Tag Archives: human rights

Updates: Caster Semenya, Iranian girls’ team, and Grannies Grannies

When I come across additional information or small updates to a story I have been following, I typically add it at the bottom of the original post in an “update” box. The problem with this is that nobody gets a notification, so unless you’re a new (or obsessive) reader you’re not going to see it. I’m going to try something new today: a “roundup”.

Here’s what’s going on in my world:

1) Caster Semenya has (finally) been cleared to race “as a woman”.
You all know what I think about this (for those just joining us, go here), but I do want to add that the IAAF is not disclosing any details. Their statement was brief (or “terse”, according to Barry Petchesky, author of
Explaining The Caster Semenya Decision, Because The IAAF Won’t,” published on Deadspin), which makes a wrap-up difficult. Suffice to say that I still see this as a sad chapter, and one we will regret.

2) Iranian girls team may be banned from youth tournament… again.
You will remember that back in April 2010, FIFA banned the Iranian girls’ team from competing in the Youth Olympic Football Tournament based on the fact that the players were beholden by their religion to wear hijab (head scarves). Cue (righteous) outrage. By early May FIFA had about-faced and allowed the girls to play in a game-modified uniform.

A month passes.

Iran may not send its girls’ football team to the Youth Olympics in Singapore next month because of a dispute over the players’ Islamic attire, Iranian media reported on Thursday. The deputy head of Iran’s physical education department, Marzieh Akbarabadi, was quoted by newspapers, including Khabar Varzeshi, or Sport News, as saying the newly designed dress was “inappropriate.” [The uniform] was unveiled during a practice session on Wednesday, which Akbarabadi, who is in charge of all women’s sports in Iran, left in protest.
– Nasser Karimi, “Iran girls’ football team may miss Singapore event,” Associated Press (July 8, 2010)

You know what? I said this before and I say it again, and this time with feeling: Let them play! These girls are athletes. They’ve trained (despite mighty opposition) to become good enough to qualify, yet all around are powers-that-be lining up to play Daddy to them.

I am not qualified to comment on the rightness or wrongness of hijab, but I can tell you with utter certainty that these players should be accommodated. No person should be forced to cast aside one love (football) for another (one’s religion).

3) Grannies Grannies find a way
Way back on the first day of the World Cup I wrote about Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies), a South African soccer team comprised of women between the ages of 49 and 84. A month ago they were hoping to inspire South African president Jacob Zuma to provide the finances to send the team to compete at the Veteran’s Cup, a tournament for teams with players of 30 years and older that takes place in Lancaster, Massachusetts (Source: “For the Love of Soccer and a Lasting Sisterhood“, New York Times, June 6, 2010). Apparently Zuma left their exhibition game without seeing their victory (8-0, defeating the Waterfall Grannie Soccer team).

Yesterday Herbalife (Yes, that Herbalife) issued a press release:

Herbalife Ltd. has teamed up with the United States Adult Soccer Association…, the Massachusetts Adult State Soccer Association (MASS), the Veterans Cup committee… and the Lexpressas women’s soccer team to help the Vakhegula-Vakhegula soccer team come to America to compete in the annual Veteran’s Cup tournament this week.
– “Soccer Grannies to Compete in Veteran’s Cup,” Marketwatch, July 13, 2010

Apparently, in return the players will play in jerseys sporting the Herbalife logo. Zuma missed a brilliant opportunity. He could have been the dream-maker. It’s a shame but it’s his loss. Grannies Grannies found a way despite his indifference.

Who’s up for a road trip to Lancaster? I hear there’s some world-class soccer going on.


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The people’s game

So. Much. Soccer.

I’ve been like Homer Simpson, tongue lolling sloppily while I gorge myself on game after beautiful game. The World Cup comes only once every four years but makes up for its infrequency with an endless deluge of coverage. For 30 full days. Yum.

As if this weren’t enough, this past weekend I competed in the Toronto International Pride Cup (TIPC), the fourth annual soccer tournament presented by Downtown Soccer Toronto. My history with the league and this event goes way back and is enmeshed with my trip to Africa and the start of this blog. Those curious about how these things are connected could start with this post, and those familiar with the story may be interested to hear that I have again been bestowed with (someone else’s) MVP game ball and the instruction to take it to Africa… I love it when the universe is unmistakeable in its intentions for me.

So guess what? There’s another World Cup going in South Africa right now. According to the Sowetan, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign has launched a 36-team tournament to highlight the plight of the province’s poor (“Poor’s World Cup keeps drugs at bay,” June 21, 2010). Now this is interesting.

The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign “was formed on November 2000 with the aim of fighting evictions, water cut-offs and poor health services, obtaining free electricity, securing decent housing, and opposing police brutality”, and is an umbrella group for over 15 organizations. (Read more on their About page).

Remember waaaay back before the kick off on June 11? There were a few stories in the papers about FIFA’s stranglehold on every element of the Cup games, and one angle that generated a lot of commentary was the ban on all vendors save for its commercial partners.

Regulations imposed by football’s world governing body Fifa on host countries stipulate that no-one but its commercial partners be allowed trade or promote their products in the immediate vicinity of all World Cup sites.
– “South Africa World Cup ‘just for the rich’,” BBC News, May 10, 2010

So Coca-Cola gets an exclusive license and the ice cream vendor loses his business.

More perplexingly, FIFA also banned the distribution of condoms and health information at World Cup stadia (“AIDS groups protests FIFA ban policy,” The Associated Press, June 5, 2010). I wonder what commercial interests this policy is protecting?

There was press. There were protests.  And then June 11 came and we were all deafened by the Cup cannon (yes it’s an obscure G20 reference) which, incidentally, sounds exactly like tens of thousands of vuvuzelas.

Remember: I am a fan. But I think it’s a shame – a missed opportunity – that these voices have been effectively silenced. The ice cream vendor’s still faced with feeding his family, the rate of HIV and AIDS transmission in South Africa is still enormous.

Enter the Poor People’s World Cup. Thirty-six teams from communities across the Western Cape are competing in the tournament which has a grand prize of R5000 (approximately $650 CDN).

[W]hile the poor people in Cape Town and in South Africa as a whole are suffering, the rich are enjoying themselves in the expensive stadiums at the expenses of the poor… All the traders and communities – that were negatively affected by FIFA related urban renewal projects and by the implemented by-laws – were invited to this tournament: a tournament that is FREE and open to everybody.
– “The First Poor People’s World Cup on African Soil,” from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign site.

The Poor People’s World Cup: yet another example of people using the people’s game to stage a response to a social problem.

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The literal manufacture of vagina dentata

In between all the watching soccer and playing soccer and talking about soccer I’ve neglected writing about soccer. Or maybe, if I’m honest, I’ve been avoiding it a little bit because this post picks up on a difficult topic that we’ve delved into before (most recently here): rape.

On June 21, CNN published an article by Faith Karimi titled, “South African doctor invents female condoms with ‘teeth’ to fight rape“. It’s exactly what it sounds like: South African doctor Sonnet Ehlers has designed, produced, and distributed a latex sleeve (called “Rape-aXe) that is inserted like a tampon.

Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man’s penis during penetration, Ehlers said. Once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it — a procedure Ehlers hopes will be done with authorities on standby to make an arrest.  “It hurts, he cannot pee and walk when it’s on,” she said. “If he tries to remove it, it will clasp even tighter… however, it doesn’t break the skin, and there’s no danger of fluid exposure.”
– From “South African doctor invents female condoms with ‘teeth’ to fight rape

There is no doubt that rape – and in particular so-called “corrective” rape – is a serious and systemic problem in South Africa. There is little support for the women who are victimized, especially if they are black and from the townships (as they very often are). Officials don’t recognize “corrective” rape as a distinct type of crime, making their response inadequate at best (just as in the west we fought to characterize and categorize gay-bashing as a hate crime, the particular nature of “corrective” rape must be acknowledged if an effective response if to be mounted).

The last time I wrote about this I was making the simple point that even in the press there seems to be a sense of hopelessness and resignation rather than a call to action. With the high-profile rape, torture and murder of Eudy Similane the issue only gained notoriety. Nothing changed.

Now, at last, a response. But what does this say, that the response is the literal manufacture of vagina dentata?

Critics say the female condom is not a long-term solution and makes women vulnerable to more violence from men trapped by the device. It’s also a form of “enslavement,” said Victoria Kajja, a fellow for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the east African country of Uganda. “The fears surrounding the victim, the act of wearing the condom in anticipation of being assaulted all represent enslavement that no woman should be subjected to.”
– From “South African doctor invents female condoms with ‘teeth’ to fight rape

A point well-taken. And what about the reification of the myth of the toothed vagina? How does this affect the discourse around the issue of rape? I am uneasy with the relationship. It muddies and mystifies, when we need thought that’s concrete and clear. Nonetheless, I can’t quite bring myself to condemn the device outright.

“Ehlers is distributing the female condoms in the various South African cities where the World Cup soccer games are taking place,” Karimi reports.

What do you think? Responses welcomed in the comments.

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It’s obscene to force a person to choose between life and love

Today the BBC reported that Steven Monjeza has “moved in with a woman”.

Why is this news? Monjeza is one of the two Malawi men who was jailed for six months, then sentenced to fourteen years hard labour, and, after global protests by activists (and a very public appeal by Madonna), ultimately admonished but pardoned by Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika for holding an engagement ceremony with another man – Tiwonge Chimbalanga – in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi last year.

The men were released to their respective homes and warned that they faced rearrest if caught together again. There was no impact on the law they were charged under.

How obvious, then, that Monjeza would appear now, girlfriend in tow, retracting his previous brave and steadfast declarations of love for Chimbalanga. How predictable. How gutting.

I don’t condemn Monjeza. It’s obscene to force a person to choose between life and love; we should not be surprised to see their personhood fade away as they twist on the hook, trying to come to an impossible decision.

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The highest profile victim so far

The BBC delivers a typically-restrained and well-edited story on the The Chosen Few lesbian football team out of South Africa. It’s only 2 minutes, 11 seconds and does a good job of presenting a snapshot of the dangers (violence, rape, and murder) that black lesbians face in the townships in South Africa.

Naturally, the story touches on the rape, torture and murder of Eudy Similane, the voice over revealing a sense of hopelessness to the situation:

“The highest profile victim so far [emphasis added], Eudy Similane, a star player on the national women’s team…”

I am glad that the World Cup is bringing these issues to light, but I am eager to see a real response mounted. ESPN, the BBC, and countless bloggers (among others) have reported the story – let’s see something of substance come out of the coverage to begin protecting these women.

Watch the BBC piece here. Read my original post on The Chosen Few here.

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Good news for a change

With less than two weeks until the beginning of the World Cup, Africa is everywhere. Inspiring soccer stories share space with reports on the continuing challenges in addressing HIV and AIDS, “corrective” rape, and brutal attacks on the bodies and rights of gays and lesbians. All this press is both a welcome platform for a new agenda, and a harsh exposé, casting long shadows on the impending Cup.

Suffering from a bit of burnout, I’ve been quietly waiting for some good news. Yesterday, I got it.

Back in December 2009, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi. After being held separately in prison for nearly six months, the men were found guilty, and then sentenced to 14 years hard labour (the maximum penalty).

Human rights organizations condemned the ruling and sentence, and word spread on the Internet. Public protests were held in New York City and London. The Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) set up an online petition, as did Raising Malawi, an organization founded by Madonna and Michael Berg. Madonna released a statement on the site challenging the decision, and invited people to sign their name next to hers. Over 30,000 people did.

Yesterday, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned Monjeza and Chimbalanga and ordered their immediate release.

“In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two gay boys were wrong – totally wrong… However, now that they have been sentenced, I as the president of this country have the powers to pronounce on them and therefore, I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released.”
– President Bingu wa Mutharika, “Malwai pardons jailed couple,” BBC News

It’s a curious statement, lacking in political heft, but I’ll take it.

This is clearly a victory for Monjeza and Chimbalanga, and for LGBT rights. It’s also an important step towards a better model in dealing with HIV and AIDS (for more on how these things are connected read my post, “The saddest circus in the world“).

There’s a lesson about engagement here. Social media makes it easy to gather, publicize, and comment on global issues. In this case, Facebook was an effective catalyst with multimedia capabilities: details of the story were accompanied by links to petitions and calls to action. We should remember to use these new tools. Bravo to everyone who signed petitions, stood at rallies, and shared these stories.

More detail on the pardon comes from this story from The Malawi Voice. While Monjeza and Chimbalanga have been pardoned and released, they were taken to their separate homes and ordered not to see each other. Should they contravene the order they could be re-arrested.

“It doesn’t mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing…”
– Patricia Kaliati, Malawi’s Minister of Gender and Children, “Gays pardoned but no change to law,” Malawi Voice

Looks like there’s a lot more work to be done in this campaign. It was an important step to release the men, but by stopping short of changing the discriminatory law, the Malawi government has allowed an exception to the rule rather than created a policy change. I suggest that we all (this means you, Madonna) keep lobbying. Sparing their lives was a first step; now spare their love.

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“…until independent experts agree that the treatment has been effective.”

I live on the Internet. I work there, I read there, and I write there. But sometimes, when a topic confounds, I just gotta close my eyes and turn to another medium. God bless radio.

Radio insists on brevity. And in the rising swell of gabbling voices (mine included), it is this simple two-sentence story borrowed from Radio New Zealand that quietly drops the penny:

The World 800 metre champion Caster Semenya of South Africa has been undergoing hormone-based treatment for what is widely accepted now to be an inter-sex condition and could return to competition at some point this year.

Semenya won’t be allowed to compete at IAAF sanctioned events until independent experts agree that the treatment has been effective.

– “Hormone treatment for controversial gold medallist“, Radio New Zealand

It would appear (from this and other sources) that the IAAF is requiring hormone “treatment” in return for permission to compete. Be exceptional… but not that exceptional. It’s a standard that doesn’t seem to apply to everyone:

Yao Ming. All 7 feet, six inches of him. Photo credit: The Calgary Sun

Yao Ming. All 7 feet, 6 inches of him. Photo credit: The Calgary Sun

According to his Wikipedia page, Yao Ming “…is one of China’s best-known athletes, with sponsorships with several major companies, and he has been the richest celebrity in China for six straight years.”  Imagine if he’d been banned from his sport for having his remarkable – yet unfair! – physical advantage.

I am not going to belabour this point, but I believe that Caster Semenya’s story is going to be one of those sad chapters in history that future administrations will regret. It will be remembered as yet another example of our collective ignorance around sex and gender. We will wonder why we she was pathologized when she could just as easily have been lionized.

UPDATE: On May 19, the Telegraph published an article, “Caster Semenya’s rights being ‘swept under the carpet’, says sports scientist Tim Noakes” by Simon Hart. It’s worth a read, if only for the fact that in it, Noakes says what nobody else in the mainstream press seems willing to:
“So it seems it’s not about athletic advantage. It’s about keeping the Olympics free of intersex athletes, free of unwanted complications.” – Tim Noakes

Remarkably direct.


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