From the archive

The disagreements over “colonialist” feminism caused me to go digging in the archives for an account of a previous such dispute. It was January 11, 2008…and I had jury duty…

Ethnocentric feminism

I had a hard time tearing myself away from the computer Wednesday and Thursday mornings to catch the bus downtown to the courthouse, because there was a lively (not to say acrimonious) discussion on a Women’s Studies list I subscribe to, about Female Genital Mutilation. I may have done something myself to contribute to the acrimony. Okay I did. I got annoyed. Repeatedly. (But one is limited to two messages a day, so there was a limit to the damage I could do.)

It started with the (astonishing, I thought) fact that the practice was called ‘circumcision’ – which staggered me because I thought it was apologists for the practice who called it that and that opponents all called it Female Genital Mutilation (which is what it is) as a matter of principle. What could feminists be doing euphemizing the horrible practice? I wondered and wondered, then someone rather gently asked the same question, so I decided to provide backup. (I haven’t been posting to the list much, if at all [I can’t remember if I’ve posted before], because I’m not a women’s studies teacher, so I figured I would just read and be silent; but that’s over.) Backup is useful on that list, I think, because there is a strong current of orthodoxy and orthodoxy-enforcement there, and it looks to me as if more people speak up when other people are speaking up. Certainly that’s how it fell out with this discussion. So I expressed my astonishment in stronger and somewhat ruder terms – and there were other comments – and before long out came the classic retort.

This collection of essays problematizes the “M” for mutilation (which I thought was a critique by now well-entrenched in Women’s Studies) as much as an “E” for excision, given regional differences in the types of procedures performed, and “circumcision” is rejected for the very reasons already named – this is not exactly what occurs (one of the editors suggests “S” for sugeries; another option is “C” for cutting). The book does a very nice job of pointing out that while no one is turning cartwheels about female genital surgeries, and that African women themselves have taken steps to end such practices, this is a far cry from the explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage voiced by Western feminists about practices in “other” countries, as performed precisely on cue on this listserv, according to a script that seems not to have changed in 20 years.

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was no ‘explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ in any of the messages. None of the messages started out by saying ‘Here is my colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ – or ‘Here is my outrage as a colonialist ethnocentric Western feminist’ – or ‘My colonialist ethnocentric sense of superiority is outraged at the practices in “other” countries.’ No; no one said anything like that; so what was the accusation doing there? The usual. The usual boring, hackneyed, thought-free, self-flattering attempt at intimidation via orthodoxy-deployment and guilt-mongering.

[D]iscussion of female genital surgeries and potential analogues or comparisons with male circumcision should be possible without the accompanying ethnocentric outpouring of feminist outrage. The notion that female genital surgeries are uniquely violating, singularly oppressive to women, primarily about the control of women’s sexuality, a sign of women’s unique powerlessness and violation in Muslim cultures, or the most pressing problem facing the women who undergo it has been *exhaustively documented* as reflective of Western feminist priorities, a fundamentally imperialist feminist analysis that operates on the basis of Western feminist conceptions of gender, sexual hierarchy, and the oppression of women…The result is the characterization of non-Western women as uniquely victimized, exploited, and damaged by “their” men or their barbaric “culture”…

No it isn’t. It isn’t because the ‘outpouring’ (such as it was) wasn’t ‘ethnocentric’; because not all ‘non-Western women’ are subject to FGM, in fact the vast majority of them are not; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘non-Western women’ in general; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘West good non-West bad huh huh huh’ or any other such brainless grunting; because the discussion wasn’t about trying to ‘characterize’ all non-Western women (which would be a bizarre project) but about calling the practice of cutting off and sewing up women’s genitalia a harmful practice. That’s all it was about – yet it was called ethnocentric, colonialist, fundamentally imperialist, and (horror of horrors) twenty years out of date.

So, not for the first time, I learned that it is simply not possible to satirize this kind of thing adequately, because it’s always more fatuous and delusional and above all self-flattering than one can imagine in advance.


  1. Ulysses says

    The comments on the original post were good. I particularly liked PM’s comment:

    I know ‘FGM’ covers a range of practices, but in what way is it not “primarily about the control of women’s sexuality”?

    In fact that whole line is great, with the claim that it has been “*exhaustively documented*”, presumably this is the Sandra Harding style of documentation where a few people claim X, a few more refer to these others claiming X, and finally it becomes an irrefutable fact that X.

    Reading that line where they say “*exhaustively documented* as reflective of Western feminist priorities, a fundamentally imperialist feminist analysis” I get the same impression I often have when reading about FGM and other issues affecting women in non-Western countries, the impression that the argument they want to make is ‘yes, you’re right that practice is very bad, but by pointing out that it is bad you reveal that you are in fact an evil cultural imperialist, which is worse’.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Talk about smothering an issue in verbiage.

    You just want to immobilize this person and say “cutting little girls’ clits off: good or bad?” Preferably while whacking her/him with a copy of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

    In fact, it’s probably worth quoting:

    “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

    ‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’

    The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.”

  3. quixote says

    Erm, I’m not sure if any of this is news to anyone here, but just in case there are people reading who don’t know the facts of female anatomy, I’d like to add some information about that. (I’ve been a college prof biologist for too many years, so please forgive the here’s-your-textbook tone.)

    1) Male circumscision cuts off the foreskin, which changes the mucous membrane covering the glans (the head of the penis) into a drier, less sensitive, more skin-like tissue. Imagine sitting in a dentist’s chair with one of those horrible air sucker things, except it’s permanent. The inside of your mouth dries out forever.

    Female circumscision is possible, i.e. the homologous foreskin can be removed from the clitoris. The clitoris is homologous to the glans (meaning it’s the same structure in a different shape), with the big difference that the same number of nerves are packed into a much smaller area. Densely innervated tissue is vastly more sensitive. Removing the protective skin around the clitoris is more like removing eyelids and exposing the cornea than like exposing the inside of the mouth.

    2) Traditional FGM removes the whole clitoris and the inner labia, and then sews the outer labia together, leaving an opening for urine and menstrual blood. (Yes, this hugely increases the number of urinary tract and genital infections.) The equivalent operation in a man would remove the head of the penis and the skin around the rest of it (which is equivalent to the inner labia). Then the scrotal skin, which is equivalent to the outer labia, would be sliced and sewed to patch up what remains.

    I somehow doubt anyone would call the latter “circumscision.”

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