Tag Archives: human rights

ESPN to air segment on “corrective” rape, tonight at 7pm EST

Though I’ve not shied away from the topic of violence in these pages, I have found it extremely challenging to write about the violence against lesbians in South Africa, particularly the practice of so-called “corrective” rape. Doubling my apprehension is the urgency with which I need to write and publish this post, because I’ve just found out that ESPN will be airing a segment, “Corrective Rape”, on their program E:60, tonight at 7pm EST.

“The segment will tell the story of the former top female soccer players in South Africa, Eudy Simelane, was raped and murdered… Emmy winning journalist Jeremy Schaap traveled to the impoverished, crime-ridden townships of South Africa to report on the disturbing trend of ‘corrective rape’ in the country hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He interviewed three South African women soccer players who say they were beaten and raped because they are gay. Their haunting stories — and an interview with Simelane’s mother — are the backbone of E:60’s report.”

– From “ESPN’s E:60 brings ‘Corrective Rape’ May 11, programming notes” by April MacIntyre

As well, there’s a 52-second preview on ESPN’s site.

In the interests of time, I’ll cut the editorial here. For background and more information, read my post on the Chosen FEW football team and the article “Girlie “S’Gelane” Nkosi, Eudy Similane’s teammate and a lesbian activist murdered” by Jennifer Doyle at From a Left Wing.

I don’t get ESPN and I don’t know anything about the show or journalist Jeremy Schaap. I am apprehensive but hopeful that this might end up being a positive example of how the World Cup is bringing attention (and ultimately practice- and policy-change) to the violence facing South Africa’s lesbians. Those of you who watch the program are invited to post in the comments section.

Watch the piece (approximately 16 minutes) on ESPN’s site, here.This is a story about the practice of  “corrective” rape, which is rape with the intended purpose of punishing – and “correcting” – lesbians. The story hangs loosely around the 2008 rape, mutilation, and murder of South African pro footballer, LGBT-rights activist, and out lesbian, Eudy Similane. Journalist Schaap interviews several out lesbian soccer players, including Eudy’s childhood friend, from the townships of South Africa.

It’s not easy to tell a story like this while avoiding the grimy sheen of exploitation, and I don’t think the piece is entirely successful in doing so. That said, there are some revelatory moments. Schaap’s discussion with South African P0lice Services Spokesman Vishnu Naidoo handily illuminates the unwillingness of authority to even name the practice, much less prohibit it. Former Chair of the South African Human Rights Commision Jody Kollapen’s comments on culture and society provide some sort of context, which is a small relief following several man-on-the-street interviews parroting the sentiment that lesbians are deserving targets.



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Personal best: the politics of sex and sport

As promised, a reconsidered response to the recent OFSAA ruling allowing Ontario girls to play on boys’ teams.

In my first post on the topic I offered a typically (for me) lefty case for inclusivity and that was that, or so I thought. In the days that followed I was part of several more discussions about possible consequences and what the policy might mean for the state of girls’ and boys’ sport, and I realized that I hadn’t adequately addressed the topic.

My position was this: As long as we continue to organize sport around a model that sees only two separate sex designations – a gender binary – we are missing an opportunity and imposing a false distinction (and by extension, limits, which I referred to as a “turf ceiling”).

Language impacts how we define these issues (boys’ teams and girls’ teams versus ‘A’ or ‘B’ divisions, perhaps). Keeping this in mind – and I will get back to it – in the following discussion I’ll use the dominant language.

Brawn Drain
If I understand correctly, the main argument against integration has to do with the perceived consequence of allowing a girl to play on a boys’ team: it will open the floodgates to girls who want to improve their game, and girls’ sport will suffer.

One radio commentator characterized Greer’s move as “snubbing her nose at girls’ sport” and suggested that she ought to show her pride as a female athlete by playing with other girls. In the same vein, I heard the comment that Greer was “only doing this to improve her game”.

I have to ask: When did trying to achieve one’s personal best become a shameful aspiration? Has anyone out there ever heard the same criticism levelled at a male athlete? That he is doing something questionable, potentially damaging the state of his sport, by doing whatever it takes to become the best he can be?

The Fairer Sex
This position states that the first time a female athlete is (inevitably) hurt during a competition there will be backlash. Male athletes will suffer because they will feel as though they have to compete more gently. In this way, allowing women to compete in men’s sports will hurt the very fabric of the sport itself.

In 1921 the Football Association banned women’s teams, resulting in the English Ladies Football Association. Here’s a Topical Budget newsreel on the topic:

Doesn’t this look dated, silly, and old-fashioned to you? Though it’s unclear whether the intent of the film is to lampoon the ban or women’s athletics, the result is the same: a gaze that simultaneously sexualizes and patronizes.

Biological Determinism
Boys are simply better (stronger, faster, more skilled) than girls. It’s a fact, and you can’t argue with fact.

But wait – didn’t we just establish that girls only want to play with boys so they can get better? Doesn’t that suggest that female athletes can improve their game? And doesn’t that suggest that restriction of potential is actually caused by the sex segregation (and differential funding and support) between girls’ and boys’ sport?

A fact? No, this seems like a tangled pile of unknowns with major implications for our society and how we imagine ourselves.

The Gender Binary
While we’re on the topic of whether girls can perform as well as boys, let me go back to the case of Caster Semenya. She ran so fast they tested her for steroid use, and then for a penis.

Early tests indicated that Semenya had much higher than normal levels of testosterone. Eight months later the testing continues. Why is this taking so long? Because sex and gender are not static points on a line. How much higher than “normal” must her testosterone levels be to disqualify her from competing as a women? What about male athletes who don’t meet some sort of minimum hormonal requirement? Should they be disqualified from competing as men?

This is an impossible situation: we don’t look to athletics for expressions of perfect, delicate femininity. So why the collective freak out about Semenya? For one, “butch” gender expressions aren’t always welcomed in our culture, a problem that can be compounded when get into the arena of sport because there’s already the suggestion of extraordinariness. How many times have we heard whispers about the sexual identity of this or that female athlete? Strong girls must be lesbians, right?

Caster Semenya at the track

Caster Semenya at the track, image borrowed from the Tenured Radical

The so-called “gender tests” must be mapping Semenya’s hormonal make up (this would have been “settled” long ago if she had visible male sex characteristics). Presumably, she falls into an “elsewhere” on the gender binary – a totally inconvenient fact for ruling bodies like the International Association of Athletics Federation. If she’s intersex, where does she compete? We’d better figure that out, because nobody is going to convince me that she shouldn’t be allowed to.

I have to wonder if she’d have been put through this protracted public depantsing if she’d dolled it up a bit. Have we seen the same treatment of the (brawny, powerful, and yes, long-haired and -nailed) Williams sisters? Before you dismiss the idea, look at the September 2009 cover of You Magazine, out of South Africa.

Caster Semenya on the cover of You magazine

Caster Semenya on the cover of You magazine, image borrowed from the Tenured Radical

“We turn SA’s power girl into a glamour girl – and she loves it!” What a shame.

For much more on this, read the full text of the Tenured Radical’s excellent, articulate, and academic (but accessible) meditation on gender and sport, “In Search of the History That Hasn’t Happened: Caster Semenya, Gender Barriers, and the Right to Compete“. (And a tip of the hat to Liz for bringing the piece to my attention.) Also this post by Jennifer Doyle, blogger at From a Left Wing.

Ultimately, the test results may be moot. Currently, Semenya’s not running, opting instead to focus her energies on opening the Caster Semenya Sports Academy. “We are going to help the young, talented athletes become world champions,” she is quoted as saying in the Associated Press article, “Semenya starts sports academy, will decide future“.

Closer to Home
Now, back to Ontario and the challenges facing athletes, policy-makers and sports governing bodies. I freely admit to a lack of clarity when it comes to implementation. First of all, I believe that integration policies should go both ways, that boys should also be allowed to play on girls’ teams (all of this getting back to the suggestion that we build teams according to skill, not gender, and name them something other than girls’ and boys’ teams). But I also understand the value of same-sex spaces, and by extension, teams. I have played on co-ed teams and girls’ teams, and the experience is totally different. There is a lot to be gained by each and it would be a shame to legislate the option away.

Another logistical problem arises when talking about team sports versus individual sports. Greer made a challenge to be able to play on a team. Semenya competes in a solo sport. Is there a difference? Should policy adapt accordingly?

What about recreational versus competitive sport? What about age? Kids are often placed on co-ed soccer teams, but by the time they get into high school they are segregated. The reasoning behind this seems to be that if there were no girls’ team and teams were chosen on skill only, most girls would not make the team. Do you think this is true?

I am not suggesting that a more inclusive model is magic. These are all issues deserving of the careful attention of policy-makers and players. But ultimately I can not endorse a system that disallows a person to achieve her personal best based on her gender – and that is what we have now.

As a final thought, let’s get back to language. It would appear that, in Ontario at least, a shift is taking place towards a different model. When we insist on framing this change according to gender difference (boys’ teams and girls’ teams) we are limiting ourselves in the way that we can imagine such a change. It is divisive, short-sighted, and ultimately, incorrect. Let’s be careful when we speak, because we are taking the first steps towards our future.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the Tenured Radical article: “A truly just society would simply allow people to compete according to ability… and it would not ask them to perform anything as athletes but feats of speed, strength and skill.”

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Update on Iranian girls football team – and it’s great news!

Hot off the interwebs: “FIFA lifts ban on Iran girls’ football team“, according to the Tehran Times. Though there’s not a lot of information out there yet, it would appear that the Iranian football association submitted a proposal for a modified uniform that covers the players’ hair and FIFA accepted it.  The team will now be able to compete in Singapore later this summer.

Although the response to my initial post on the issue of players in hijab was overwhelmingly positive, I have learned that any modification to the rules of the game can evoke mixed passions. The recent policy change by OFSAA here in Ontario that allows girls to play on boys’ teams has been the subject of many heated discussions, and has led me into some snarled arguments over the past few days. My first reaction to the ruling can be found here, but that’s not the end of it. An update is in the queue.

For those of you still struggling with the issue of players in hijab, I came across a blog post on iran.foreignpolicyblogs.com – Hijab and Football – which does a great job of illustrating the particular position of the Iranian players. Bravo to writer Sahar Zubairy.

And bravo, too, to FIFA, for being flexible and considered in this matter. To those of you who asked for a contact at FIFA to lodge complaints when this story broke, I would recommend follow up emails in support of this recent decision. Expressions of gratitude and support are as important as protest. Happy Saturday, everyone.

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Let them play!

There are only 60 days (and 01 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds at the time of this writing, according to the CBC FIFA countdown clock) to World Cup 2010, and all media are displaying the early symptoms of football fever. This week, mixed among the updates from K’naan’s South African Trophy Tour (Yay, K’naan!) and articles about international preparations, there was a different kind of soccer story.

On April 5, 2010, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Iran Soccer Girls Banned From Youth Games Over Hijab” reporting on the decision by the FIFA Executive Committee to ban the Iranian girls’ team from playing in the inaugural Youth Olympic Football Tournament wearing hijab (Islamic head scarves) due to a FIFA rule regarding the display of political, personal or religious garments or statements. The Iranian National Olympic Committee, in turn, has refused to the let girls play out of hijab. The team has been replaced by Thailand.

When I read this story I felt in my guts that this was discriminatory so I looked for evidence, searching for images of pro soccer players wearing crosses or other examples that might support my perspective. I found less than I thought I would, but two items jumped out at me: First, David Beckham’s unmistakeable and visible winged cross tattoo on the back of his neck.

David Beckham's winged cross tattoo, found on sportsplayerz.blogspot.com

David Beckham's winged cross tattoo, found on sportsplayerz.blogspot.com

Then there’s the case of Brazilian player Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (better known as Kaká). A devout evangelical, Kaká has made a habit of wearing shirts with religious sayings on them. In 2009, after winning the Confederation Cup, he revealed a T-shirt that read “I Belong to Jesus”. FIFA sent the team a warning letter.

Kaka at the 2009 Confederation Cup, found on mailonsunday.co.uk

Kaka at the 2009 Confederation Cup, found on mailonsunday.co.uk

Apparently other members of the Brazilian team have worn similar slogans  as well. And though they are being “sanctioned”, they are hardly being disallowed to play.

Here’s the FIFA rule in question:

Players must not reveal undergarments showing slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements. A player removing his jersey or shirt to reveal slogans or advertising will be sanctioned by the competition organiser. The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans or statements will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.

– Rule 4, FIFA Laws of the Game

According to this, it does appear that the decision made by the FIFA officials was correct, but was it right?

Look – there are so many obstacles to getting girls involved in sports as it is. Here’s a case where a team of girls has overcome all and any challenges at a familial, community, and cultural level to become skilled enough to compete at the Youth Olympics. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, and one that should be celebrated. Instead, they are denied the opportunity to participate. Shame.

[The ban is] extremely disappointing, especially because we’re trying to encourage local females to play sport, head scarf or no head scarf. It’s a smack in the face for all the hard work we have been doing.

– Jamal Rifi, President of Lakemba Sport and Recreation Club, from “Girls in the hood cry foul over hijab ban“, The Sydney Morning Herald

Some frame the ruling as a “safety issue” (i.e. the scarf could choke a player). For example, in 2007 an Ottawa girl was banned from playing in her hijab. I call bullshit on that line of thought. A hijab is no more a choking hazard than the collar of a jersey, and the “risk” is on the player herself. Rifi agrees:

It’s not an occupational hazard and it’s definitely not a sporting hazard. The number of Muslim girls playing soccer at an elite level is already very few. To restrict these few females achieving at a high level, it’s very demoralising.

– Jamal Rifi, President of Lakemba Sport and Recreation Club, from “Girls in the hood cry foul over hijab ban“, The Sydney Morning Herald

No, I think this is about otherness. I think this has to do with squeamishness about the changing face of soccer, but like it or not, the face is changing. And the new face of soccer includes black people and LGBT people and women and, yes, even people with tattoos (indeed, David Beckham’s bad boy underwear model persona is a departure from the traditional “gentlemanly” face of the game). So why can’t it include this:

The Iranian women's national football team plays in hijab, but the youth Olympic team is not allowed. From www.rferl.org

The Iranian women's national football team plays in hijab, but the youth Olympic team is not allowed. From http://www.rferl.org

We are standing in the shadow of the world’s biggest celebration of soccer. It is a beautiful opportunity to display the nobility and grace that can be found in sport. This is a time to embrace and accommodate our differences on and off the pitch. FIFA: Let them play!

From the AlJazeera English YouTube channel:

Iran’s football federation says it is sending a delegation to Fifa – the international football association – to urge the Geneva-based association to overturn its ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

The ban effectively prohibits the Iranian women’s team from playing in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this August. Fifa says the dress contradicts the game’s charter.  Alireza Ronaghi reports from Tehran.


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Vote with your feet

When I began blogging about soccer activism I had a sense of my own story and soccer’s place in it, and I knew about the big projects: Right to Play, Girls in the Game, and so forth. Then I began to learn about smaller projects like The Positive Ladies Soccer Club, the Street Child World Cup, and The Justin Campaign’s Football v Homophobia Initiative. For a while I was doing some straight-up reporting, just trying to get the word out about all the amazing things happening on and around the pitches of the world.

Now, slowly, I’m emerging from under the pile of W’s (who, what, where, when and why). The connections between these international events are beginning to reveal themselves in different, more personal and political, ways. Yesterday I read a story, “The Women’s Game in Africa: ‘Zanzibar Soccer Queens’ and Other Tales,” by Andrew Guest, a contributing writer at Pitch Invasion, which introduced me to yet another soccer documentary, Zanzibar Soccer Queens (trailer embedded on this page, and well worth the watch).

In some ways the story is familiar: a marginalized group is using soccer to improve their lives. In the Zanzibar Soccer Queens, the central conflict is around women’s place in a Muslim society. Consider the following quotes taken from the trailer:

“The problem with women wearing shorts and exposing their bodies is that when men are watching they can be tempted.”
– Abdallah Mzee, Koran School Teacher

“When playing football you can say anything, but when praying you have to say what you have been told by God.”
– Warda, Midfield

“I stopped playing football after I got married. My husband doesn’t want me to play.
– Amina, Former Defender

And finally, the statement that rang the bell, dropped the penny, and shifted the lens:

“My marriage failed because my husband was complaining that I couldn’t have a child. He then stopped providing for me and that’s when the conflict started and the result was that he divorced me.”
– Zuwena, Goalkeeper

Where had I heard this before? And then it hit me:

“So now if she starts playing soccer… she can not have my babies. ”
– Man, The Positive Ladies Soccer Club

Community, unity, confidence, fitness – yes, playing soccer provides these things. But now I also know this: playing soccer is an achievement, a statement. The simple act of playing soccer can be a raised fist, a vote. In Zimbabwe, women are voting to be healthy and strong and fly in the face of the stigma around HIV and AIDS (The Positive Ladies Soccer Club). In Durban, kids are voting to play to raise awareness of child poverty and homelessness (Street Kids World Cup). In the U.K. and the U.S. and internationally, LGBT players are voting to take their place in the world of sports, from the recreational pitches to the premier leagues (Football v Homophobia). And in Zanzibar, women are voting to show their bodies and use their bodies for the sheer pleasure of playing the game, for their goals, for themselves (Zanzibar Soccer Queens).

Game on, people. Game on.

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I missed the World Cup!

Oh sure, I still have that little FIFA affair to look forward to later this summer, but I only just found out about the Street Child World Cup taking place in Durban, South Africa, and today is the final match.

All week long co-ed teams of street kids from eight different countries have been battling it out on the pitch in an attempt to earn the Cup. Let me pause here for a minute. Co-ed teams. Girls and boys are playing together. There is a lot to like about this event – empowerment through sport, awareness-raising, and yet another example of the power of play – but I think the most revolutionary element here may be the simple decision not to separate the kids by gender. The differences, real or perceived, between boys and girls are so frequently highlighted, debated, and commented upon, that children end up, by the force of our shared cultural lexicons, being sucked into a hurricane of competition. Who’s stronger, faster, smarter? Who’s better? As someone who plays in a co-ed league by choice, I can say with unconditional conviction that it is a good thing, a brave thing, and a revolutionary thing to learn to share the space with each other. We have so much to offer each other, and what better way than by choosing to be teammates? Bravo, Street Child World Cup!

So anyway. This past week eight teams have competed and today’s final match sees Tanzania and India playing for the Cup. Do yourself a favour: check out the site. It’s well-designed and if you click back through the tabs for each day they’ve embedded videos with short films on such topics as “Welcome to Durban”, “Meet the Coaches”, “Reality of Street Life”, and “Art of the Street Child World Championship”. Oh yeah, didn’t I mention this? The program has an entire art component! I am seriously in love with this event.

The championship is the result of a partnership between a wide arrays of NGOs and volunteer groups, and is endorsed by some big names including legendary midfielder and hair syle visionary David Beckham, and Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. According to their site, the Cup was initiated by Amos Trust in response to the work done by Umthombo Street Children, “a unique South African street children organisation led predominantly by former street children. Umthombo aims to change the way that society perceives and treats street children through educating society as to the realities of the street child experience and through developing and implementing informed, working strategies to address the issue in South African cities.”

All football matches are played between 1400-1700 local time (1200-1500 GMT). To figure out when that is in your part of the world, visit this site.

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The saddest circus in the world

Some of you might be familiar with the story of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the two men 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, in December of 2009. Since their arrest they have been held separately in a maximum security prison, they’ve been asked to take a “test” to prove whether they had sexual relations, and they’ve been denied bail “for their own safety”.

The case has drawn international attention for its human rights implications, and because it is a very real example of the prevailing homophobic attitudes in much of Africa – attitudes that must shift in order to implement effective policy changes to meet the challenges of AIDS and HIV transmission on the continent. In this concise article posted in January on the Amnesty International site, the friction between policy and practice is made clear:

In the formulation of Malawi’s National AIDS Strategy in 2009, the Malawi government consulted widely, including with MSM [Ed. note: men who have sex with men], on ways of combating the spread of HIV in Malawi. In September, the government publicly acknowledged the need to include MSM in its HIV/AIDS strategy.

– From “Malawi: Amnesty calls for unconditional release of gay couple,” posted to amnesty.org.uk

On Friday, March 12, almost three full months since Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested, the Washington Post published “In Africa, a step backward on human rights,”  an opinion piece by Nobel Peace Prize laureate archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

In the piece, Tutu broadens the discussion to include not only the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga in Malawi, but also the consideration of discriminatory legislation in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. And, like the Amnesty International author, Tutu exposes a link between homophobia and the struggle to find an effective response to AIDS and HIV on the continent.

Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear. And they are living in hiding — away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

When Craig drove me through Mdantsane Village way back in September 2009 I was puzzled by the presence of a massive tattered tent at the side of the road. The wind pushed against the torn grey fabric and I could hear a soft, forlorn whistling as it jettied through the holes. I turned to Craig and wise-cracked, “What’s that!? The tent from The Saddest Circus in the World?”  To my horror and embarrassment he explained that these were funeral tents, and that here in the Village people were dying in such numbers and with such regularity that sometimes they didn’t even bother to take the tents down.

I’ve been back in Canada for five months. Necessarily, my work with this blog has shifted focus. I have enjoyed concrete success in finding grassroots ways to make positive differences through soccer, and my sense of achievement has been profound. But when I think about the immense challenges facing gay and lesbian and transgendered people in Africa, and the numbers of people dying from HIV and AIDS – and the way those things are connected – I think that indeed, this is the saddest circus in the world.

And except for adding my voice to the protest, I’ve no idea how to help. There are some things, it would seem, that a soccer ball just can’t fix.

Related Facebook groups:

Statement by African Civil Society on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda
Protest Jon Qwelane’s Appointment As SA Ambassador to Uganda!
Free Malawians Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga
The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation


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