I write to you from the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. I’m on a rare excursion to a new country for the main purpose of pleasure rather than business: a privilege I treasure, Alhamdulilah, and one that I am lapping up with rich delight. It’s my first trip to a post-Soviet nation; an introduction to a whole new history which I know embarrassing little about. I look forward to that changing, inshallah!
Tonight won’t be the night I write about Georgia, however. Partially, this is due to only really having spent a few hours walking around the city, and what does one know of a place after only a few hours bar superficial observations like ‘people stare a lot’? I mean, girl - when you’re wearing bright mustard trousers and white sunglasses, what do you expect?
No. Today I write about two things on my mind. One, this brilliant article on the Castor Semenya case, written by a woman who formerly raced against her:
I competed for Australia in the 800m against Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Today I am convinced that the court of arbitration for sport’s decision to endorse rules aimed at excluding Semenya and other women athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone is the wrong one.
The author talks about how she initially was in favour of the decision to exclude Semenya, but later changed her mind, as a result of her sociology studies, an education in the history of these sorts of exclusions, and befriending women who have naturally high testosterone. Key was this final point, and it reminded me that nothing creates empathy and the potential to change minds like the deep simplicity of human connection. She goes on to say:
As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).
A worthwhile piece, I thought. Check the rest out here. What do you think about the decision?
The second thing on my mind is related to an experience from this afternoon at a local Georgian mosque. I had no idea I’d find one, given the country is largely Orthodox. Perhaps, I thought, they might have a hostile attitude towards other faiths. On the contrary, the mosque had a clear sign pointing to it from the main street in the old town, loud and for all to see. Off I traipsed, hoping to catch the Maghrib prayer before the time was up.
At the front of the mosque stood a man who I immediately understood found me an object of interest. I quickly queried the whereabouts of the women’s wudhu section and after providing directions, he followed up with asking whether or not I was married, where I was from, and whether or not there would be a chance of hanging out the next day. I learnt he was a football player who’d lived in the city for two years, but he had obviously found it tough, especially during a month like Ramadan. So I was sympathetic to the idea that he was looking for friends. But it was also clear that he was interested in more, and this was a sentiment I neither shared, or was willing to entertain.
Herein lies the rub: in a simple world, I’d love to be able to help a Muslim brother out. I’d love to feel like I could make connections with folk on my travels who share the same faith and the same love of a football club (Liverpool!). But so often, I find myself forced to choose between my urge to connect with a fellow from the Ummah and my safety as a woman. Even more tragic is when the individual is a man of colour, as this man was, because my urge is to think well, life in Georgia must be lonely, and it’s hard to find community at the best of times…!
Ah, the interaction underscored the complications of living at intersections. It reminded me why the concept of intersectionality is so useful. Intersectionality names the challenge of say, being an Arab speaking, black, Muslim woman. The culmination of all these identities reveals that an appraisal of the world through each one of those lenses alone is not nearly enough to understand it’s complex lived reality.
In the end, I bid the man a farewell and kept him in my prayers. That’s all the capacity I have for the moment. Khair, inshallah. But it’s certainly a stark reminder of how much longer we have to go.