Disrupting the Feminine Athletic: Whiteness, Heterosexuality and Women’s Sport in Africa

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:48
Oral Presentation
Mari ENGH, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
On the African continent sport has, particularly in the last two decades, been hailed as a useful tool in the quest for nation building and social cohesion. A popular claim is that sport has a particularly powerful role to play in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, and that the pride imbued in national teams and athletes can foster national unity and cohesion across historical divides. As a result, a variety of sport-for-development projects and programmes have emerged across the African continent in the last 20 years. Yet, what often remains uncontested in assertions about the benefits and potentials of sport, are the ways in which sport also produces and sustains processes of inclusion and exclusion, frequently along sex, gender and race lines. Sport has social and cultural significance precisely because it justifies and reproduces normativities around gender, race, sexuality and embodiment.

In this presentation, I will critically examine how sport development projects and public policy discourses on sport reproduce heternormative and racialised ideas about women’s sport and women athletes in South Africa. Firstly, I will highlight how the sport for development industry relies on conceptualisations of African women as under-developed, disempowered and physically inactive, so as to rationalise their own existence. In this, the normativity of whiteness and heterosexuality is also sustained. Secondly, I will illustrate how South African public policy and popular discourses on women and sport are complicit in these representational practices through silencing critical debates of sexuality and homophobia, and through domesticating and feminising black sportswomen’s appearances and performances. In so doing, the presentation will raise critical concerns regarding the need to de-colonise academic and public engagements with sport, gender, sexualities and race on the African continent.