My current dead-tree companion is Amalendu Misra’s new book The Landscape of Silence: Sexual Violence Against Men in War. it is a fine, scholarly work that documents the gruesome extent of sexual violation of men and boys through history, but mostly in current and recent conflicts, from the Congo and the Balkans to Latin America and Abu Ghraib. More importantly Misra, a senior policics lecturer at the University of Lancaster, attempts to contextualise, theorise and (as is the current academic fashion) ‘problematise’ the phenomenon.
A key question in this area is why warring parties so often resort to sexualised torture, abuse and mutilation when objectively speaking, it would be much more quick and simple to put a bullet in the head of their victim? One central answer to that question, Misra suggests, is Foucault’s concept of biopower.
Biopower is power over life, and particularly sexuality. If individual autonomy over our decisions in love, sex and procreation is close to the pinnacle of freedom, the exercise of biopower by nation states or dominant cultures rips away control of our own bodies and situates it elsewhere, at the whim or mercy of the dominant power.
By and large, sexual war crimes are not committed by rogue soldiers, crazed with lust and violence, but they are organised, institutionalised and cynically functional. They serve a purpose, and that purpose is to subject, humiliate and ultimately pacify the enemy and the conquered. This is why such crimes are so often committed publicly in front of audiences or staged theatrically, as with the grotesque vaudeville of Abu Ghraib.
This is not entirely untrodden turf. Many feminist theorists have made similar arguments about rape and sexual assault. The classic quote from Brownmiller’s Against Our Will said “rape is a crime not of lust, but of violence and power.” I often see that quoted with the last two words missing which is a pity, because they are the most important, in my view. Rape is primarily a crime of power. Promoting that to a crime of biopower, in the Foucauldian sense, requires only that one accepts there is a prevailing oppressive culture shaping the behaviour and beliefs of individuals within it, such as patriarchy. I’ll leave that one hanging for now.
The concept of biopower was pushed to the front of my mind by another, very different story this morning. Last week in Uganda, according to local reports, 25 boys aged between 11 and 15 were taken from school and circumcised without consent, their own or that of their parents. Days later, most of the boys were still off school with the pain, bleeding and (one might reasonably presume) abject terror and trauma.
Now the details of this story are still hazy and confused. The NGO responsible for the operations, apparently conducted on grounds of HIV/Aids prevention, are claiming on Twitter to have obtained consent forms from the parents, while the parents insist they did not and would not have consented. However it is no suprise that this is happening in Uganda, where tribal cultures which eschew circumcision are facing immense pressures to comply with circumcision drives. Last year one MP offered a reward of sh500,000 [£115] to anyone informing on any Mugisu man who was trying to avoid being circumcised. Those words were spoken just weeks after the horrific incident in neighbouring Kenya in which a mob abducted 12 men from non-practising tribes and forcibly circumcised them in the street.
These horrific incidents are replicated annually across sub-Saharan Africa, and while there may appear to be scant similarity to routine circumcisions conducted in (usually though not invariably) sanitary conditions in the developed world, there is one important similarity. All cultures – religious or secular – that practise routine genital mutilation are doing so for one reason and one reason alone, biopower.
There are other explanations offered in different quarters, from hygiene and health to habit or aesthetics, but all of them are obviously tacked on rationalisations for a practise that long predates their invention. When a culture mutilates the genitals of its infants or youth, it asserts ownership of their autonomy as surely as a branding scar. If we can do this to your most deeply intimate and delicate centre, it seems to say, then nothing about your body, your self, your humanity is inviolable to us.
Undoubtedly many (most) members of cultures and religions which practice male or female genital mutilation are proud to belong in this way. They consider themselves enriched by membership of their communities and submission to ritual and tradition. I understand and respect this. I cannot respect inflicting such subjection to those who are unwilling or unable to consent of their own free will.