Thanks to Courtney at Feministing for drawing my attention to this article by Michelle Goldberg on FGM. I won’t recap too much because I think you ought to read it yourselves; suffice it to say that the article is an attempt to give the pro-FGM movement some credit. To wit:
Ahmadu [a Western-educated PhD holder on the pro-FGM side] sees herself as speaking for African women who value female genital cutting but are shut out of the rarified realms of international civil society. “The anti-FGM activists have access to the media, and they have enormous resources, so they’re able to influence the media in such a way that most of the women who support the practice cannot,” she told me later that evening. “Even if they did, a lot of them are illiterate, so they can’t even speak the necessary language, and they cannot respond to charges of backwardness and barbarity.”
… even when it’s just, the project of trying to change other cultures is complicated, bound to elicit backlashes and cries of imperialism.
This is, of course, the fundamental problem of post-colonial attempts to articulate a theory of universal justice, for women or for anyone else. At what point is this refrain of “we know what’s good for you” the same one that the English used to use as they caned their indigenous servants? I went to school with a number of aspiring international civil servants, so to speak, and listened to their passionate speeches in classes with skepticism too. It’s not that I disagreed fundamentally with the result they sought – a more just society – but rather that the zeal with which they pursued it led it to look like self-promotion, not selflessness. The point at which we all start drowning out African women who want to talk about what FGM means to them is the point I get off the “Justice” international tour bus.
See, I make fun of cultural relativism all the time, but the premise of my ridicule is the lazy way in which people toss it around, not the fundamental idea that culture should and can be given weight. Out in the world, culture can be the 200-pound backpack you carry around, and it’ll make you do things you never thought you would. Perhaps this comes from having grown up in suburban Ottawa, Ontario, which for better or for worse is still the most culturally diverse and simultaneously open place I have ever lived. I have friends and acquaintances from childhood who are in arranged marriages (mostly Muslim but there is a Hindu or two in there too), who wore the hijab from puberty on and were forced to defend it to white friends, constantly, who believed they had to marry someone of their ethnicity. None of these life choices are ones that sit well with me as a feminist – but I know, too, that describing them as “choices” doesn’t much reflect the lived experiences of these people. I know that they had complicated relationships with the lifestyles they felt they nonetheless “had” to lead.
The only proper basis to articulate an objection to FGM, it seems to me, has to recognize that “choices” which are obvious to you and me are only visible to us because we live in a space that sheds light on them (but obscures other to us). Which isn’t to say that we have a superior perspective, exactly, but it is to say that it is one that recognizes that cultural limits are real and felt in most people’s lives. I get annoyed with the men (and they are inevitably men) who wander into discussions on FGM to derail them with a discussion about male circumcision, of course, mostly because they are articulating this only to highlight what they see as feminist hypocrisy for not caring about men and more particularly, their penises. But I can respect it on the basis that it underlines the way in which every culture bestows blinkers on its participants – I know a lot of feminists who think male circumcision “ain’t that bad,” and none of them have medical degrees. I think we can all benefit, in these discussions, from doing a lot more listening and a lot less yelling.
But at the same time as I have all of these reservations about the way the FGM debate gets framed – and the way it dismisses some women, because let’s face it, I don’t like dismissing women – I still would like to eradicate the practice. I would like to eradicate it because there are hundreds upon thousands of African women who will testify to its having had a detrimental effect on their lives. I would like to eradicate it because medical professionals, who do nothing but respond to the actual, physical, biological reality of all of this, can tell you it has long term effects up to and including, as listed in the article, “minor, chronic vaginal infections to inability to penetrate, to have intercourse, to infertility, to very painful intercourse, to inability to deliver a baby.” I would like to eradicate it because I want the end of women being viewed as essentially sexual objects. I have no romantic naturalist views of female bodies, but I do have concerns about their being socially constructed as things in need of fixing in order to enhance femininity.*
But most of all? I want it eradicated in a lasting way. I want it to be the result of widespread cultural agreement. I don’t want FGM to be a backdoor practice. I want it to be over. I want it to be done. And in order to do that, I can’t run around ripping knives out of people’s hands. I just have to change their minds. And I’m never going to do that so long as I keep pretending that culture doesn’t matter.
* Just to distinguish – some trans people may feel their bodies are in need of “fixing,” and I don’t mean to lump them in here. But FGM may be distinguished from trans people trying to make their bodies ever “more feminine” quite easily, it seems to be.