Thursday, February 14, 2008


Plain(s) Feminist has a large post on how best to respond to Female Genital....well, a big part of the post is on what we should call it. Mutilation? Excision? Cutting? Circumcision? Surgery?

Thus far, I have not been hesitant to call it Female Genital Mutilation. The term seems to capture the brutality and barbarism of the procedure (and I want to here register my disagreement with the author that such terms can't be employed when the subject is African practices without being "imperialist". For that matter, there is a lot of things in the post I think are a bit off). Stepping back the rhetoric seems often like it is an excuse.

But Plains Feminist makes one very compelling counterargument: the women who undergo this procedure -- including many who oppose it -- don't use the term "mutilation." More importantly, they don't like it when we say they're "mutilated." They don't see themselves as mutilated. That doesn't mean they don't oppose the violation. They just don't want their experience named for them in terms they don't themselves, recognize. And that seems like a legitimate grievance.

Now, I don't have any empirical backing as to whether PF's claim here is true. I suspect some women whom have experienced it would claim that it is mutilation. And furthermore (despite what conservative politicians would have you believe) nobody likes to cast themselves in the role of the victim, so people are always going to be resistant to language that fully expresses the degree of violation foisted upon them. So this "name your own oppression" thing, while tempting, may not ultimately be the way to go. And provisionally, I'm sticking with FGM.

But it was a intriguing argument, and I wanted to throw it out there for comment.

Via Alas, a Blog.


PG said...

I think it's barbaric that suttee was practiced in some parts in India, before the British forced the end of expecting widows to throw themselves on their dead husbands' funeral pyres. Was it imperialist for the British to do so? Absolutely. They completely disregarded what was going to happen to these women once societies that had no place for them were forced to retain them. Watch the movie "Water" for a reasonable depiction of the results of forcing such a big change while doing nothing to accommodate it.

But I still can say it was a barbaric practice without being racist or imperialist in saying so. What is imperialist is trying to do a surgical (so to speak) intervention without realizing how far reaching the effects may be. For example, are girls who do not receive this procedure deemed wholly unmarriable, made outcasts, etc? If so, you're not doing them much of a favor to ban the practice without finding a new place for them. On the other hand, if this is genuinely merely a preference and women with intact genitalia are still educable, employable and to some extent even marriable (some guys prefer 'em cut, other guys actually like having brides who don't suffer agonizing pain with intercourse), then I think we should do as much as reasonably possible to end the practice immediately.

And it comes off as just silly to claim that one is really worried about the bigger problems of rape and HIV instead of FGM, considering that having a surgery that means you are much more likely to have an open genital wound when you have sex, is going to make rape even more painful and make HIV transmission that much more certain.

As for the specific terms used, I'm with WHO/UNFPA that it's appropriate to use "female genital cutting" within the communities that engage in the practice, but FGM is the appropriate term in other fora in order to impress upon hearers how grave the procedure is. That someone might not like to think of herself *as* mutilated doesn't mean that what was done to her wasn't a mutilation. A Columbia student last year was horribly brutalized and nearly murdered by an attacker. This criminal *mutilated* her -- he slit her eyelids. It's not a judgment against her that I say he did this; it's an indictment (almost literally) of him.

Cycle Cyril said...

As a non multiculturalist and having written on this subject previously it should not a surprise I consider that Female Genital Mutilation is simply wrong.

With regards to Plains Fem counterargument hasn't she heard of the term denial?

In the cultures that do practice FGM there is a certain fatalism, an inevitability about it. (On a side note such cultures, I am willing to bet, are steeped with fatalism.) It can, in fact, be welcomed as a rite of passage. But this does not make it right, no more than suttee or human sacrifices or cutting the alternate hand and foot off of a thief as dictated by the Quran.