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Laurie Penny: Caster Semenya’s pink T-shirt

The fashion statement couldn’t have been clearer.

I've never given much time to the sartorial semiotics of sporting fashion, but one tight, hot pink T-shirt has me fascinated. The T-shirt in question, emblazoned with the Nike logo, was worn by Caster Semenya on Thursday night as she ran her first race after being cleared to compete with other women by the IAAF. Semenya, 19, also wore a fetching pastel pink running sweater and had a longer, more feminine hairstyle.

The fashion statement couldn't have been clearer: I'm a proper girl, a girly girl, a girl who likes pink and labels and bunnies and butterflies. Now, please let me do what I was born to do.

With rumours rife that the teenager is biologically intersex and has had surgical intervention and her hormones adjusted to allow her to compete, Caster Semenya must now face the global gender police once more as commentators cluster like flies to give their verdict on her return to athletics. She has spent the past 11 months in limbo, after speculation over her "masculine" appearance at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin led to her being withdrawn from professional athletics while her gender was being determined and as the world watched and gossiped.

The Guardian reports that Semenya had to undergo a series of grotesque tests that sounded "more like abuse than science":

She was allegedly made to undergo a two-hour examination of her sex organs, hitched in stirrups as doctors took photographs. Afterwards she sent distraught messages to friends and family. Her coach Michael Seme later said that it had been a wonder she did not "drink poison" and end it all.

Semenya also had to endure a makeover and cover shoot for You magazine, part of South Africa's attempt to prove that speculation over the young athlete's gender were sexist and racist -- by kitting her out in western beauty drag and plastering pictures of her body all over the front cover.

Now she's been declared fit to run, it's clearly crucial that she tone down her boyish looks. So here she is, in her pretty pink get-up, hoping to placate a global media that has no time whatsoever for women who don't look how women are supposed to look.

This week, Senator David Vitter attacked the left-wing talk-show host Rachel Maddow for "not looking like a woman" on a radio station in the United States. When he was made to apologise, all Vitter could find to say was that the Maddow "did not deserve" what he clearly felt to be an atrocious insult.

More than any other cultural arena, though, the world of sports is about simple binaries, about winners and losers, about arbitrary rules on and off the pitch. That's part of its appeal, and always has been. Caster Semenya threw those arbitrary rules into disarray by being big, brown, butch and flat-chested. And, in an atmosphere of competition which demands that people fit rigidly into boxes, it was deemed necessary that she be dragged physically and psychologically back into line in the most brutal, public and humiliating way imaginable.

That Semenya is faster and stronger than nearly any other teenager on the planet, that she clocked up one of the quickest 800m times in the world in 2009, was considered less important than the central question of what in particular she had between her legs.

I do not wish to contribute in any way to further speculation over Semenya's gender. Caster Semenya is a woman; she has lived her whole life as a woman; and the insistence by the IAAF and the international community that Semenya "prove" her female identity before being allowed to compete would have been sexist on every level, even if there were any foolproof way of doing such a thing, in a world where there are more than two human genders, where there is a whole host of gender identities and physical arrangements, and where 0.2 per cent of the population is intersex.

Semenya's physicality is rather more of an issue for her career and identity than it might be for the rest of us, but I remain disgusted by the popular reasoning that any physically high-achieving woman who is not stereotypically "feminine" is an aberration, and must therefore actually be a man.

For the sake of argument, however, let's suppose just for one minute that Semenya had, in fact, been found and declared to be XXY or XXX-type intersex, or a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Suppose that this wonderful athlete -- who says that she is a woman, who has spent her entire career competing against women and who expresses her triumph as a triumph in the sphere of women's sports, as a female and feminine physical feat -- happens to be among the 0.1 per cent of women without an XX genotype. Why would that be such a huge problem? And why should that have threatened to disqualify her from women's sports? What, were sports officials going to create a special intersex olympics just for her and a handful of others?

Or could they have been planning to continue to ignore and belittle any contribution to human progress and prowess not made by people who conform personally, biologically and physiotypically to western notions of the two-gender binary?

Back to that pink T-shirt, the colour of corporate femininity, of brand woman, stretched provocatively over Semenya's chest in a statement of submission and conformity -- as if anyone could blame her after what she's been through.

If, indeed, Caster Semenya had been found to have any sort of genetic "advantage" over other women, the simplest solution might have been to force her to run in a miniskirt and tottering high heels to even the odds. Her talent is such that she would probably have won anyway. And, more importantly, she'd have proved to the world that she's a proper girl -- which is what really matters.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue