Yesterday some of my classmates gave a presentation about female genital cutting (though the terminology they used, and which is probably more familiar to people, is “female genital mutilation” – a difference which I’ll address later on). It’s an important, worthwhile issue, and I’m glad our class is addressing it.
Still, every time the topic comes up in conversation I cringe inwardly.
I didn’t always have this reaction. An explanation of why I do now lies in this quote by Sherene Razack, from her (fantastic) book Looking White People in the Eye:
[I]n many legal texts, both feminist and non-feminist scholars have actively participated in reproducing the binary of the civilized and liberated Western woman and her oppressed Third World sister […] One has only to think of the energy so many scholars and legal activists have poured into the legal proscription of FGM in North America (in comparison with the energy directed to antiracist strategies) to recognize a preoccupation with scripts of cultural inferiority and an affirmation of white female superiority. (6)
The binary that Razack describes is not limited to discussions of FGC, of course; but it is this tendency to divide “First World” and “Third World” women that causes my discomfort when such discussions arise among Western feminists.
This binary is inaccurate and misleading. There is no sharp division between us civilized, non-sexist Westerners and those barbaric, woman-hating brown people over there. The cultural beliefs and gender divisions that foster FGC in certain African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries are not so different from the ones in non-FGC countries, including the U.S. and Europe. I touched on this topic for last year’s Blog Against Heteronormativity day – policing and mutilating women’s bodies, even their sexual organs, is not an alien concept to the West. And yet, the similarities between the two practices – the spectrum of body modification that spans so-called “advanced” and “backwards” societies – is rarely touched upon. Instead, much of the energy in discussions about FGC center on the horrific things that those people do.
The results of such an imbalance in discussion are multiple, and troubling. As Razack points out, how much of that time could be spent on anti-racism? I don’t want to engage in “my activism is more worthwhile than your activism” hierarchies; I mean, rather, that excessive attention to FGC can actually harm other activism against racism. In other words, those who engage in Western condemnation of non-Western FGC (note the emphasis) do more than take time away from anti-racism, and can actually compound the problems of racism and imperialism by perpetuating the false civilized/uncivilized dichotomy.
This imbalance can also obscure the problems that Western women face, in terms of cosmetic surgery and related pressures, in a “mote in thy brother’s eye” kind of way. This is, of course, unhelpful for Western women’s goals. By relegating “Third World” countries to the “bad” group, it also alienates the women from those countries who could be valuable members of transnational feminist alliances. Condemning a woman’s country as primitive and ignorant and more-sexist-than-us is no way to build coalitions.
All these risks from Western discourse about FGC fueled my decision to use “female genital cutting” as opposed to “female genital mutilation.” It’s not that I believe the practice to not be mutilating, but rather, I don’t think it ought to be singled out as the mutilating practice, when there are so many (Western) practices that also fit the term. If it confuses people who are used to hearing “female genital mutilation,” then at least I get the opportunity to explain my reasons and bring their attention to the hidden racist/imperialist risks of the Western discourse.
“Female genital cutting” also connects the experiences of Western and non-Western women, because labiaplasty is included just as easily as infibulation. By doing so, I hope to highlight how both groups of women can succumb to pressures about their bodies, and how they both can be victimized into coerced surgeries. Western women are not totally liberated from patriarchy, and struggle against oppression just as non-Western women do. At the same time, Western women do not want to see themselves as passive victims – so by connecting these two groups of women, I want to draw attention to non-Western women as active agents, as well.
Recognizing the agency of women in societies that practice FGC means one, very significant thing: debunking the false dichotomy between paternalistically controlling FGC-practicing societies in order to end FGC, or leaving them alone and abandoning the women victimized by FGC. As I said in my earlier post on tradition, there is always the option to support the women who are helping themselves.
There is one other factor playing into Western discourse on FGC that I want to mention, and it’s the idea of “the gaze.” This is not exactly an official theoretical term, I think, but it’s a common idea in writings on racism and imperialism, as well as a central feature of Looking White People in the Eye. Writings about the gaze, or similar concepts, focus on who gets to look, to be the one who observes and judges. This is the party who has power to see, authority to make true judgments. As David Roediger says in the introduction to Black on White:
White writers have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color. White writing about whiteness is rarer, with discussions of what it means to be human standing in for considerations of how racial identity influences white lives. Writers of color, and most notably African-American writers, are cast as providing insight, often presumed to be highly subjective, of what it is like to be “a minority. Lost in this destructive shuffle is the fact that from folktales onward African Americans have been among the nation’s keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior. (4)
So white people have held authority over knowledge about people of color. On the other hand, people of color have not held authority over knowledge about white people. White people hold that authority – though they don’t often use it to record knowledge about themselves. Roediger continues:
What bell hooks describes as the fantastic white ability to imagine “that black people cannot see them” constitutes a white illusion at once durable, powerful, and fragile. It exists alongside a profound fear of actually being seen by people of color […] From the beatings of house slaves who knew too much to the lynchings of African Americans thought to look too long, [African Americans’] safety has often turned not just on being unseen, but also on being perceived as unseeing […] Discounting and suppressing the knowledge of whiteness held by people of color was not just a byproduct of white supremacy but an imperative of racial domination. (6)
To be powerful means to be the one who sees, not the one who is seen. I think this understanding of power fuels the Western treatment of FGC, which is so skewed towards viewing the Other (societies who practice FGC) and not being seen (for similar practices such as labiaplasty).
According to Razack, in April 1995 CNN “showed an FGM in progress, and did so throughout an entire day” (124). The fact that someone even considered that this was okay to do relies on certain ideas of who is the object of the gaze, and who the rightful gazer. One of these ideas was the objectification of women in general; our bodies are always to be gazed upon. Yet the treatment of the racial Other as an object was also necessary for the decision to broadcast such intimate images for sensationalist purposes. I can’t imagine the U.S. being comfortable with another country broadcasting, say, a labiaplasty in progress in order to show how “barbaric” we were.
So perhaps some of the inordinate amount of attention that Western feminists have centered around FGC draws from this need to be the gazer. We have a discomfort with being the object of the gaze, either by others or by ourselves.
This is not to say that Western feminists ought to ignore FGC, or never examine patriarchal tendencies in societies outside of our own. This is not to say that all examinations of FGC by Western feminists are innately imperialist. What I am saying is that we ought to be very careful of the judgments we make in the name of feminism, when that feminism can be used to obscure our own complicity in imperialism.
To return once again to Razack, she quotes from Isabelle Gunning to list some basic necessities for feminist analyses of international human rights: “1) seeing oneself in historical context; 2) seeing oneself as the “other” might see you; and 3) seeing the “other” within her own cultural context” (97). These steps do not give us a complete guide on how to avoid perpetuating imperialism through our feminism – but they’re a start.