In certain parts of Africa, a number of horrifying customs are still prevalent. One such practice is that of female genital mutilation (FGM), done to ensure women cannot experience sexual pleasure. Another is breast ironing, essentially nothing but torture, to ensure breasts don’t grow and men don’t feel sexual attraction for her. The fact that such customs are still practiced in Africa is technically not new information. In fact, it is fairly common for African immigrants and people of African descent in Europe and America to make their girls undergo female genital mutilation too. However, what is new is that even in the United Kingdom, right this very moment, there are at least twelve girls who are undergoing absolute torture in the name of ‘breast ironing’. London, Yorkshire, Essex, West Midlands – news has trickled in from many such places that there have been instances of hot stones being rubbed on girls’ breasts to singe the cells and stunt their natural growth. This painful torture is brought down upon these girls every week, or at least once every fortnight. A women’s rights organisation from the United Kingdom has issued a statement that although the cases of these twelve girls are relatively recent, if a proper survey was to be conducted one would discover that at least a thousand girls of African descent have gone through this torture till date.
Women’s bodies are tortured and mutilated only to make sure men cannot sexually abuse them. With breast ironing, the practice inhibits the natural growth of breasts, they never look like how they are meant to. The damage for the girl in question is both physical and psychological. Besides, these tortures are carried out by their own mothers and grandmothers, women who truly believe that these practices will protect their girls from falling prey to rapists and such people. The question that remains, however, is this – in order to prevent rape or sexual violence committed against a woman why does society not take any steps to educate men and make them aware? Why is it that women are the ones who have to undergo a series of strange, unnatural and humiliating experiences, ironically just to ensure their own safety? Men will grope, they will stare, they will pounce, they will harass and rape – women have to be wary of myriad such anxieties right from their childhood. So the moment they hit puberty their well-wishers shower and smother them with advice after advice – cover yourself, cover your breasts, cover your hair, your thighs and legs! Customs have to be followed out of fear of male violence. The fact that men are the predators and women are the prey – this logic is drilled into women even before they reach adolescence. It is indeed quite strange that those people to who young girls are the closest to in society are also their worst enemies – their rapists, their abusers, their murderers. Is such a society of any use to humanity? If this was the case with men, if they had to be always on edge that their bodies were going to be violated, that their lack of breasts was going to be a point of abuse, that their genitalia was going to be crushed and brutalised, then such a social formation would surely not have worked for them. Why are their breasts not as big as women’s, why are their genitalia so weird, why do their testicles hang, why do they have mustaches and beards – what if men were to be attacked over these things by the very people they cohabit with, the ones they trust the most? Surely, they would have termed such a society uninhabitable! Men must similarly understand the condition of women. They must understand that the society they have built up is equally uninhabitable for women.
I was born a woman. Why should I have to be ashamed or afraid of my own body? Why should the fear of a man force me to endure my breasts being flattened, have my genitals mutilated, often sewed shut to prevent me from experiencing sexual pleasure till a husband can literally cut me open and have me for the first time! Why should I have to suffer my entire life because I was born with the body of a woman! Don’t we have to pay for being women all our lives anyway? Why do you have hair on your body? Hide it! Cover your face! And why do you have breasts? Cover your breasts! And why hips! Cover it, and the butt too! Why do you have a vagina? Keep it secure! Thighs! Feet! Cover them as well! From the root of her hair to the tip of her toe, every part of a woman’s body has been put under embargo by the patriarchal society that surrounds us.
Breast ironing involves hot stones being rubbed on a pubescent girl’s breasts to arrest their rapid growth. Let more people become aware that such a thing exists, that breasts are things that can be ironed too! Despite the number of rapes men commit, their genitalia never face being melted with a hot iron as punishment. But despite not having done anything wrong with their breasts, women force women to undergo breast ironing only to prevent men from being swayed into committing a crime at the sight of them. None of this is for the sake of women, it’s all of the sake of the men. The sole objective behind practices like breast ironing and female genital mutilation is the drive to make sure that if a girl manages to escape rape or harassment when she is young, then the man who gets to marry her is promised someone chaste, a virgin body that he can be the sole consumer of. The primary function of women’s bodies is to provide sexual pleasure to men. They must keep their bodies pure to be offered up to the opposite sex. Consequently, the most primitive rituals connected with preserving the chastity of a woman are still so very prevalent everywhere, definitely in Africa, and in Asia as well. Many Africans and Asians too, no matter which end of the earth they move to and settle in, carry their customs there with them irrespective of how inhumane some of those rites might be.
Misogyny is now travelling from one end of the world to the other; it is being globalised. Practices from many backward cultures are seeping into many progressive and so-called civilised societies. On the other hand, discourses on human rights, women’s equal rights, democracy and the freedom of expression, all hallmarks of a civilised social system, are not making the reverse journey and finding their way into repressive and regressive societies. What people claim as democracy is not democracy at all, while most regular people are not even made aware of things like human rights and gender equality. When someone tries to rectify these oversights, they are invariably trapped in some circuitous legal mess and their freedom to express their opinions is taken from them. Such is the picture in much of the east. The civilised societies of the west, which men and women have built out of years of struggle over human rights and women’s rights, now face a severe crisis when practices like female genital mutilation and breast ironing find their way there, or when their social institutions find themselves stumped by the rise of things like burqas and niqabs.
Many women of the west have found their life-partners in many men who have immigrated there from other cultures. When you live in one society it’s expected that people will meet, that they will fall in love. Many women from the west have come into contact with men from the east and taken to the hijab, the burqa etc. Who can tell that one day they will not lose every last bit of reason and logic and end up advocating for terribly misogynist customs like breast ironing and genital mutilation as well! As it is the left has long been magnanimous in its proclamations that customs of all communities have to be respected, even the hijab and the burqa and suchlike. Perhaps even the ritual of genital mutilation too! Will we never accept the fact that not all cultural customs deserve to be accorded the same respect? One culture encourages music and dancing, the other propagates breast ironing – do they both deserve the same respect? Just because a handful of misogynous people continue to sustain and preserve patriarchal and misogynous customs does not make it necessary for us to adhere to them. Rather we must rise up in protest to ensure such rites are prohibited for good. We must not forget that in most communities the majority of traditions and customs are inherently laced with misogyny. In order to truly become civilised we must acknowledge the importance of equal rights of women in society. In order to truly become civilised we have no recourse other than completely delegitimising any and every misogynous tradition that we see around us.