The view from nowhere on female genital mutilation


Following the Lisa Wade/Hastings Center/FGM controversy, Heina of Skepchick made note of a certain prevalent attitude toward female genital mutilation:

Most conversations about FGM among Westerners not had by sociologists and other such academics indeed center around some version of “Ugh, that’s so horrible and disgusting! Who would do that to children?!” at best, and, at worst, a variant of “Let’s kill the monsters that do this!” This corroborates some of what Wade initially posits: Westerners’ reactions are highly informed by their particular perspectives in ways that they might not fully comprehend. To them, it’s clear and unquestionable that FGM is bad and that its practitioners should feel bad.

Many average people who oppose practices such as FGM probably do hold the very simplistic and ignorant view that those who engage in such acts are innately and completely evil, and doing it purely for the sake of being bad because that’s just how they are. This is obviously a neglect to consider certain universal aspects of the human condition. People who think this way don’t attribute their own ethical failures or wrongdoing to an inherent “evil” nature on their part – but the others, the ones who do things like mutilate the genitals of their children, are different from them. They must be “monsters”, because what person like themselves could do such a thing? The undercurrents of prejudice in this mindset are clear and unavoidable, and this does nothing to help them understand why a disturbing practice like FGM happens.

At the same time, the reaction of “who would do that to children?” may not always be wholly rooted in the assumption that the people who do this to children are incomprehensible, inhuman monsters who are totally unrelatable. Rather than concluding that these people are simply not like us, the discomfort and bafflement may arise from the realization that they are like us, they are people too – that in another life, we could have been them.

While it’s unnerving to think – mistakenly – that the world contains people who are little more than evil automatons that do awful things like FGM, it may be even more unnerving to accept the reality that these are average people who have somehow reached a point where they consider FGM to be morally good and the right thing to do for their children. The horror at the sheer moral difference between us and their beliefs and practices is only amplified when considered in the context of the sameness of our and their human nature. People don’t have to be fundamentally dissimilar, or inhuman, to do this. They just have to believe it’s right, and they just have to want to do the right thing. No different from us.

Acknowledging that we might very well do the same thing, if we believed as they do, means having to accept that anyone is capable of this – that there is not a bright line encircling and protecting and separating us, the chosen ones who would never do such a thing, from a moral void where monsters lurk. It means accepting that the capacity for such acts is always among us, whoever and wherever we are. What’s beyond the naive view that FGM practitioners are purely monstrous is even more outrageous, saddening and tragic: not only does something as brutal as FGM occur, but it occurs because good and honest people who care about their children have come to believe that it is right.

It’s important to keep this in mind so as not to dehumanize people, or hold them any less than fully accountable for their actions. But it’s also crucial that this recognition of the universal human capability for baffling, horrifying choices in the name of “good” is not used as an excuse to treat all beliefs and practices as though they were the same. The understanding of “you might do the same thing if you were in their position, because they believe it’s good” has at times been construed to mean that we have no possible grounds to criticize anyone for what they do, as all behaviors are somehow created equal – and whether a thing is right or wrong hinges on nothing but how its practitioners feel about it. It’s wrong to us, but it’s right to them, so who are we to judge?

This is somewhat like the “view from nowhere” in journalism, where certain issues are misleadingly presented as though every point of view is equal in its validity, even though some of them may not be valid at all. What is right? What is wrong? It’s not our place to say. There are only things that happen, from which we must detach any personal judgment.

The report on FGM by the Hastings Center, issued for the alleged purpose of correcting media coverage of the practice, promoted this perspective. They make clear their intentions to exclude any viewpoint on whether FGM is right or wrong – they just wanted to present some facts. That’s all.

The problem is that their presentation of certain facts served to minimize the impact of FGM in just about every way possible: suggesting that journalists should be less “hyperbolic” about infibulation as it occurs among “only” 10% of girls who undergo FGM, implying that sexual functioning is not affected by means of blatantly equivocating statements about how women who haven’t undergone FGM also sometimes report dysfunction, claiming that complications from the practice are “sensationalized” and “infrequent”, lazily dismissing the possibility that FGM results from patriarchal society or male beauty standards by merely noting that women are involved in the practice and largely approve of it, and offering red herrings about how these societies also circumcise boys.

In their pursuit of neutrality toward viewpoints on FGM, disconnected from any judgment of the practice, they ended up inadvertently promoting the view that FGM isn’t all that bad. It does not matter whether they did this on purpose or not. That was the end result regardless of their intentions: they produced a report that downplays the effects of FGM. That’s the problem with the view from nowhere. The appearance of neutrality can disguise the fact that something is not neutral and not accurate in how it depicts a certain issue.

The hands-off stance toward judging the practices of people who believe differently from us functions similarly. When people assert that it’s not our place to decide whether FGM is right or wrong, this actually means allowing FGM to proceed unhindered. Those who hold this view may deceive themselves into thinking they’re being neutral, but the result is not neutral at all. And just because we might indeed endorse the practices of another group if we believed what they believe, that doesn’t mean they can’t actually be wrong for doing it, and it doesn’t mean we can’t actually be right to disapprove of it.

I’m glad that many people strongly disapprove of FGM and want to see it ended. I’m not so glad when some of these people promote what seems to be an impotent version of this belief that’s stripped of any force to create meaningful change. Heina says:

How they hope to actually enact change with that approach is beyond me. To endlessly remind ourselves that we know that FGM is a terrible thing accomplishes very little more than what has been done before. In terms of a Western audience, or one familiar with Western thought, it is absolutely no surprise that relatively few to none, even of those who are accused of being apologists for it, actually condone or support FGM in any way. “FGM is bad” is the real platitude in this context.

…In reality, infibulation is not very common, women who have undergone FGM can experience sexual pleasure and desire*, women enforce and perform FGM on other women (although it does stem from patriarchal notions about governing femininity and female sexuality, something Wade neglects to mention), some non-Africans do it, and Western-led efforts (which often rely on outlawing) are usually unhelpful at best and backfire at worst.

To point these things out does not necessarily trivialize FGM.

Frankly, how anyone hopes to bring about change with this approach is beyond me. If it’s pointless and unproductive to say that FGM is simply wrong, if infibulation ought not be that much of a concern due to its relative rarity (suggesting that other types of FGM may be even less of a concern), if its effects on women are minimal if not completely absent, then why should we want to end FGM, anyway?

Why even be concerned with how unhelpful certain approaches are, if FGM just isn’t that big of a deal? How should we bring about change when we’re deprived of any compelling reason to oppose FGM? Heina notes:

To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal. Outlawing said practices does little to change the cultural zeitgeist regarding them. The lowered rates of male genital mutilation reflect not on the efforts of some outside entity declaring it wrong, but forces and voices from within the group working towards change.

Recognizing that lasting and effective change follows from genuine changes in the beliefs of the group in question, rather than restrictions suddenly imposed from outside, is definitely important. But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable? What can we tell them to make them realize that FGM is unacceptable? What reason would they have to change their minds, their culture, when we’ve decided that saying it’s wrong is too aggressive and that the harms it causes aren’t all that significant or important?

Again, while it’s wonderful that many people want FGM to be ended, it’s disconcerting that some of them endorse an approach that seemingly amounts to standing back and hoping the cultures which practice it will eventually decide to stop on their own. I don’t doubt that they would like to see FGM abolished. I do question the specifics of how exactly they believe this can happen. What does it mean to believe that we should oppose FGM, while also insisting that this belief should in no way impact its practitioners? The truly razor-thin line here is the one that people must walk in order to believe that FGM should be done away with, while avoiding any use of the words “bad” or “harmful” or “wrong”.

Comments

  1. says

    I never said not to judge, or that we should stand back and do nothing, or that it’s not a big deal, or that we should never use the words “bad,” “harmful,” or “wrong.”

    I judge FGM as wrong. I advocate supporting grassroots/local efforts to end it. I say over and over that it’s terrible. I called it bad/harmful/wrong.

    Who are you addressing here?

    • says

      I advocate supporting grassroots/local efforts to end it.

      But how can they go about that? And why should it be ended – what reasons can they offer? The Hastings Center report is quick to diminish whatever reasons most people would typically have, reasons related to concrete harms that result. Saying that we should support local grassroots efforts is an answer, but a vague one. What should those grassroots efforts actually be doing – and do you think it will be enough to put an end to FGM?

      • says

        There’s a whole paragraph of my piece that links to much in the way of information about the efficacy and strategies employed by local and grassroots efforts to reduce and end FGM. Did you simply miss that part?

        • says

          Actually, no. And I noticed that they made mention of the health dangers of the practice. This is why it’s troubling when something like the Hastings report portrays this as not all that much of a problem. Because without some sort of reason, why stop it? I’m also unclear on what kind of methods these grassroots efforts are being contrasted against. What kind of “Western” programs are we talking about that have been tried, and failed?

          • says

            There are health issues associated with it. There are ethical issues associated with it. There are a host of reasons as to why it should be opposed. The report doesn’t say “no harm, carry on.” It simply doesn’t touch many of the reasons to be opposed to FGM.

        • says

          I think the problem here is you don’t quite realise how aid works in these contexts.

          For instance where I work there are a grand total of 5 staff who aren’t local. Out of more than 200. Me, 2 aussies and 2 nigerians. The rest are all Indians and out of the five of us four are ethnically indian.

          Pretty much all charity of any serious stripe is done via local staff. We actually TELL people not to come help because if we need workers we hire local first. IF we cannot get someone locally then and only then do we cast our net wider. Most charities will straight up not take even accept your application even if you are a doctor if you don’t have the appropriate skills or mentality.

          Most aid workers generally come from the country you work in. And if you are an international aid worker you are either working as a technical advisor in some capacity, as a trainer or as a specialist who is simply unavailable locally.

          More often than not the person “educating” or telling people not to do FGM is someone from the same culture but different nationality or someone from the same country. The only charities I know that allow untrained people to come and hang out and “do work” are things like missionary charities and they annoy the crap out of us because the job that makes the missionary feel “good” is one that could actually to a local who would plough the money they earn into the local economy and learn the skills needed to carry on the work. I know MSF ask women who have had the reversals sponsored by them if they would like to help spread the word and use things like word of mouth to fight against the practice.

          When MSF started out in Port Sudan they had close to zero cases a week. Now they are posting a minimum of 300 with 25 deliveries a week where they undo stitches. Initially no one came because MSF refused to redo stitches but after they started campaigning the numbers rose (300 is a lot of people for a small clinic). I think the problem is you don’t hear success stories because the number of people fighting isn’t sufficient to produce major changes.

          Yet.

      • says

        Well, the local grassroots efforts are doing things, primarily predicated on medical information. One of the pieces of data they used is pointed out in Heina’s original as well – the casual purpose given is to eliminate female pleasure by removing or stunting the clitoris, and this is demonstrably false. It still causes problems, but it does not eliminate the drive or the feeling of pleasure, ergo the practice of FGM is both dangerous and useless. Local groups have also used examples of common side effects of the process itself, which include permanent injury elsewhere from infection and even death, to show local practitioners why they should stop the practice.

        One common thread, though, is that Western intervention of doctors and other professionals going in and saying it’s wrong and bad just causes the practice to go underground. Western intervention has done little to nothing to stop the practice itself. This is because of the approach; rescue missions generally do not treat those on the receiving end as people, but as large children. No matter how much we yell or how patiently we explain that their archaic cultural practices are wrong, they’re not going to listen to us because we’re inherently being disrespectful to them as individuals.

        And, again, as far as local, grassroots efforts Heina linked a few organizations in the original piece. Check out the links and see where they are being successful. In a purely mechanical, technocratic way this has been the clearest path to ‘victory’. FGM isn’t being ended by the, frankly, imperialistic notion of making FGM strange among the local practitioners (because we can’t do that, only locals can). It’s being ended by local people making it strange and saying that it should be stopped.

        This is the advantage of facts and data, which is what Heina was pointing out – facts and data are useful and can help us combat it better, and understanding the shortcomings of our current method is just as important as understanding why things are bad.

        • says

          It still causes problems, but it does not eliminate the drive or the feeling of pleasure, ergo the practice of FGM is both dangerous and useless. Local groups have also used examples of common side effects of the process itself, which include permanent injury elsewhere from infection and even death, to show local practitioners why they should stop the practice.

          As I said above, that’s why I have a problem with the Hastings report giving the impression that the health consequences are rare, sensationalized and just overblown by journalists. This is an actual reason that gets people to stop doing this. The Hastings report works to compromise that reason. Is that not *facts and data* that ought to be taken into account when considering what kind of interventions are successful? If this is working, just about the last thing we need to do is act like it’s not as bad as it may seem.

      • left0ver1under says

        But how can they go about that [ending it]?

        In different places in Africa, education on condoms and telling people to reduce the number of sex partners has reduced the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other STDs. People have seen that it worked in one place, and the word is starting to spread. People elsewhere may now be willing to listen.

        http://www.news-medical.net/news/20120112/Study-confirms-condom-use-reduces-risk-of-HIV-infection-by-7825.aspx

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1544373/

        Being dictated to by outsiders (read: white people)may not be helpful or welcome when considering the history of foreign occupation and colonialism. But hearing of or witnessing positive results – especially positive results caused by people within their own continent – will make them more likely to listen.

        One success can beget others. Teach young women in one place that FGM is detrimental to their health (infections, disease, childbirth, etc.), and prove it with examples. When women – and also men – see that it’s in their interest to stop doing FGM, the message will spread.

        The only reason these practices continue is “Because we’ve always done it that way.” Show them a better way that they’re willing to accept, and they will give it up the practice.

        • says

          Being dictated to by outsiders (read: white people)may not be helpful or welcome when considering the history of foreign occupation and colonialism. But hearing of or witnessing positive results – especially positive results caused by people within their own continent – will make them more likely to listen.

          I have to wonder whether this raises a whole other set of issues. If white Westerners simply telling other cultures what to change about their society is the problem, is it really any better for us to pick and choose what movements we want to promote in another culture, and then covertly fund those local movements so that they’re more likely to be effective and accepted because they’re seen as being promoted by people within their own continent? It seems to recapitulate the same problem.

          • says

            “is it really any better for us to pick and choose what movements we want to promote in another culture” …

            Those of us who are allies to others struggling against culturally supported violence do this all the time. For nearly any project in which we act as supporters of people oppressed in some way we are not, there are going to be people in the “oppressed” category who say it is just fine, should continue, and who support it. Allies do have to make judgments about what is and is not non-consensual violence, and usually these judgments are based on hearing different arguments from the survivors themselves. The problem with working cross-culturally is often compounded by racism and xenophobia, compounded by language differences. We are much less likely to hear from people directly without effort to seek them out, and even with such effort we will misunderstand and miscommunicate; but that happens with dynamics in the US too. That does not mean we have to tell people how to run their movements, or that we should not seek to find out what kind of help has actually been called for.

            Even when the acknowledgment of “we want your help” is unanimous the attitudes of international allies can be very problematic and frustrating for those involved. For example, I am starting to take part of the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction companies that profit from what is an appalling amount of mostly-ignored US-supported violence by Israel. There has been a call by a lot of Palestinian activists to do this, in 2005. And even so, there are obvious tendencies for both American Zionists and American anti-Zionists to forget that Ashkenazi Israelis, Mizrahi Israelis, Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, Arab Israelis, Palestinians throughout the region, refugee Palestinians, these are all real people, not inhuman agents of violence. There are speakers at panels who complain about the lack of centering of Palestinians’ stories, or the lack of understanding of Israel’s racist internal dynamics. I’m not sure how to avoid being problematic in any international solidarity movement, so I’m not saying we can, but we can try.

  2. says

    Normally I’m a big fan of how you examine articles but this one ends with you leaping to conclusions. You take away a stance that wasn’t advocated in the original (especially since the stance clearly advocated in the original is “better arguments with more data, do not lead with simple invectives”) and by the end of your own piece here, it could be argued using your method that you’re all for demonizing other cultures and turning the women who perform FGM into abhorrent monsters.

    It’s…simplistic. Reductionist. And it’s illogical. The original piece doesn’t support FGM at all, and doesn’t support any particular method for combating FGM other than the current (demonstrably failing) model present in Western interaction. It merely says, “With more data, and a better understanding, about the practice we can form better arguments relevant to the cultures at hand. We can arm local movements that already exist. We can fight FGM effectively rather than just patting ourselves on the back about how bad it is.” It boggles my mind how you took anything else away from it.

  3. says

    You take away a stance that wasn’t advocated in the original (especially since the stance clearly advocated in the original is “better arguments with more data, do not lead with simple invectives”)

    Demanding that everyone adhere solely to the strict literal meaning of what something says is a good way to dodge whatever implications it may also make that aren’t explicitly stated. A document offering facts that are structured and arranged to downplay the effects of FGM is, of course, going to be seen as downplaying the effects of FGM. You could just as well say that a Family Research Council document providing information about higher rates of drug abuse, STDs, suicide, crime, and so on among gay people is just focused on “better arguments with more data”. But slapping on such excuses does not negate those implications – especially when girls are being harmed via FGM every day and a report like this comes along and declares that coverage of FGM is too “one-sided”.

    It merely says, “With more data, and a better understanding, about the practice we can form better arguments relevant to the cultures at hand.

    Arguments like what?

    We can arm local movements that already exist.

    Which are fighting against FGM how?

    We can fight FGM effectively rather than just patting ourselves on the back about how bad it is.

    What is the evidence of the efficacy of these alternative methods?

    It boggles my mind how you took anything else away from it.

    Well, context exists.

    • says


      This is a dodge.

      I thought I outlined how you missed the entire point of the article, but you’re using the idea of unspoken presumptions here to defend your view of the article and I’ll say it outright – you’re wrong. That isn’t what the original was arguing for, and in order to get to your conclusion you must necessarily stuff words in Heina’s mouth.

      Further, the rest of your response is irrationally dismissive. Heina’s original article includes several links to organizations that exist on a grassroots level that have demonstrable success. Something you apparently missed entirely. Which isn’t surprising as, given the quality of this response, you stopped halfway through then started formulating a reaction.

      If you’d like me to just copy and paste the links that she provided, I will, but I think it’ll serve you more to go back and read the entire piece again, follow the links she provided, and look at the entire context that you missed. We know that the standard Western intervention model doesn’t work. If it did, there would be no FGM anymore anywhere that the UN or the African Council of Nations has had any interaction with local people. But that’s not what happened. We know that there are grassroots organizations (like CAGeM, IIRC the org correctly) that are having a demonstrable impact on FGM in the areas they’re operating in.

      Given these realities, we can look at the data surrounding FGM to better understand what the practice is and why it is practiced. Let’s look at just infibulation. If you scream at the top of your lungs that infibulation is bad and people are listening, then you stop those ~10% of infibulations but the rest of the ‘FGM community’ is going to hear it and say, “Good thing we don’t do that!” and continue unabated. This is the kind of illogical response that doesn’t work, and it’s what I could argue that you’re essentially advocating for.

      TL;DR, if you want to accuse Heina of supporting FGM by standing on the sidelines, then given your own arguments you can be accused of being a cultural imperialist and unwilling to follow demonstrably effective paths to success. Understanding the problem is the first step in organizing an effective response to the problem, and these systems already exist that don’t involve the West doing much more than supporting the locals on the ground.

      • says

        I thought I outlined how you missed the entire point of the article, but you’re using the idea of unspoken presumptions here to defend your view of the article and I’ll say it outright – you’re wrong. That isn’t what the original was arguing for, and in order to get to your conclusion you must necessarily stuff words in Heina’s mouth.

        No, not really. I addressed some of the things that Heina said (which I largely didn’t even disagree with her about), as well as attitudes – already exemplified in the comments here – toward whether “outsiders” have any place critiquing the practices of other cultures. Also, the Hastings report itself made lousy arguments, as I explained in my last post.

        Further, the rest of your response is irrationally dismissive. Heina’s original article includes several links to organizations that exist on a grassroots level that have demonstrable success. Something you apparently missed entirely. Which isn’t surprising as, given the quality of this response, you stopped halfway through then started formulating a reaction.

        Well, considering that you’re so privy to how I write my posts, maybe I should take you on as a co-blogger. Anyway, no, I did see all of those. What was unclear is exactly what “Western” methods are being critiqued, what those methods consist of, and how much less effective they are. For example:

        We know that the standard Western intervention model doesn’t work. If it did, there would be no FGM anymore anywhere that the UN or the African Council of Nations has had any interaction with local people. But that’s not what happened.

        This explains nothing. There’s a difference between “this has an effect” – and, again, it’s awesome to see that it does – and “this has more of an effect than that”. It’s left unclear what the “that” even *is*.

        If you scream at the top of your lungs that infibulation is bad and people are listening, then you stop those ~10% of infibulations but the rest of the ‘FGM community’ is going to hear it and say, “Good thing we don’t do that!” and continue unabated. This is the kind of illogical response that doesn’t work, and it’s what I could argue that you’re essentially advocating for.

        Can you find where I said or implied that methods other than infibulation should be seen as any more acceptable? I was actually trying to say the exact opposite of that, both in this post and the earlier one.

        TL;DR, if you want to accuse Heina of supporting FGM by standing on the sidelines, then given your own arguments you can be accused of being a cultural imperialist and unwilling to follow demonstrably effective paths to success. Understanding the problem is the first step in organizing an effective response to the problem, and these systems already exist that don’t involve the West doing much more than supporting the locals on the ground.

        Or people just haven’t really justified these suggestions of a dichotomy between either support these particular movements, or you’re a Westerner barging into other people’s business and being all imperialist with your ineffective and insensitive and ignorant approaches. I struggle to believe that no one outside of areas that practice FGM ever struck on the idea of taking into account the actual reasons why it happens until the Hastings Center came along and opened our eyes. Again, I’m glad there are programs that seem to work. I’d like to know just what other programs are being critiqued here.

        • says

          No, not really. I addressed some of the things that Heina said (which I largely didn’t even disagree with her about), as well as attitudes – already exemplified in the comments here – toward whether “outsiders” have any place critiquing the practices of other cultures. Also, the Hastings report itself made lousy arguments, as I explained in my last post.
          None of this was about whether outsiders have any place critiquing, but what the outsider discussion is doing and whether it’s effective or relevant. Some of the critique you’re responding to doesn’t exist. The rest of my post is an example of what that sounds like from the other end

          Well, considering that you’re so privy to how I write my posts, maybe I should take you on as a co-blogger. This is exactly the kind of thing that I was trying to point out with what I was saying. I was responding to an apparent but not spoken lack and miscommunication here. Your post generally responds to elements of the original article that don’t exist, and implies apathy on the part of Heina in the original piece. Here, based on a similar tact followed with your article, it’s ‘clear’ that you didn’t read the whole thing.

          Responding to what is perceived instead of what’s there is a problem, rather than in addition to.

          Anyway, no, I did see all of those. What was unclear is exactly what “Western” methods are being critiqued, what those methods consist of, and how much less effective they are. For example:

          We know that the standard Western intervention model doesn’t work. If it did, there would be no FGM anymore anywhere that the UN or the African Council of Nations has had any interaction with local people. But that’s not what happened.

          This explains nothing. There’s a difference between “this has an effect” – and, again, it’s awesome to see that it does – and “this has more of an effect than that”. It’s left unclear what the “that” even *is*.

          This is just an entire dismissal of a point for no reason. We know, without getting into this discussion, that there are groups trying to end FGM. We know that there are local groups, UN groups, and independent groups from outside the area trying to end FGM. It’s been a part of the cultural landscape in places like the Sudan for over twenty years now. We also know, without getting into details, that some have successes and some have failures. We don’t even need actual data to know these things because of prevailing social forces (FGM is a topic of discussion, at this level, so someone has tried to stop it at some point), historical experiences (I’ve known about local groups thanks to news reports, among other things), and the law of averages (someone must have succeeded at some point).

          Given this information, we know that some methods work and some methods don’t. The simplest method for combatting something like this is to just tell them to stop doing it. Since it still goes on, we know that this method doesn’t work. And that’s before getting into data.

          While it’s important to know what the data is if we’re trying to formulate usable responses, we can say without getting into data that the current discussion tactic doesn’t work based just on self-evident reality.

          The original article provides us with useful information for how the local culture sees and interacts with FGM. Organizations that want to combat FGM can use that information to build relevant means to combat it without condoning it, just like how relevant drug policy may not condone use but does provide clean needles. We can still say this without looking at any data – information in understanding the problem informs what kind of steps would need to be taken to repair the problem.

          So, for this kind of discussion – the usefulness of the data, the relevance of the data, and the purpose of the data – asking for data about actual mechanisms to fight it an historical necessity is unnecessary. This isn’t a position paper, this is an opinion on a website. There are situations where it’s relevant (as Heina’s article pointed out, those organizations) but Heina’s response itself can make these kinds of defenses without getting into hard data because of the simple reality of effective policy and how one designs effective policy.

          Can you find where I said or implied that methods other than infibulation should be seen as any more acceptable? I was actually trying to say the exact opposite of that, both in this post and the earlier one.

          This isn’t responding to what I said. The you here is definitely poorly misplaced, but I said “If you scream from the mountaintops that infibulation is bad, then those who don’t do infibulation are going to ignore it.” I didn’t mean to imply that you, personally, were campaigning against infibulation, it’s more that the current position of most people who campaign against FGM from the Western perspective are telling local cultures that FGM is bad due to infibulation. Which doesn’t work, since that’s not what they do. It’s like crafting drug policy to include harsh sentencing for marijuana users because needles are dangerous.

          “Or people just haven’t really justified these suggestions of a dichotomy between either support these particular movements, or you’re a Westerner barging into other people’s business and being all imperialist with your ineffective and insensitive and ignorant approaches. I struggle to believe that no one outside of areas that practice FGM ever struck on the idea of taking into account the actual reasons why it happens until the Hastings Center came along and opened our eyes. Again, I’m glad there are programs that seem to work. I’d like to know just what other programs are being critiqued here.”

          From what I’ve seen, the UN response and other Western responses don’t take into account what is effective policy. The West is rampant with ineffective policy; drug policy, gender policies, worker policies, economic policies. They aren’t data based, they’re emotionally based. Religious organizations, especially, that ‘combat FGM’ use fear-oriented messages based on harm to the girl cut and her risk of death or infection based on the effects of infibulation. These messages have gone so far as to make all FGM illegal in most hospitals and clinics in northern Africa. This situation is dangerous as the practice will still continue, especially in places where infibulation isn’t practiced (since the message isn’t relevant to them).

          That’s the reality of organizations on the ground. Local organizations, like those Heina linked, have seen successes. Western organizations, like the UN organizations, generally are failures and push the practice underground. This is mentioned by more reports than just the Hastings report, yet the conversation in the West still primarily centers around ‘FGM is bad and those who practice it should feel bad.’ This conversation is neither nuanced nor mature enough to warrant consideration when what anyone wants here is actionable change. Denying the use of the Hastings report, as most responses have been, further exacerbates the problem as it does ignore the value and input of the local communities. Which is already the modus operandi of Western programs.

  4. says

    ZJ, I love a lot of your work, and I couldn’t agree more about children consenting to surgeries on themselves. But if you’re going to write about FGM in other countries, do it with the perspectives of people in or from those countries. A quick google search for “nigerians against FGM” got me this piece, but that’s just one.

    I’m getting this from “But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable?” That’s the problem in this attitude: it’s a false choice between “let people have their culture” and “force them to change what they’re doing in spite of their culture”, both of which are domineering. We shouldn’t be looking to change from the outside, at best we should be looking to support change from the inside. People are people everywhere, and there will always be people who recognize violence within their own cultures. If people in these African countries want our help, then we can help them more effectively through such support.

    Finally, talking about other countries, arguments between “Westerners” concerning the fate of real people in other countries, without paying attention or directing attention to the voices of people there, is dehumanizing. And Australia, Canada, the US and Europe in general seems all too willing to dehumanize Africans, and yes, that is racist. It’s obvious that you don’t think anyone in the picture is actually subhuman, but also since you know about this problem, and by continuing to talk about people without amplifying any of their voices, you support it. Especially as your audience is mostly Western atheists, many of whom will be quick to jump on any perspective that allows them to feel smarter than everyone else, or to feel that they alone can be in charge of how the world should work.

    • says

      I’m getting this from “But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable?” That’s the problem in this attitude: it’s a false choice between “let people have their culture” and “force them to change what they’re doing in spite of their culture”, both of which are domineering.

      Really, I question how even grassroots efforts are supposed to be effective, when moral disapproval is overly direct and the practice itself is supposedly not even all that harmful. What options are *they* left with to persuade people in their own culture? That’s why I wonder whether this route is actually any more effective. Evidence to that effect would be helpful and I’d happily support whatever means is found to be most effective at preventing FGM.

      It’s obvious that you don’t think anyone in the picture is actually subhuman, but also since you know about this problem, and by continuing to talk about people without amplifying any of their voices, you support it.

      If no one in any area that widely practiced FGM felt it was wrong, would you believe that anyone who is not from that area should ever *say* that it is wrong? Where does the answer of “amplify voices” leave us, given that most voices in areas where FGM is prevalent are, as the report stated, in support of the practice? Is it even our place to decide which voices should be amplified, if flat-out saying that some other culture’s harmful practice is harmful is already “dehumanizing” to them? Just how is some Western atheist picking and choosing *which* voices to amplify on their blog any better?

      • says

        “Just how is some Western atheist picking and choosing *which* voices to amplify on their blog any better?”

        That’s something very much worth thinking about, but not a justification for talking about people altogether. Is it Westerners’ place to decide who is oppressed in other countries? Arguably yes and no; I don’t have a clear stance on this, because as you said, perceiving harms and not condemning it could be even worse. But is it our place to do so without help from anyone who has suffered from that oppression? I would say, no.

        Whatever someone’s stance on condemning cultural practices, and I am willing to judge when those are violent and nonconsensual, I think that research into who is saying what, e.g. what women’s organizations are there and what are they saying, is very important.

      • says

        I put some links in my comment that is under moderation. But I found for example that the Union National des Femmes de Djibouti exists and is apparently promoting education against infibulation.

    • says

      OK, I’m having Internet-on-transportation issues. This comment was intended for the previous post. I do want to add though: have you done research into what local work is being done against FGM? Because just because people don’t talk much about that, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

      For example, I found this article which mentions the Union of Djiboutian Women (UNFD). And then I found this and this which say how to contact them. It is really vital to find and support such organizations, don’ you think?

  5. says

    So, I’m sorry for conflating your two posts, and have now read this. I think this part:
    “Acknowledging that we might very well do the same thing, if we believed as they do, means having to accept that anyone is capable of this – that there is not a bright line encircling and protecting and separating us, the chosen ones who would never do such a thing, from a moral void where monsters lurk. It means accepting that the capacity for such acts is always among us, whoever and wherever we are.”

    is a very, very good point. So often, the response to “these people are being violent, oppressive, etc!” is “these are people just like you and me!” What I call humanizing the oppressor. It should not be a tactic that works, because we should all recognize our own ability to be that person–and yet judge the actions as right and wrong.

    I still think it’s important to acknowledge how much Western voices are privileged in these and many other conversations, and to do something to mitigate that.

  6. moodycow says

    The hands-off view, sometimes called ‘cultural relativism’ here in the Antipodes, disturbs me because its strict non-judgement form carries a nasty undercurrent of opinion that people in other cultures are inferior to a degree that their actions cannot carry moral weight, much as a dog is viewed as acting only on instinct and hence cannot be held responsible. However, being accountable for one’s actions is part of what it is to be human because we can make decisions about right and wrong. Taken to its extreme, cultural relativism treats the behaviour of other cultures is in the same category as that of livestock.

    We here in the West have our genital mutilation shame, namely the mutilation of infants born intersex. Instead of (overtly) religious reasoning, we base this on specious utilitarianism (how will the child cope in a school locker room?). However, the fact that we have this ongoing travesty, hidden by a societal omerta, doesn’t mean that cannot point out the wrongness of FGM. More colloquially, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Sometimes, seeing a wrong in another culture can alert us to our failings. It’s easy to ignore our treatment of animals, but when we see the mistreatment of animals sent from our shores in a foreign abattoir, more people are then open to questioning our treatment of animals domestically. I could be wrong, but it seems that the most successful cultures have been those that have interacted with other cultures, adopted some of the good things, usually rejected the bad things, and grown from that process. This seems to follow from the principle of falsification. If we assume there is no absolute reference point, we can make progress by weeding out the ideas that are failures.

    FGM is outrageous, but it also demonstrates how effectively victims can become perpetrators. That a mother can hold down her daughter while another female relative mutilates the child is the real horror to my mind. Perhaps a part of the problem is that people in those cultures do not have our sense of empathy, which is at least partly taught. Another significant part is that FGM takes place in honour-shame cultures, where personal accountability is not important, but rather the reputation of the patriarch to control his domain. That is something that holds those cultures back in countless ways.

    • says

      But SRS isn’t generally performed on children too young to be making a fully-informed decision about it.

      In cases where is has been performed non-electively, then it has been (rightly) considered a form of child abuse.

  7. laurentweppe says

    it’s disconcerting that some of them endorse an approach that seemingly amounts to standing back and hoping the cultures which practice it will eventually decide to stop on their own.

    You know, it’s actually possible that this approach, as frustrating as it may be, is the one which brings the most results.
    .
    I’ll take another harmful practice as an exemple since I have an extensive data sheet under the eyes about it right now:
    .
    According data from a 2005 Unicef repport on early marriage: this practice is in fact in decline: in a country like Bengladesh, where nearly 70% of the women born during the 1950-1954 period had been married before they had reached 15 years of age, the ratio of women born during the 1980-1984 period was 27%: still very high, but undoubtedly lower. In Nigeria, 43% of women born between 1954 and 1958 had been married before they had reached 15 years of age, a ratio which had fallen to 16% for women born during the 1984-1988 period. In Yemen, one third of women born between 1948 and 1952 had been married before their 15th birthday, the same being true for 6% of women born between 1978 and 1982, etc, etc, etc. Similar patterns emerged for women married between the ages of 15 and 18.
    .
    Although there has been international efforts and initiatives to curb this practice, these could hardly be considered the main cause for such diminution: we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people who went against established customs and stopped marrying their daughters when they were still children, without Westerners descending from high above to “show them the way”: it may not have been obvious at first glance, but in the countries surveyed, patriarchal tradition has been slowly but steadily loosing ground, and since many countries surveyed are also countries where female genital mutilation is prevalent, it is very possible that this practice is actually threading on finner ice than it appears.

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