Missing the point over burkinis, breastfeeding and the myths of testosterone


The northern summer of 2016 was marked by some unexpectedly intense politics. Summer is not usually a time for ontological debate, but this past summer two policy decisions and the subsequent news and media debates resulted in widespread, vociferous and intense disputes over what it means to be a woman. What is more, these events were the consequence of, in one case, a decision by a self-regulating, authoritarian, secretive panel labelled a court, while the other was the result of decision made by a number of local government leaders in small (and not-so-small) towns that are popular holiday destinations: the links do not seem obvious. Yet, both these events flow into an alarming tendency that seems hell bent on policing gender and regulating and determining who can be women and what she may do. As if the associations weren’t odd enough, the point was reinforced by a short film about breastfeeding.

France’s so-called ‘burkini’ ban came in the wake of a growing Islamophobia across the state. It is in part possible to understand (but note this is understand, not accept) some of the concerns felt by people in France, given the killings banksy-on-charlieof the staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shoppers at a Jewish grocery store by Islamist gunmen early in 2015, and then the killings of concert goers, diners and football goers in Paris at the end of the year, also by Islamist gunmen. It is easy to understand that many residents of France might be wondering ‘Where/what next’? but also to suspect that the generic state of emergency that has now been in place since November 2015 (and not due to expire until January 2017) with no sign of being scaled back adds to that pervasive, amorphous sense of fear. Even visiting France (as I did in June, last having been there and in the vicinity of the restaurant and concert hall sites a few weeks before the November 2015 killings) it is hard not to be unsettled by the armed might wandering the streets, major tourist sites and transport hubs.

The crisis has shown a worrying shallowness to French rhetoric of ‘liberty’ (let’s not even consider fraternity, equality or secularism at this point), where we have seen a rising demand for conformity, the forced expulsion of migrants (think of the razing of ‘gypsy’ camps during the Sarkozy era) and talk of closed or restricted borders. Accompanying this limitation of diversity is an increasingly polarised view, meaning that just because Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was Tunisian, the immediate assumption was that his attack-by-lorry on Bastille Day revellers in Nice in 2016 was an Islamist event: despite claims by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/Da’esh there seems to be little evidence at present to support that claim – yet the public view seems to be certain, as does much of the dog-whistle content of public rhetoric. It is the demand for conformity that is most concerning, in part because it is targeted primarily at France’s Muslim population; there are fewer demands that France’s Black African-descent population ‘blend in’.

It seems that for women at the beach, ‘blending in’ means wearing only small amounts of clothing as a number of municipalities in the south of the country introduced by-laws banning ‘burkinis’ because, if several of the local bodies-on-display-and-under-cover mayors (and although there is a tendency to the right in this group these mayors seem to be from across the spectrum) are to be believed, they are markers of divisiveness. Yet, there can be little more disturbing image from the year than a group of armed police officers surrounding a woman on a Riviera beach demanding that she remove clothing… and then fining her for breach of local laws. Although the ban has been overturned by French courts, several municipalities seem to have continued to invoke it throughout the summer, and reports indicate that for many Muslim women the atmosphere was so poisonous that the ‘ban’ was to all intents and purposes still in place.

A not uncommon element in discussions of the ban was the effect that it will have on women who seem to want to spend time swimming and exercising on beaches – surely at odds with widespread policy advice on physical activity promotion – with the added point that it may well force them to stay indoors more. Some critics have suggested that the definitions local by-laws used seem to include nun’s habits and wetsuits. Others note that it seems at odds with a longstanding feminist position over freedom of clothing choice (although there is a long running and fraught feminist-inflected debate over the taking of the veil), while others have noted that wearing a ‘burkini’ is in line with public health advice regarding skin cancer prevention. But few have linked the ban to wider efforts to control women, or noted that it amounts to the misogyny similar to that of which enlightenment-invoking leaders (such as Geert Wilders) accuse Muslim men, all of whom according to this reactionary, xenophobic, astoundingly unreflexive outlook seem to seek to oppressively control ‘their’ women – this strand of Islamophobe’s implicit discourse of ownership is powerful and paradoxical, given their professed enlightenment outlook.

Yet this question of control of women and gender policing seems to be at the heart of this element of French policy, just as it was the issue in one of the highest profile debates around the 2016 Olympic games. In 2014 the Court of Arbitration in Sport ruled that the International Amateur Athletics Federation’s rules on hyperandrogenism (crudely, the effects of levels of testosterone) were invalid, setting the rules aside for two years with the proviso that if the IAAF could not produce compelling evidence in their support at the end of the period those rules would be null and void. The judgement nullified IAAF bans on a number of athletes. The rule is premised on the mistaken assumption that high levels of testosterone cause improved sports performance. Although much of the public debate has centres on South African runner Caster Semenya (who was subject to invasive and humiliating test-by-media-scrum), there have been widespread suggestions that a number of women athletes have a disproportionate advantage because they have higher than usual testosterone levels, and the CAS case was brought by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.

The tone of the debate has been alarming, with pervasive claims that these athletes are ‘not women’ (on the basis of a hormonal count!), with more implicit suggestions that they are somehow cheating. There have been some welcome voices challenging this and got there well before me: most notably, Janice Forsyth from the University of Western Ontario has made clear that these ‘debates’ and the associated ‘sex testing’ are principally about gender policing, masked by claims of ‘fairness’. Elsewhere, Jaime Schultz, from Penn State, asked simply, ‘so what?’, making the point that élite sport presupposes inequality and that this instance is just one of many where women have been regulated and their gender policed and defined. We need also to note that this policing and defining is often under spurious rules, based in dodgy science (I hesitate to give it a label that seems to grant it validity – ‘based in pseudo-science’ might be better). I’m left wondering, in the wake of these interventions why there is not greater concern about the inequality derived from differences in lung function in cyclists (I am grateful to my colleague Steve How for pointing to the range and effects of lung capacities).

When we consider, also, that almost all, if not all, of those whose right to compete as women is challenged are women of color, I am reminded just how shallow is the veneer masking imperialist and colonialist ideologies of the Black (and here I am including South Asian) body. What’s more, as these women’s bodies are ‘masculinised’ by the false claims of the effects of high levels of testosterone they are drawn into an imperialist view of the Black body as licentious, anarchic, disordered and disruptive of good order, while the rhetoric of exclusion calling for these women to be expelled from their events for circumstances presented as ‘natural’ suggests that these athletes are concurrently and paradoxically innocent and barbarous. This aspect then suggests that not only is there gender policing underway, but that the vision of the approved women’s body, of acceptable womanhood, is as Eurocentric as it has been for many decades if not centuries.

As these two public debates played themselves out in August, and as I suspect they may continue to do so in the wake of the ‘Fancy Bears’ release of more medical records from their hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency (I haven’t seen it yet but it does not require too much imagination to see WADA’s records being read for gender markers), it was surprising that they weren’t more obviously linked as forms of gender policing – but then that would have required sport scientists of all kinds, human and social – to move beyond our narrow and technicist interests and for these issues to be linked and seen as a form of gender order maintenance.

Unexpectedly, it was a short film of a poem (directed by Jake Dypka, of Hollie McNish’s excellent ’Embarrassed’) that made the connections clear to me by reminding me of the banality of gender policing. In August, this film initially shown on Britain’s Channel 4 show ‘Random Acts’ earlier in the year (and completed in late 2015) went viral running up over 6 million viewings in a little over a week on various platforms, including the production company’s website. The poem critiques the acceptance of milk formula provided in areas where unsafe water means that babies are poisoned while mothers are criticised for breastfeeding in public, in a context where barely covered breasts fill the public space of advertising. The concurrence of these three instances of the surveillance and control of women highlights the extent and mundanity of gender policing.

As analysts of sport, of bodies, of movement and of health, sport scientists (and I use that term inclusively – from biomechanists to philosophers and all between and beyond) are in an ideal position to take this discussion further. While the more traditional social scientists are attuned to the ways that Power seeks to control and police the ‘external environment’, that is, the ways we see, understand and make our social worlds – in these case of gender and of ‘race’, we seem to be stuck in a debate where the terms are defined by French local government officials, sports international federations, or milk formula makers and people alarmed by a nipple being put to proper use: these are terms of conformity and convenience, obscuring inequalities and maintaining existing forms of Power.

Part of our problem is that as social scientists we are generally fairly poor at engaging with and building alliances with our human science co-workers, yet in the world of sports performance, as the CAS noted in 2014, there is insufficient evidence to conclude “that hyperandrogenic female athletes may benefit from such a significant performance advantage that it is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category”. Here we have an opportunity to build links between those of us who deal with the ‘external environment’ and our co-workers working on the ‘internal environment’ of the workings of the human body, and we seem to be missing the opportunity to assert our role as sport scientists and help redefine the ‘debate’ to make progress towards a fairer, more inclusive and more equitable world of sport, and to locate sport in wider social debates and struggles.

In the case of hyperandrogenism, the debates and claims are blurred, obscured and confused by the scientific and medical claims when, as Janice Forsyth and others have noted, at stake here is gender policing, which is also at the heart of the ‘burkini ban’ and limitations on and shaming over breastfeeding in public. It is bad enough that we don’t talk to each other within our sport world, but that we fail also to build links with those struggling for liberation (or even just equity and fairness) in our wider social context, suggests that we are becoming increasingly blinkered and possibly fearful. There was some progress made over the summer to roll back or resist these attempts at gender policing limiting opportunities; we now need a strategy to push back further at a time when the public debate is quiet.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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