral Versace gown with matching sneakers by Nike.

We have also seen controversy subsiding in terms of women participating in male-dominated sporting codes such as football, rugby, boxing and wrestling. UWC’s very own Thembi Kgatlana has become an international football star and has proven that it is performance and not gender that matters by winning the Goal of the Year award at the 2018 CAF Awards, snuffing out the male competition, while American professional wrestler Ronda Rousey is taken very seriously as a professional athlete in her field. These women and many more like them continue to push for real change — and true equality — in women’s sport.

The womanhood of female athletes should be celebrated in whatever way they choose. Every single female is in charge of choosing how she interprets womanhood. Womanhood means something different to each female and is displayed in many ways. The manhood of male athletes is never questioned; their sporting achievements celebrated for being just that. Just as male athletes are athletes, female athletes are athletes too — without including gender as a qualifier.