Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Unkindest Cut of All

Over on his blog, John Tierney points to a debate about the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) - whether it is a barbaric, repressive practice that deserves to be outlawed, or a valid cultural rite that outside commentators do not understand and therefore should not judge. Speaking in support of the practice, Dr. Ahmadu (whom the American Anthropological Association describes as a representative of "the critical 'third wave' or multicultural feminist perspective") is quoted by Tierney as saying:

"It is difficult for me — considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own — to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to — they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers."

Personally, I find the idea of FGC horrifying, and find it hard to believe that anyone would want to undergo it voluntarily. I also find it hard to understand how mutilating each other can be a way for women to legitimate their authority and "relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society" (the phrase 'cutting of your nose to spite your face' comes to mind – only these aren't noses). But that, of course, is precisely Dr. Ahmadu's point – I don't understand it because I come from an outside culture, and therefore I shouldn't judge.

The question we need to ask, I think, is who gets to decide and define what 'culture' is. If we really believe that the local culture is representative of the desires and aspirations of all its subjects, then the supporters of FGC have a point, no matter how noxious this may seem to us as outsiders. But we know (or at least have strong reason to suspect) that culture is nowhere near so representative. Instead, it is invariably a way of legitimizing existing hierarchies of power and privilege – defined by those in power and designed to serve their interests. Arguments for cultural legitimacy are therefore inseparable, in the feminist context, from arguments for patriarchy, precisely because traditional cultures are almost universally patriarchal. You have only to think of the people who style themselves champions / guardians of culture in India to see the truth of this.

Put another way, the problem is one of selection. If we are concerned about the way society, or a set of social practices, systematically oppresses a section of its members, we cannot rely on society's own representation of these practices, because it is precisely those we don't hear from - those who have no voice in society's self-definition - who we are most concerned about. It's not surprising, in some ways, that women anthropologists who have undergone FGC turn out to be in favor of it and underwent it voluntarily. Women who weren't in favor of it and were forced into it anyway are hardly likely to end up as anthropologists. The AAA quote describes FGC supporters as the 'muted group', but I think there's a constituency here with even less say in the debate – those who are being forced into FGC against their will – and it's their concerns, and only their concerns, that should matter. Ahmadu's own statement hardly inspires much confidence: she offers "that the bulk of Kono women who uphold this ritual do so because they want to" based on no evidence greater than what she's seen at the ceremonies she's personally attended. That's hardly conclusive research.

Does this mean that cultural imperialism is inevitable? Not quite. Notice that it's only 'imperialism' if we attack cultural standards in some parts of the world while not questioning those in others. Those who criticize the Western practices of vaginal rejuvenation and cosmetic surgery have a point, and we should certainly recognize that these practices represent attitudes as backward as those that lead women to consider FGC empowering.

But why, you may ask, should women not have the right to undergo FGC if they want to? After all, it's their body, so it should be their choice. To argue that their desire to have the procedure is false or misguided in some way - that they have been somehow 'brainwashed' into believing that it's what they want - is to fall into the very trap of cultural imperialism that Ahmadu and others are pointing to. So why not leave it up to the women in question?

What it comes down to, I think, is informed consent. To the extent that the person undergoing the procedure is genuinely doing so of her own free will, having understood the implications of that decision, then Ahmadu and others are right – she should have the right to do so. Notice, however, that this rules out all cases of FGC in children – since the inability of children to make responsible and informed decisions is a central tenet of any and all legal systems. So FGC in girls under 18 should clearly be outlawed.

That leaves the issue of FGC in adult women. There the question of whether or not FGC should be outlawed comes down to a judgment on the extent to which women 'choosing' to undergo FGC truly have the economic / social freedom to accept or reject the procedure, as well as the extent to which information about the procedure is available to them (both in terms of the medical consequences, as well as the true legitimacy of the practice – its not being enshrined in the Koran, for instance). If we believe that a significant number of women are subject to misinformation and coercion then we must balance the need to protect them against the possible dilution of traditional 'culture'.

For me, personally, the possibility of such cruel victimization supersedes any and all concerns about preservation of 'culture', but admittedly, that's a value judgment. What's important to recognize however, is that arguments in favor of FGC as a 'cultural phenomena' achieve cultural preservation at the cost of preserving patriarchal power and leaving a potentially large but silent population of women exposed to continued victimization. That's the trade-off supporters of FGC are arguing for.


Space Bar said...

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaade

(there's more to say, of course, than one cryptic link, but later).

A said...

I do so much agree with your reaction to the debate.

There are a number of accounts from women who have undergone the procedure and are very firmly against the practice, but they never seem to be mentioned at the same time as a dissenter such as Dr. Ahmadu. Examples are: Aminata, Salimata Badji-Knight, and Waris Dirie. There are many more.

The one I find most compelling though is Papillon, because her ongoing account of reconstructive surgery, from the decision to have it through to her post-operative recovery, relates all the mental and physical difficulties she has had to endure. It is her personal account and hasn't been in any way changed by a journalist or anyone who may put their particular spin on it.

Another matter that seems to have been largely ignored are the medical complications that can occur at the time or at a later stage. They are real and often horrific, and in Africa there often aren't the necessary hospital facilities to help in time.

apu said...

excellent piece. political correctness can often lead people to think that we must never criticize "another" culture. But as you rightly pointed out, which culture is endorsed by all its people, with full knowledge?

amit varma said...

To quote Donald Symons:

"If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ‘culture’, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers’, including feminists."

sowmya rao said...

Merely as an observation...

1) Why should the conception of any legal system, which lets 18 be the age of informed consent be used in relation to those who practice FGC?

Isn't this generalisation itself an indication, perhaps of the lack of... acceptance?

Why 18? Would you apply the same to something like male circumcision?
(again, I understand the essential difference, but as as an academic question)

You see, personal views aside, and as an academic debate, age limits vary according to the nature and kind of action.

Are you then advocating, that all body-altering for the sake of ritual procedures, ( ear-piercings, in India, for example) not be allowed until 18?

I'm reiterating that FGC is perhaps more shocking and abhorring, but still, because you brought up the issue of informed consent above 18, I think its necessary to point out, that all is not rosy, with that as well.

Falstaff said...

sb: You know, I missed that one when it came out. Netflix, here I come.

a: Thanks, and thanks for the links.

apu: Yes, exactly.

amit: Yes, strange isn't it.

sowmya: Two things. First I use 18 because it seems to be the generally accepted age beyond which one is considered an adult. But I'm perfectly okay with ages older or younger - with say, 16 or 21, if that's what society thinks is the right age beyond which an individual can be considered responsible for his / her actions. Obviously, I don't think you can go much below 16.

Second, yes, as an academic question, I would say it would be valid to ban circumcision, body piercing, etc. below 18 as well. The difference, obviously, is that there seems to be neither the evidence of harmful health outcomes nor any real sense of coercion or complaint among those who've undergone the procedure, so there doesn't seem to be a case for the law to intervene. If there were reason to believe that even some sub-set of women were being forced into piercing their ears and were suffering adverse health outcomes as a result, then yes, I'd support banning those procedures as well.