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Sexism, soccer, and struggle

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I explore the struggle for equality being waged by the Canadian women’s national soccer team.

Strikes. Protests. Boycotts. Tunisia? Egypt? Bahrain? How about the Canadian women’s national soccer team?

The team’s spat with the Canadian Soccer Association has sparked a players’ revolt. Two issues lay at the heart of the dispute: The first is coach Carolina Morace’s desire to have more control over the team’s budget; a good idea given a history of nepotism and financial mismanagement in the CSA that would make an Arab dictator blush. And the second is the CSA’s differential treatment of the women’s and men’s teams which should be named for what it is: sexism.

Looking to improve their compensation package, the women demanded to know how often and how much the men’s team gets paid. The women are paid on an ad-hoc basis, tournament by tournament, and sometimes are still negotiating pay days before a big game. The men of course are on more secure financial footing.  How secure, the CSA won’t say, which leads me to believe that the disparity between the two teams is as great as the women suspect.

Talk about gender inequality in the workforce: the women are akin to casual day labourers, negotiating wages with every new job. Remarkably, this precariousness hasn’t impacted their work on game day: they are ranked among the top women’s teams in the world. The same cannot be said of the men, currently 84th, just better than Mali but not quite as strong as Macedonia.

With the CSA refusing to cede to either demand, the women announced that they would boycott the upcoming women’s World Cup, a tournament the players will have likely dreamed of playing in since childhood.  Furthermore, they announced a player strike, refusing to participate in any international game leading up to the World Cup until the CSA gave them the respect they deserved (The U.S. women’s team went on strike a few years back and won pay equity).

While the CSA has opened contract negotiations with Morace and looks likely to secure her services beyond the World Cup, at the time this column went to print there’s been no resolution on the issue of player compensation. With Morace and the CSA in talks, the team called off their boycott and got themselves a lawyer. They will file for arbitration with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, whose mandate is to sort these types of things out in a ‘responsible’ manner (i.e. not boycotts and strikes).

We’ll have to wait and see if the legal strategy proves fruitful. As any well-schooled trade unionist knows, there’s nothing like the withdrawal of your labour to get the bosses attention. But should they go back on strike, it’s not like the players will be away from the daily drudgery of the factory; they would risk missing the biggest event of their sporting lives. The CSA knows this and it puts the women in a weak bargaining position.  If I were them, I’d explore some other channels: a letter writing campaign by soccer players across the country could apply pressure on the CSA and continuing to generate media attention, publicly shaming the association, won’t hurt either (A little solidarity from the men’s team would be nice!).

This affair is just the latest to expose the Canadian Soccer Association for what it is: an old-boys club whose administrative inertia and political infighting has produced an underachieving men’s program and an abysmal youth development scheme.  The success of the women’s team has come in spite, not because of, the Canadian Soccer Association. Too bad they can’t break from the old patriarchs altogether and establish a Canadian Women’s Soccer Association based on feminist and egalitarian principles. But in a game with only eleven players, we can’t all play left-wing.

Published in Canadian Dimension May/June 2011

‘SlutWalks’ Go Global

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

A Toronto cop, speaking to a group of students about campus safety at York University, said: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

The comments sparked what is now a global movement and Toronto’s very own, and very unique, contribution to putting the ‘movement’ back into the women’s movement and revitalizing 3rd wave feminism. Check out the website below.

http://www.slutwalktoronto.com/

An excerpt from the SlutWalk manifesto:

“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated.

We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.

We are a movement demanding that our voices be heard. We are here to call foul on our Police Force and demand change. We want Toronto Police Services to take serious steps to regain our trust. We want to feel that we will be respected and protected should we ever need them, but more importantly be certain that those charged with our safety have a true understanding of what it is to be a survivor of sexual assault — slut or otherwise.

We are tired of speeches filled with lip service and the apologies that accompany them. What we want is meaningful dialogue and we are doing something about it: WE ARE COMING TOGETHER. Not only as women, but as people from all gender expressions and orientations, all walks of life, levels of employment and education, all races, ages, abilities, and backgrounds, from all points of this city and elsewhere.”

Also, check out this article in today’s Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/06/slutwalking-policeman-talk-clothing

The Not So Curious Case of Caster Semenya

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Caster Semenya, the South African runner and 800m women’s world champion, has been subjected to a very public interrogation of her identity. Following her victory in Berlin last August, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered a group of doctors to conduct a “gender test” to determine her future in international athletics. Pre-empting the IAAF, an Australian newspaper reported in early September that an inside source “revealed the test found Semenya to be a hermaphrodite.”

The South African government expressed outrage at the treatment of their prize athlete. The Minister of Sports said, “Caster’s human rights have been violated and her privacy invaded.” President Jacob Zuma decried the IAAF and the media’s exploitation of the Semenya affair. Rallying behind their “golden girl,” thousands of supporters gathered at Johannesburg airport to welcome their beleaguered athlete home to South Africa.

The IAAF’s handling and the media’s coverage of the case have been abhorrent on many levels. Apart from the violation of Semenya’s privacy, the first point at issue has been the confusion of sex and gender. After the case became public, a number of notable South African feminists and queer activists issued a public statement which included the following corrective aimed at the IAAF and world media:

“Gender is the dominant society’s views on how women and men should look, behave, what roles they should play in society, how they should perform and frequently what rewards they receive – hence gender inequity… Gender is not a politically correct term for sex. Sex testing would be just that – establishing whether a person is biologically female or male. So gender testing is not the term that should be used this case, but sex testing.”

Secondly, the media has continued to describe this “case” as “curious” and to deny and question Semenya’s identity after she has stated clearly and repeatedly that she is a woman. If Semenya is found to be intersex then she has the right to define herself and make that definition known to others when, and if, she so chooses to. Dismayed at the public discourse surrounding the affair, Intersex South Africa, an intersex advocacy and activist organization, was quick to issue a statement clarifying intersexuality as a “general term that can relate to various conditions. Many intersexed people are born with ambiguous genitalia, or sex organs that are not clearly female or male.” Furthermore, the organization noted, the term ‘hermaphrodite’ was “commonly used in the past to describe and consequently oppress intersexed people” and should therefore not be in the lexicon of the modern media.

Nor has the media given much attention to the fact that Semenya is a black South African. South Africa’s Young Communist League, in old-left fashion, called Caster’s treatment “racist and imperialist,” without mentioning gender discrimination. But the fact that Semenya is a black woman from the so-called Third World is not insignificant. Writing in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, Antje Schumann commented, “The point is not merely that athletes from the First World are not also subjected to sex tests. It is rather that, given the history of slavery and colonialism, the exposure of a black woman’s body has a very specific context.”

And that’s why the case of Caster Semenya is really not that curious at all: there exists a long history of subjecting colonized bodies to prodding, study, and sterilization in processes of dehumanization and subjugation, whether it is in the name of science, ‘civilization’, or even sport.

Published in Canadian Dimension Volume 43, Number 6, Nov/Dec 2009

Interview on Alert! Radio

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I was interviewed by Alert! Radio this week on the case of Caster Semenya, the South African athlete who made the news after winning the 800m gold medal at the World Track and Field Championships in August. Semenya was forced to take a “gender test” following her victory in order to determine whether she should be competing as a man or a woman.

Follow the link for the interview. Episode 126 starting at 20 minutes.

http://canadiandimension.com/alert