It's a contentious subject, and has been for decades - especially since the liberation and recognition of women in the western world. But world's focus on gender has become undeniably more prevalent in the last 2 or 3 years, and now all fingers are pointing to the country that blatantly disrespects the rules and roles of gender the rest of the world is now adopting.
I understand - who are we to stick our noses in where they don't belong? Who are we to judge a nation's laws; their gender roles; their driving habits - but that's what we do. Once the global spectrum of human nature is changing and there are people left behind, the focus tends to zoom in on the forgotten ones, whether for better, or for worse.
Western influence has run its tole on Saudi Arabia, and many believe the only reason the country remains under strict Sharia law and ruled by a monarchy - is because of a drive from the western world to secure its oil - stemming all the way back to World War II when everyone was running out of crude.
And while it might be none of our business, and while we have no right to impugn any sovereign country with our opinion - the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia has been rubbing us the wrong way since the Suffragette era.
Were they the ones left behind?
A look from Dolce & Gabbana's 2016 Abaya Collection
I don't profess to be an expert in religion, but I understand that Sharia Law is not a mandate of Islam. It is enforced by the governments in these singular countries at their own discretion, and to the extent they so wish. Stoning, flogging, punishment for the most minuscule offenses are prescribed with a severity not known on this side of the world through the public judicial system for centuries.
The release of this video perhaps marks a disruption in the constant negation of responsibility from westerners toward the gender problem in Saudi and other states that adhere to Sharia law. The women are quoted as saying the men in their lives give them 'mental illness', among other stabs at their situation within the country. Sequences display domineering men controlling the lives of women, while all the women want to do are normal activities - basketball, fairs, driving. It finally allows, even encourages the question - are the women of Saudi actually happy with male guardianship?
A still from the controversial Majedalesa video.
If this is anything to go by - the answer is a vehement no.
In spite of an almost repetitive denial and rebuke of any wrongdoing, this video serves to prove that not all women are happy or even satisfied with the state of their influence and position in Saudi society. And yet in spite of this and another incident this past year, where a woman posted a photo of herself without her hijab or abaya on social media and received death threats - the U.N elected Saudi Arabia to a three-year Human Rights Council term, which began on the first of this month. The election received an incredulous response because of the severity of the very gender laws that induced the making of this video.
The young woman who posted the picture back in September, declaring she would no longer be subject to the full-body dress was hailed by many, calling her an Arabic equivalent of Rosa Parks; a visionary; brave. Others, most likely her fellow countrymen, posted under the photo a slurry of death threats, inciting violence and repercussions for the denial of her role under Saudi law - for breaking the Sharia tradition.
The Silver Lining
A still from the controversial Majedalesa video
Thankfully it's not all bad news coming from the middle-eastern country. A statement released by government officials last month dictated that job openings for women in government and public jobs would become available for the first time in the near future with the hope to further inclusion and breach that gender gap that puts Saudi as the worst country in the world in terms of gender equality according to the McKinsey Global Institute. These jobs however will only serve to highlight the inadequacy of this so-called push for equality as women cannot make their own way to work - forbidden as they are to drive.
The legitimacy of a country nevertheless, whether it's Saudi, Jordan, India or Iran must now be questioned when women are treated in such deplorable, demeaning conditions. There is no right answer to this problem - there is no way to attack this social infringement in such an isolated part of the world. We on this side of the world have no veritable right to go in and meddle with the (albeit morally repugnant) manner in which this government runs the country. All there is to do is hope that from within, changes can be made - that soon there will be a break in the subjugation, that an uprising of sorts will occur.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.