A Few More Links About Female Genital Cutting

Following up on Mandolin’s recent posts here on “Alas,” here are a few more discussions of the complexities of Female Genital Cutting (aka Female Genital Mutilation and Female Genital Surgery):

Official Shrub dot com: Why I Cringe When Western Feminists Discuss FGC

This is not to say that Western feminists ought to ignore FGC, or never examine patriarchal tendencies in societies outside of our own. This is not to say that all examinations of FGC by Western feminists are innately imperialist. What I am saying is that we ought to be very careful of the judgments we make in the name of feminism, when that feminism can be used to obscure our own complicity in imperialism.

To return once again to Razack, she quotes from Isabelle Gunning to list some basic necessities for feminist analyses of international human rights: “1) seeing oneself in historical context; 2) seeing oneself as the “other” might see you; and 3) seeing the “other” within her own cultural context” (97). These steps do not give us a complete guide on how to avoid perpetuating imperialism through our feminism – but they’re a start.

ThinkNaughty: Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

Interesting post from last year pointing out that many women who have had FGC don’t consider themselves “victims.” As I wrote in ThinkNaughty’s comments last year, though, I think this post, in trying to point out that the issue is more multifaceted than Western critics acknowledge, goes too far in the opposite direction by not quoting local female activists who oppose FGC.

How Pledge Associations Can End Female Genital Cutting

This essay by academic Gerry Mackie describes “pledge associations,” a strategy that historically worked to end footbinding in China — and is working to end FGC in some communities today. Mackie’s argument is that FGC, like foot-binding, is to a great extent perpetuated by the need for marriageability; the practice continues because parents and daughters fear that an uncut daughter will not be able to get married. Even parents who don’t themselves approve of FGC often still practice FGC, because to do otherwise is to risk ruining their daughters’ chances of marriage. But when a critical mass of people in a community jointly pledge to end FGC, that allows people to quit practicing FGC with reassurance that their daughters will remain marriageable.

If Mackie is to be believed, pledge associations — group, public declarations that a practice will be ended — were critical to ending Chinese footbinding, and are now working to end FGC.

Here’s a brief quote from Mackie’s essay that I’m including mainly because it dovetails with Mandolin’s posts:

Nondirective education works. Harsh propaganda backfires. The example of footbinding suggests, however, that it is appropriate in some circumstances for outsiders to state their opposition to FGC, but only if such opposition is factual, understanding, and respectful.

Suppose that a law professor is charged with the task of eliminating automobile usage in Los Angeles, and proposes this strategy: legal prohibition enforced by serious penalty. Because the professor has provided no alternative method of transportation, no one can stop driving. Because no one is able to stop driving, police and prosecutors will not waste their time picking out some poor Joe Blow for punishment. But there will black marks on a white page to satisfy the irate Oregonians and Bangladeshi who demand that the Angelenos stop their destructive driving habits. Criminal law works because thieves and murderers are a minority of the population that the state can afford to pursue with the cooperation of the majority of the population. It is not possible to criminalize the entirety of the population, or the entirety of a discrete and insular minority of the population, without the methods of mass terror. Reactance complicates the problem. The example of footbinding shows that legal prohibition comes at the end of the process of abandonment, not at its beginning. Legal prohibition that is not the expression of local popular will on the subject is ineffective if not undemocratic. Europe and America have every right to prohibit FGC among their inhabitants, however, because FGC is a mistaken practice, and also because the children of the immigrants aspire to participate in their uncut host societies…

Larvatus Provodeo: Putting Her Money Where Her Mouth Is

Kim at Larvatus Provodeo is looking for a few good comments on FGC — and she’s willing to pay for them.

For every comment on this post which discusses the issue seriously without turning it into a political football, attributing motives to bloggers or indulging in disputation about religion, politics, culture wars, or clashes of or within civilisations, I will donate two dollars to The Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development up to a maximum of two hundred dollars.

As far as I can tell, Kim hasn’t reached her limit and her offer hasn’t been closed, so go leave a comment.

* * *

The point of these discussions, in my opinion, is not to say that there’s nothing we can do to bring about a major reduction in FGC. Rather, the point is that what’s most effective may be different from what seems most uncompromising and hardcore. It’s right that Western feminists feel anger and horror at FGC, but we have to be careful that our approach to FGC remains effective, aware of the problems of colonialism and racism, and serves women — rather than serving our own need to feel like we’re doing something.

As I wrote in comments of Mandolin’s post, it’s mistaken for Americans to think that we have the ability to change whatever we want about other cultures, if only we’re determined enough. (See: Iraq.) Very often there is no beneficial solution the US has the ability to implement. Even in cases where US motives are not imperialistic, we still have only limited power to make real improvements.

When it comes to FGC, if there’s any alternative in which we can prevent untold numbers of girls being mutilated and dying, then obviously that is what we must favor. But I don’t see any sign that such an alternative exists; and as Mandolin argued, there’s good reason to think that western pressure on the Egyptian and other governments to institute bans makes things worse, leading to more mutilation and death.

Curtsies to Katie and to The Rook’s Not To Blame for the links.

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Gender and the Body, International issues, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

13 Responses to A Few More Links About Female Genital Cutting

  1. 1
    Kim says:

    Many thanks for the link, and I’m very keen to reach the goal. Another commenter, Pavlov’s Cat, has matched my offer, so another 25 comments or so will see $400 go to an NGO working on peer education strategies to end FGM.

  2. 2
    Stentor says:

    the point is that what’s most effective may be different from what seems most uncompromising and hardcore.


  3. 3
    Myca says:

    the point is that what’s most effective may be different from what seems most uncompromising and hardcore.

    It’s interesting to me how many things this is true of. I mean, it could be the epitaph for our entire political situation.


  4. 4
    RonF says:

    This was something I had wanted to note in the earlier threads; just because something has been made illegal doesn’t mean that it’s going to stop happening. The cops are probably not going to bust someone for doing something that is illegal but is sanctioned and encouraged by the culture.

    It’s also going to erode the populace’s support of the authority, who will be seen as bowing to the West. They may decide to support an alternative authority, one that wears masks and runs around with guns.

    I have no problem in condemning this as a horrible practice and as flat wrong and immoral. But to assume that someone born and raised in a culture that has been doing this for millenia is going to automatically agree with me when I assert this (or even be open to debate) to them is foolish.

    The word “effective” is key, here.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    Agreed, Ron.

  6. 6
    Lauren says:

    “…it is appropriate in some circumstances for outsiders to state their opposition to FGC, but only if such opposition is factual, understanding, and respectful.”

    I agree with this quote. When people quickly dismiss it as disgusting and immoral, it’s easy for the opposition to argue that we make no effort to understand it or that we are simply being intolerant. The thought of FGC makes my stomach turn and it’s difficult to speak about it in such a… mild way, I guess, but being too harsh doesn’t exactly help our argument.

  7. 7
    Glenn says:

    I quarrel with Shrub.com’s comments about “being complicit in imperialism.” If I thought it would be possible to end FGC through means that perpetuate imperialism, I believe I would be morally obligated to pursue that course of action. FGC is a massive, first order evil and you would have to show me a damn good reason why my “complicity” is bad enough to outweigh the potential good of eliminating FGC.

    Of course, as Mandolin discussed rather eloquently, it isn’t possible to end FGC by fiat. In fact, it often makes the problem worse by driving it underground, valorizing it, etc etc etc. But these are *strategic* difficulties, not fundamental moral issues. I think that needs to be kept clear.

  8. 8
    Sailorman says:

    “…it is appropriate in some circumstances for outsiders to state their opposition to FGC, but only if such opposition is factual, understanding, and respectful.”

    Isn’t this slipping pretty strongly into moral relativism territory? I don’t have to be either understanding or respectful of the assholes who practice FGM. That doesn’t necessarily imply ignorance.

    I *am* being intolerant, as per the dictionary definition. But I’m intolerant of FGM just like I”m intolerant of rape. Just like they feel entitled to believe FGM is moral, I am entitled to believe their morality sucks. In fact, not only am I not required to respect people who practice FGM, I am almost guaranteed not to respect people who practice FGM. Can you explain why I should?

    Obviously, this is completely different from the “what is the most effective way to stop FGM?” question. It may be that vocal opposition to FGM, or a hard-line position, is actually detrimental to the goal of stopping it. All well and good*, but that’s a tactics issue and not a morality issue.

    *And on another line with the “moral relativism” issue…. Seems that the claim is sometimes made that American feminists should “back down” on a particular subject, with the suggestion that the overall goal would benefit from a less hard line tactic. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that view get support. Any ideas why it seems appropriate to everyone in this circumstance?

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    I don’t have a particular problem with saying FGS is immoral. I am intolerant of FGS as a practice.

    I don’t find those two statements incompatible with being complete, factual, and respectful.

  10. 10
    tigtog says:

    *And on another line with the “moral relativism” issue…. Seems that the claim is sometimes made that American feminists should “back down” on a particular subject, with the suggestion that the overall goal would benefit from a less hard line tactic. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that view get support. Any ideas why it seems appropriate to everyone in this circumstance?

    I think you’re comparing apples and oranges there.

    Asking Western feminists to be less culture-warring about the FGC issue because it’s actually counterproductive in reducing FGC is not the same as asking American feminists to be less culture-warring about abortion because it’s counterproductive to some people’s plans for the Democrats’ re-election campaign.

    One has been shown to have a direct negative effect on the specific issue feminists wish to change. The other is a demand for women to stop viewing what they want as important at all.

  11. 11
    sylphhead says:

    Sailorman, is it your contention that maybe American feminists are unwilling to sacrifice good will for the hardline when it comes to abortion, because they are personally affected by the issue, while the same cannot be said for FGC? Even if so, so what? If you could name me an ideological camp that is somehow immune from this, I’ll be on board. Sometimes compromise and consensus is called for, other times it’s better to stick to your guns. Usually knowing which one is better is a benefit that comes with hindsight. I greet with a big yawn the scandalous notion that people for react more emotionally to something that they’ve actually experienced in their lives.

    But I can sympathize with your overall stance. I’m a big fan of properly placed intolerance and disrespect.

    tigtog, but perhaps a hardline stance on abortion helps Republicans get elected, who in turn curb abortion rights for all women. In this case, the hardline stance is counterproductive. But I understand why feminists will not respond kindly to calls for moderation on the abortion debate, when so often ‘moderation’ consists of agreeing that yes, women who have sex deserve to be punished with pregnancy, and the hierarchy of importance goes 1. 2000 year old goat herders’ sex superstitions, 2. a month old foetus, 3. that display of the Ten Commandments in that Alabama courthouse, and then 4. women; but just not ALWAYS, depending on if we feel like it. We are not perfectly rational beings, most of us find counting beans to be rather boring, and if feminists’ emotional response is not cave in to such disagreeable notions while simply riding out conservative religion’s stranglehold in America, I wouldn’t necessarily fault them for it.

  12. 12
    Sailorman says:

    I wasn’t actually thinking of abortion per se, tigtog; I actually take the hard line position there myself. I was just struck for some reason as I was typing this that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a feminism stance that focused primarily on goal-seeking in the long term and was willing to trade off identical, important, short term goals to get there.

    I also don’t think this is a phenomenon unique to feminism; I am only thinking of it w/r/t feminism because of how this discussion is being framed.

    And honestly? i wasn’t trying to make a point. It just came to mind as I was typing the rest of my post. And it seemed interesting enough to mention.

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    There’s a big difference between calling for change within one’s own culture and enacting cultural imperialism on other peoples. Again, I think it’s fine to say that FGS is immoral.

    However, the discourse is so polluted with racism that it’s difficult for that statement to stand on its own — worse, I would say that most kneejerk western proposals for eradicating fgs are predicated on a colonialist kind of misunderstanding about the cultural contexts in which FGS occur.

    It’s not necessary to remind feminists that men rape because of social signals in our culture; we know that; we live that; we address it via talking about the rape culture and how to change it. It is necessary for western feminists to talk overtly about the context in which FGS occurs, because it often gets flattened or distorted within the conversation about FGS (which is a conversation had both by feminists and by westerners in general, sometimes to support anti-Islamic or anti-African prejudices).

    FGS often comes to us through the mainstream media largely divorced from context, so our understanding of it is distorted and our proposed solutions strange and decontextualized.