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Caster Semenya’s Legal Battle Against Gender Stereotypes: On Nature, Law and Identity - By Sofia Balzaretti (University of Fribourg)

Editor's note: Sofia Balzaretti is a Graduate research assistant and a PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) where she is writing a thesis on the Protection against Gender Stereotypes in International Law. In addition to research in human rights and feminist legal theory, she has also carried out some research in legal philosophy and on the relationship between gender and the law.


The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the monitoring body of track and field athletics, regularly submitted South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold medalist Mokgadi Caster Semenya to sex verification tests when it began questioning her sexual characteristics and speculating whether her body belonged on the Disorder of Sex Development (DSD) spectrum. DSD Syndrome is often defined as an “intersex condition” which affects the clear development of either/or genitalia, gonads and chromosomes into one distinctive sex or another. The spectrum of the intersex condition is particularly wide, and the disorder can sometimes be minimal - some cases of female infertility can actually be explained by an intersex condition.

The IAAF deemed the controversial sex verification tests necessary on the grounds that it was required to prove Semenya did not have a “medical condition” which could give her an “unfair advantage”. It was eventually found that, because of an intersex trait, Semenya did have abnormally high levels of testosterone for a woman, which, in the IAAF’s opinion, justified a need for regulatory hormonal adjustments in order for her to keep competing in the women’s category. The IAAF also funded research to determine how ‘hyperandrogenism’ affects athletic performance. In 2018, it issued Eligibility Regulations on Female Classification (“Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development”) for events from 400m to the mile, including 400m, hurdles races, 800m and 1’500m. The IAAF rules indicated that in case of an existing high level of testosterone, suppression or regulation by chemotherapy, hormonal castration, and/or iatrogenic irradiation was mandatory in order to take part in these events.

Semenya and her lawyers challenged the IAAF Regulations in front of the CAS, who, in a very controversial decision, deemed the Regulations a necessary, reasonable and proportionate mean “of achieving the aim of what is described as the integrity of female athletics and for the upholding of the ‘protected class’ of female athletes in certain events” (§626).

The CAS Ruling

Semenya and her attorneys claimed that forcing her to get unwanted medication represented a violation of human rights. On the 1st May 2019, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) ruled in favor of the restrictions placed on female athletes with high levels of testosterone by the IAAF. The direct consequence of this decision for Semenya was the obligation for her to take testosterone suppressants in order to continue competing in her category of IAAF events.

In March 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a resolution indicating the IAAF Regulations were “not compatible with international human rights norms and standards, including the rights of women with differences of sex development” and that there was “no clear relationship of proportionality between the aim of the regulations and the proposed measures and their impact.”

Because the Regulations established conditions and restrictions which were targeted at the female (or intersex) athlete population exclusively and did not impose any equivalent conditions or restrictions on male athletes, the CAS Panel considered that the Regulations were, prima facie discriminatory on grounds of legal sex. After reminding that “it is common ground that a rule that imposes differential treatment on the basis of a particular protected characteristic is valid and lawful if it is a necessary, reasonable and a proportionate means of attaining a legitimate objective” (§548), the Panel considered that its sole responsibility was to determine whether the DSD Regulations were necessary, reasonable and proportionate. As such, the Panel said it was “not required to (…) appraise the adequacy of the IAAF’s policy-making process”.

The Swiss Federal Tribunal and ordre public

A decision from the CAS can only be challenged at the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) on a limited number of grounds, enclosed in art. 190 al. 2 of the Federal Act on Private International Law (PILA), which include claiming that the principle of equal treatment of the parties or their right to be heard in an adversarial procedure has not been observed (lit. d) and that the award is incompatible with public policy (lit. e). At the beginning of June 2019, after an ex parte request, the SFT, Switzerland’s highest court, granted Semenya a temporary suspension of the IAAF rules on testosterone limits. She was able to compete over distances of 400 to 1’500m without medication, until the SFT issued a ruling.

Because it was considered that the discrimination was necessary, reasonable and proportionate in comparison with the vast majority of non-DSD women, the only outcome for Semenya’s lawyers was to argue on the violation of the principle of public order. The 30th July 2019, the SFT reversed the ruling that temporarily lifted the application of the IAAF’s regulations, thus impeding her to defend her 800m title at the World Championships in Doha in September 2019. The SFT concluded that “neither the allegation of an infringement of the principle of non-discrimination, nor the alleged violation of ordre public due to an infringement of their personality and human dignity appeared with high probability to be well founded”. Welcoming the decision, the IAAF stated that, in certain particular cases, “biology trumps identity”.

The elements of comparison
Body Policing

Admitting that “the imperfect alignment between nature, law and identity is what gives rise to the conundrum at the heart of this case” (§559), the CAS stated that:

“On true analysis, (…) the purpose of the male-female divide in competitive athletics is not to protect athletes with a female legal sex from having to compete against athletes with a male legal sex. Nor is it to protect athletes with a female gender identity from having to compete against athletes with a male gender identity. Rather, it is to protect individuals whose bodies have developed in a certain way following puberty from having to compete against individuals who, by virtue of their bodies having developed in a different way following puberty, possess certain physical traits that create such a significant performance advantage that fair competition between the two groups is not possible.”

The public opinion could not help but point the finger at the underlying hypocrisy of the decision, in comparison with similar cases, both inside and outside of the sports world. Firstly, the same type of policy and legal arguments are often held for controlling certain types of bodies exclusively, whilst leaving others out of the line of sight. In the sports world, it is certainly the case: think of the impressive decoration of Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps aligned with the god-like praises he received for his physical strength and capacity; for instance. On the contrary, leaving “abnormally” tall basket-ball players on the bench so as to give naturally shorter players a chance to win, or testing male athletes with poor athletic results in suspicion they might have low levels of testosterone seems absurd. In fact, the latter are only tested as to make sure they do not take anything effectively modifying their capacities in competing. Semenya and her lawyers did point to the fact that “it is illogical and unnecessary to regulate one genetic trait while celebrating all the others” (CAS decision, §53).

Out of the sports world, indications of “naturalness” in pro-life arguments or governments’ refusal to medically cover the suppression of hormones in transgender reassignment cases are also examples of body policing. The case therefore raises the central question of how stereotypes, especially gender ones, give a social meaning to a fact and how legal regulation can confirm it, thus perpetuating it.

The social  meaning of women and gender

Taking a step away from Semenya’s cause célèbre, it must be stressed that, for long, women were not accepted to compete in the Olympics and that their progressive integration was only made possible when a redefinition of the norms of femininity and masculinity, as they relate to sports and competition, occurred. This means that medical tests were carried out and, as a backlash to noticing the instability and fluidity of sex categories, those very categories were reinforced and redefined according to stereotypes. In other words, the sports world went very far to ensure there was a biological difference so that the natural and social order as it was could not be disrupted.

If we try to move away from the (in my opinion, sterile) debate on biological differences (remembering that the latter has also been explained by anthropologists as being a consequence of our gendered social order[1]), we should ask ourselves who has the power to define the norms of femininity and masculinity. “Woman” and “man” have very particular social meanings. Furthermore, commentators often qualify the sex verification tests as being racially flawed. In this sense, the discussion is also of epistemological importance: the bonus corpus is never the female body, and is always the white male one, with “naturally” good athletic abilities. True, scientific results are usually dependent on a certain political order[2], as are any other empirical social-situated findings. The CAS Panel said that an assessment of the likely impact of the DSD Regulations on wider society would require “an analysis of multifaceted sociological issues which are not amenable to judicial resolution by an arbitral tribunal (…)” (§518). And, as such, it is certainly not for an arbitration court to have the power to (re)define gender categories, which are intrinsically political and historical, and are not limited to the sports world.

Appealing to the ECtHR

If she does not prevail before the SFT, Semenya could still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging a breach of Article 14 and/or Article 8[3]. It may give the Strasbourg Court an interesting opportunity to comment on gender opposition and binarity, as well as on the social limitations put on gendered bodies. The gender stereotypes discussion is not a new one; regional and international courts have had the opportunity, on many occasions, to comment on the need to combat harmful gender stereotypes[4]. However, they usually do so in relation to human rights law and to the principles of equality and non-discrimination. Even if, of course, not every unjustified discrimination is rooted in stereotypes[5], they seldom point at the wrong of gender stereotypes per se. Hopefully this may lead the ECtHR to further reflect on the harmfulness of gender stereotypes, beyond the well-established categories in need of protection against unjustified discrimination.

The CAS practically said that it was bound by biology. If anything, the results of the sex verification tests should have proven that Semenya’s body has incredible athletic abilities, with no requirements of medically modifying it whatsoever.


In a letter to the IAAF about their regulations, United Nations experts on health, torture, and women’s rights wrote:

“The assessment for ‘exclusion or treatment’ based on the IAAF regulations relies on suspicion and speculation, based on stereotypes about femininity. This effectively legitimizes widespread surveillance of all women athletes by requesting national federations as well as doctors, doping officials, and other official personnel to scrutinize women athletes’ perceived femininity, which can include appearance, gender expression, and sexuality. Women who are understood to be “suspicious” about their natural physical traits are tied to subjective and cultural expectations regarding which bodies and modes of gender expression are “appropriate,” or even valorised by adherence to traditional or normative aesthetics of femininity. Gender and sex-based stereotyping and stigma have a long history, not only of causing psychological harm to women and gender minorities, but also of increasing the possibility of violence against them.”

The social norms of gender act as a blur on reality, based on the stereotype that “a real woman” should not be that good of an athlete. It provides us with an overview of how public policy decisions are justified by scientific findings, operating in a gender-normative environment. The discrimination was considered “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” in comparison with the vast majority of non-DSD women, but it somehow appears to be a debate on the equality between women and men and on reaffirming the importance of the “fixed duality of sexual difference”[6]. The CAS Panel said that it was “faced with conflicting rights concerning the rights of female athletes who do, and do not, have DSD” (§554).

Interestingly enough, the more women are compared to each other, on the grounds of fairness, the stronger the female gender category is reinforced.

[1] Priscilla Touraille, Hommes grands, femmes petites : une évolution coûteuse. Les régimes de genre comme force sélective de l’évolution biologique, Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme: Paris 2008.

[2] Thomas Laqueur, La Fabrique du Sexe: Essai sur le corps et le genre en Occident, Gallimard: Paris 1992.

[3] The ECtHR had considered an application brought following an unsuccessful appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal in the October 2018 decision ECtHR, Mutu and Pechstein v Switzerland, applications no. 40575/10 and no. 67474/10, ECLI:CE:ECHR:2018:1002JUD004057510, alleging breaches of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

[4] The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has broadly defined the notion of “harmful gender stereotypes”, as sexist beliefs, which include representing women in roles considered traditional; as mothers and household heads, as subordinates of men or as sexual objects. In 2013, the OHCHR prepared a report on sex and gender stereotypes, which outlines the practice of treaty bodies and their reference to gender stereotypes. The obligations of States with regard to stereotypes are those set out in Article 5 lit. a CEDAW, reinforced by Article 2 lit. f. which provides that States must “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women”. At European level, judgments of the ECtHR have concerned stereotypes related in particular to sexuality (Kalucza v. Hungary), reproduction (A. B. C. v. Ireland; R. R. v. Poland) or domestic violence (Valiuliené v. Lithuania; Opuz v. Turkey). See also Konstantin Markin v. Russia; Carvalho Pinto de Sousa Morais v. Portugal; Khamtokhu and Aksenchick v. Russia.

[5] Sophia Moreau, ‘Equality Rights and Stereotypes’ in Dyzenhaus, D./ Thorburn, M. (eds.), Philosophical Foundations of Constitutional Law, Oxford University Press : Oxford 2019.

[6] Hilary Charlesworth, ‘Foreword’, in Harris Rimmer S./Ogg K., Feminist Engagement with International Law, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham 2019.

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