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Apr 07 2013

If the genitals are severely mutilated, that’s another thing

And then another post the same day.

It didn’t stop there

Chapter 2 of the ‘I’m more postcolonialist than you’ follies.

Another respondent:

Why do feminists still have to analyze everything using the concept of ‘oppression?’ Why are -you- using the term as though everything feminist has to be talked about in terms of oppression. There are times when that’s okay, but there are other times when it is not…When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, by naming them oppressive, for instance, they may be putting other women into situations which could be dangerous for them, or which could at least change the course of their lives, and not always favourably, if they decided to act on this new way of perceiving it. What should be respected is the fact that not all women will be able to make positive change in their lives…For starters, referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement. Call it FGE. If the genitals are severely mutilated, thats another thing.

When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, they’re doing various things to other women. Uh…yes. And? That is, obviously, always the case with any kind of suggestion or campaign or movement for social change. Abolitionists may have been putting slaves into situations, union organizers may have been putting workers into situations, anti-apartheid campaigners may have been putting South African blacks into situations. That’s always true, and it is as well to be careful. The protests in Kenya over an allegedly stolen election have gone in a very bad direction and I would not at the moment jet off to Kenya to fire people up for more protests. But is it therefore a general principle that no harmful practice should be called a harmful practice because it’s always safer just to let things be? Well, not for the young girls who get their genitals sliced off it’s not!

‘Referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement.’ Yes indeed it is, and that is exactly why I and others do it. We’re making a value judgement: chopping off female genitalia is mutilation, it’s bad, it should stop. No I damn well won’t call it FGE: ‘excision’ is the right word to use for a tumor, not for a normal set of genitals. As I rather heatedly said on the list, calling FGM ‘excision’ is like calling footbinding orthopedic surgery. And I’m not going to call it FGE if it’s just a little bit of mutilation – I’m not going to save ‘FGM’ for severe mutilation. I don’t think mild genital mutilation is okay or that it deserves a pass or a dang euphemism.

And more from the first respondent, the one from ‘Ethnocentric feminism’:

I will note that I was careful to add two citations to my response, the James and Robertson volume, as well as Mohanty’s famous essay (and now body of work) on the problematic application of Western feminist concepts, frameworks, and analyses to non-Western locations…Both of these sources and collection of authors are very careful to make nuanced, complicated claims about both Western feminism and female genital surgeries, rather than the broad-brush condemnations of the latter or caricatures of their critique of Western feminism that have dominated the discussion on this list thus far.

You see, Mohanty’s essay is famous (and now it’s a body of work), therefore it’s important. This is the classic argument from celebrity that is all too familiar to those of us who follow the antics of the trendy. They love to tell us how famous their heroes are – the famous Judith Butler tells us how famous Derrida is, and acolytes everywhere tell us how famous Judith Butler is. Then when they’ve finished doing that they tell us how nuanced and sophisticated the famous work of all these famous people is. They never manage to reproduce or imitate any of the nuance or sophistication, they just keep endlessly waving at it. Very careful, very nuanced, very unlike ‘the broad-brush condemnations’ of – of what? Of female genital surgeries? Surgeries? Excision wasn’t euphemistic enough, now we’re talking about surgeries? When the vast majority of them are nothing of the kind, when the vast majority of them are performed with a pair of scissors and no anaesthetic? Surgeries?

It’s scary, isn’t it?

Indeed, critique of problematic moves in Western feminism should be allowable without it being equated with total dismissal of Western feminism, just as the critique of female genital surgeries should be allowable in a register other than self-righteous moralizing condemnation that seeks to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world, “modern industrialized countries” always (unsurprisingly) coming out on top in this type of analysis…

Good point, excellent point, except for one tiny thing: nobody was seeking ‘to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world’; yet again, that’s just self-righteous bullshit. This particular writer (she wrote all the nonsense in ‘Ethnocentric feminism’ too, as I mentioned) specializes in silly hyperbolic inaccurate depictions of claims that never were. Another tiny detail is that no one said anything about ‘modern industrialized countries’ coming out on top, either.

As many within the literature on transnational feminisms have also shown, the contest to prove some cultures or places or religious communities as “more” oppressive toward women than others is one of many longstanding ways of measuring savagery and barbarism more generally, and was a common strategy used to justify colonialism (e.g., “just look at how they treat their women!”).

Yes…we know imperialists often condemned practices that involved women (like sati for instance, and they were right, even if not all of their reasons were), that is not a newsflash, but so what? Does it follow that contemporary feminists are being imperialist in calling FGM FGM rather than ‘excision’ or (pardon me while I swear) ‘surgery’? No it does not. The ‘feminists’ who call FGM ‘surgery’ are being soft-headed at best and conceitedly self-serving at worst.

Speaking personally, I thought I was quite careful to make specific and nuanced claims which, in this previous email at least (see below), were chopped up (another kind of “cutting”?) to suit the poster’s polemical purposes of caricaturing me as advocating for a nihilistic world wherein nothing – not even hierarchy and women’s oppression – means anything anymore.

That was me – I chopped up the ‘nuanced claims’ – that is to say, I excerpted them, with ellipses to show where the cuts were, in the usual way when one quotes someone else. Yet our commenter is so vain and so self-obsessed and so self-important that she apparently thinks it’s droll to pretend that my excerpting something she wrote is the same kind of thing as an adult gouging out a child’s clitoris and cutting off her labia. She wants me and others to talk of female genital surgeries, as she does, instead of female genital mutilations, yet she’s not embarrassed to compare excerpting from something she wrote (while the original remains in the archive and everyone’s Inbox as opposed to being thrown in the garbage like the child’s bleeding pieces of flesh) with the carving up of a child’s crotch. That’s what I call a healthy sense of priorities!

I am surprised by the responses to my original post, which I thought was a fairly mundane (and even rather dated) argument in the feminist literature; moreover, I am stunned at the level of anger and defensiveness on this issue. If such critiques are still this threatening to the USAmerican feminist establishment, there is much to be worried about. It seems to me a more appropriate response to positions about which we feel strongly, but which have nevertheless been demonstrated by a substantial body of non-Western feminists and feminists of color to be problematically racist or colonialist, is (at a minimum) interest, curiosity, openness, (self-)reflection, and thoughtfulness.

Hmmmmmmmmyeah, except maybe when it’s been presented in such a preeningly self-satisfied yet energetically prosecutorial way, we don’t actually feel all that interested and thoughtful, we feel more like repelled and incredulous and deeply alarmed that this buffoon actually teaches.

 

24 comments

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  1. 1
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    One of the most disturbing parts here is that they seem to be coming from the point of view that this is a choice women freely make for themselves. And that’s not true at all. The vast majority of the time, it’s adults making a decision for a child. The child might, because of social pressure, ask for it or look forward to it, but the child lacks the ability to have informed consent on this. It’s not a matter of those evil, colonialist Western feminists needing to back off and let these other women make their own choices; it’s about a lack of bodily autonomy for children and infants.

    And the women who perform or arrange FGM for their own daughters are not evil, cackling in glee at the idea of removing a child’s clitoris. They’re making a bargain under threat within their own culture, for their child’s future and for the acceptance within their community.

    If a woman doesn’t want to call what was done to her mutilation, fine. It’s her body. If a woman chooses as an adult–knowing all of the risks and ramifications–to have pieces of her genitals removed, fine. It’s her body. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. And, no, outsiders aren’t usually well-equipped to go in a change the culture (certainly, I am not), which absolutely needs to be done to remove the pressure for FGM. But outsiders are well-equipped to promote and enforce laws, to provide education, and to give every last ounce of support they can to the members of these communities who are well-equipped to change the culture.

    And that’s who is being supported and aided. The feminists who are already in these communities. The parents who don’t want to do this to their children, but feel the pressure to conform for the sake of their daughters’ acceptance. The children who have a right to grow up with their bodies as whole and healthy as possible.

    The only problem with the name Female Genital Mutilation is that it is clearly making people think of grown women who can make free decisions without coercion, instead of the realities of pressure, the threat of ostracism and the lack of bodily autonomy of children.

  2. 2
    theoreticalgrrrl

    Hipster Feminism strikes again!

  3. 3
    maudell

    “not all women will be able to make positive change in their lives”
    I guess that is not oppression, in the post-post-modern world. It’s “a deferential perspective on human relations”.
    The bottom line is, the argument in its pure form is that women who are the “other” do not have a claim to basic human rights (even if some risk their safety to demand it). Human rights, as in “bare minimum rights of human beings” do not belong to them.
    I wonder which position is colonialist here (colonialism does not necessarily mean promoting assimilation). Which is ethnocentist (do not treat her as a human being based on her ethnicity or identity).
    The witch accusations from the earlier post? Totally feminist. Just not *western* feminist. Some constructivist dude (western, of course) proved it 15 years ago. (shudder)

  4. 4
    Argle Bargle

    A couple of years ago my wife had a radial mastectomy because “excising” the tumor would not have been sufficient to treat her cancer. That wasn’t mutilation because the surgery was necessary. However cutting the genitals of young girls “just because that’s what gawd/her father/her mother wants” is mutilation. Surgery is the result of medical necessity. Mutilation is the result of someone else’s aesthetics.

  5. 5
    left0ver1under

    Calling FGM “surgery” is as ludicrous as saying a KKK lynching was a “court of justice”.

    I had a further thought on use of the word “surgery” but don’t want to say it because idiots might start using it to rationalize the crime.

  6. 6
    Jafafa Hots

    We don’t want to be imperialists and go all culturally colonialist and stuff so that leaves us with the only other option – being condescending and paternalistic.

    Maybe what we need to do as the world becomes more educated and modern and egalitarian is set aside places where footbinding, FGM, stonings, beheadings, lynchings, slavery (sexual and other), shame killings and other valuable cultural traditions can be preserved.

    Like maybe special World Brutality Heritage Parks or something.

  7. 7
    Leiningen's Ants

    “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom.

    When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property.

    My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed.

    Let us all act according to national customs.”

  8. 8
    sheila

    From where I’m sitting, this looks like the racism of low expectations.

  9. 9
    AsqJames

    …the critique of female genital surgeries should be allowable in a register other than self-righteous moralizing condemnation that seeks to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world, “modern industrialized countries” always (unsurprisingly) coming out on top in this type of analysis…

    Maybe I’m being dumb here, but why is it problematic to “rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world” anyway? I consider it self-evident that (in general) women are more oppressed in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Africa, India and any number of other places than they are in the United States or the UK or Sweden for example. I don’t have anything like the knowledge or experience to rank the countries within those two groups, and I recognise there may be multiple ways to do such ranking depending on how you measure/prioritise different ways in which women are oppressed.

    But why would the exercise itself be problematic? What bad thing does the writer think will result from such a ranking?

  10. 10
    hoary puccoon

    I recently talked to a woman obstetrician who did a stint with Doctors Without Borders in majority-Islamic Northern Nigeria. One in seven women there dies in childbirth. That’s 1 in 7! One woman the doctor couldn’t save was seventeen years old. And I’m not supposed to conclude those Nigerian women’s lives are worse than mine? This sanctimoniousness about how we can’t judge, it’s their tradition, blah blah, really comes down to, “don’t bother me now I’m getting my nails done.” We should be better than that.

  11. 11
    hyperdeath

    I dislike the term “Female Genital Mutilation” as it doesn’t ascribe any agency to the action. From the name alone, it could refer to the outcome of a serious accident. There needs to be a term which fully describes what has happened, rather than just the end result. I propose the term “raped with a knife”. If white western parents took a knife to their daughter’s genitalia, they would (subject to the precise definition of rape in that jurisdiction) be prosecuted for aggravated rape. Furthermore, that terminology would be used in all reporting of the event. I don’t see why it should be any different for people whose skin happens to be darker.

  12. 12
    freemage

    The whole bit about ‘ranking’ nations? That’s not feminists, you asshat. It’s the anti-feminists and non-feminists in Western nations doing that, in their endless effort to downplay the need for feminism in the West. Please see: “Dear Muslima”, by Richard Dawkins, for an example.

    Jafafa: In the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, set in a post-singularity future, there’s several ‘Reservations’ that are deliberate throwbacks to outmoded cultures. People who’ve gotten fed up with the rather dystopian world the series is set in sometimes undergo a voluntary brain-wipe to join societies built entirely around the barbaric cultures of eras gone by. In addition to several that practice FGM, there’s also a Mayan culture that performs ritual sacrifice and a “Reagan Republican Compound” set to emulate America in the ’80s.

  13. 13
    M can help you with that.

    And that’s who is being supported and aided. The feminists who are already in these communities. The parents who don’t want to do this to their children, but feel the pressure to conform for the sake of their daughters’ acceptance. The children who have a right to grow up with their bodies as whole and healthy as possible.

    This deserves to be reiterated. The “it’s just a different culture” types implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) demand that the only acceptable approach to interacting with people in another culture is to support and reinforce the existing power structures in that culture. Screw that! I’m a left-wing pro-feminist; with regard to the politics and culture of any given part of the world, I’m going to support the left-wing feminists doing the work on the ground there. Sure, the strategies might be different, and I’ll respect that, but that’s not what the FGM apologists are talking about. The feminists in places where FGM is a widespread practice are the biggest opponents of FGM; how, exactly, is it supposed to be disrespectful to take the side of my counterparts in those places rather than ignoring them and supporting the anti-woman anti-feminists?

  14. 14
    Dave

    Imperialists were well-known for their opposition to random murder; perhaps we should reconsider our own opposition to such behaviour in light of the oppressive antecedents of such attitudes?

  15. 15
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    The feminists in places where FGM is a widespread practice are the biggest opponents of FGM; how, exactly, is it supposed to be disrespectful to take the side of my counterparts in those places rather than ignoring them and supporting the anti-woman anti-feminists?

    Exactly. Why is the power structure in another culture supposed to be “respected” and not the feminists there? Human rights are human rights. If there was some pocket in England today that perfectly reflected Victorian culture, would it be terrible and imperialistic of us to rally against clitoridectomy or clitoral cauterization?

  16. 16
    sawells

    Asking why feminists talk a lot about oppression is like asking why Medicins Sans Frontiers talk a lot about injury, sickness and death. There is a lot of it about.

    This whole trope about don’t-impose-your-conception-of-human-rights-on-other-cultures seems like an escape hatch to me. After all, if you actually believe in all this “oppression” malarky, then the world is full of huge horrible problems which it’s hard to even begin to fix. But if you can define compulsory hijab as “women being free to wear hijab”, and define keeping women locked away as “respect for women”, and maybe define dying horribly as “other ways of being well”, then the problem is solved… in a sense.

  17. 17
    Delft

    When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, by naming them oppressive, for instance, they may be putting other women into situations which could be dangerous for them [...]

    And that’s supposed be an argument that the situation is not oppressive?

    …value judgement …broad-brush condemnations …self-righteous moralizing condemnation …seeks to rank …measuring savagery and barbarism…

    The writer is very defensive of their culture/society, fearing its condemnation more than whatever horrors the culture visits on them. Rather like an abused wife indignantly defending her husband’s right to beat the shit out of her.
    I wonder if there are ways to circumvent this defensiveness – other than relativism, I mean, which is simply giving up on human rights.
    Is it that they feel responsible for their culture as having authored it? Which is rubbish, of course, we don’t create the culture into which we are born. But perhaps they feel they are being accused of doing something wrong when their customs are criticised. Or is it criticism of their forebears that is the problem? Respect for parents etc. is a strong value in many Asian/African countries.
    Is it that their identity is so wrapped up in it? Would this identity be lost or threatened if suddenly girls weren’t mutilated anymore?
    Or is it that allowing themselves to realise the full measure of their oppression is simply too painful, and they shoot the messenger?
    .
    Sorry if this seems naive, I am simply wondering.

  18. 18
    quixote

    “Like maybe special World Brutality Heritage Parks or something.” (Jafafa #6)

    Perfect, perfect, gallows humor. I didn’t even know it was possible to burst out laughing about that garbage.

  19. 19
    theoreticalgrrrl

    @Delft
    I find it’s more often Western liberal feminists who attack other feminists for speaking out against misogynistic cultural practices. It’s not so much the women who actually live in those cultures, unless they are devoutly religious.
    To the liberal feminists, feeling ‘empowered’ is more important than fighting oppression
    ( and ‘who are you to call it oppression!’ blah blah blah).

  20. 20
    Dave

    To academic feminists, as to academics of other stripes, feeling superior to people is often more important than anything else, and that often takes the form of feeling the need to explain how X is far more complicated than you seem willing to admit from your simplistic and privileged real-world position…

    If you think academic feminists are bad, you should try associating briefly with academic socialists, and experience the scorn for any working people not prepared to clientelise themselves to their elite movements…

  21. 21
    theoreticalgrrrl

    Wow, I just found out there is an even a newer brand of feminism out there, “Reality Feminism.” It criticizes things like The Everyday Sexism Project (TESP):

    “I’m sorry, TESP ladies, it’s not just me, there is an alternative feminist view that you may not even have heard before, except from me and Joanna Lumley. My article talked about the way some young women tend to dress and behave, and whether that contributes in any way to the unpleasant experiences they report to the TESP website.” — Judi Sutherland.

    Maybe wearing a hijab or burka really is the right way to go. Not just for women in Islamic countries, but women in The West. Women everywhere.

    Because, as Sutherland says, “If women don’t act with dignity and self-respect they can’t expect anyone to treat them with dignity and return that respect.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/judi-sutherland/feminism-start-again_b_2779730.html

    Sutherland says, “Twice on the TESP website I’ve seen complaints from women who ‘felt a finger being inserted’ by an unknown man while they were on the dancefloor, and I’m afraid my reaction really was: what on earth was she wearing? Are you actually saying you are not making yourself vulnerable to sexual assault by going clubbing in an outfit that allows immediate and public access to your genitals?”

    I wish this was a joke. But it’s from one of two articles by Sutherland in The Huffington Post UK

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/judi-sutherland/what-not-to-wear_2_b_2652654.html

    More Reality Feminism wisdom:
    “..if women look like bimbos and act like bimbos, they are going to find themselves being treated like bimbos.” – Judi Sutherland, 28/02/2013

  22. 22
    Delft

    @theoreticalgrrrl
    I don’t agree with Sutherland, but I think she does make one interesting point about the progressive sexualisation of society.

    A vicious circle is in play, in which the more society wants us sexualised, the more we feel that is the right thing to do, and collude with it. [...] We should ask ourselves, honestly, why it is that the clothes that make us feel most empowered, most independent, and most like ourselves, are the ones that make us look like the sexually-available objects that men want us to be.

    After all men are not constantly being taught that they need to show off their butts to be independent or successful.
    Where she goes wrong is assuming that women wearing sackcloth would somehow change that.

  23. 23
    freemage

    Yeah, the problem with “Reality Feminism” is that it jumps right back into the same hole of “Let patriarchal society dictate what women should wear.” It doesn’t matter if that’s topless a lace G-string, or a mylar/kevlar burqua with an armed (male, naturally) escort, or anything in-between–so long as it’s not the woman herself who is deciding what she’s putting on, we’re still dealing with patriarchy.

  24. 24
    theoreticalgrrrl

    @Delft

    I don’t understand how clothing can make one look like a “sexually-available object.” Or how clothing says anything at all about my willingness or availability to have sex, or the progressive sexualisation of society. Unless you believe that Women = Sex. And that sexuality is something that inherently dehumanizes women. I don’t see my body as sex or as an object that I either hide or show off. Sutherland’s attitude is no different than ones that lead to the belief that girls need to have their genitals mutilated. If women are sex and sex is dirty, the only way you can be a good woman is to have your sexuality destroyed or disappeared.

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