Female Genital Circumcision revisited

A few weeks ago, Dark Daughta over at One Tenacious Baby Mama asked me for a contribution to her new weekly series entitled Reloaded, which happens every Sunday and features old posts that are worth posting and reading a second time (oldies but goodies, as she calls them). She wanted posts that I was particularly proud of, “something that really kicks ass analytically, politically” etc., and I quickly discovered when I was combing through my old posts that I don’t really have much in the analytical/ political/ highly opinionated/ kick-ass vein. It seems that my blogging style overall tends to be of the objective-news-reporting variety, or at best the highly-researched highly-factual variety; in other words, the variety that is so factual and evidence-based that no one can really argue or disagree with what you’re saying; in other words, the risk-free variety. Which is good to know about yourself, I guess, because it then prompts a bunch of really good questions, like: WHY AREN’T YOU TAKING MORE RISKS? Why aren’t there more highly opinionated, highly political, highly analytical, highly kick-ass posts on your blog? What are you scared of? Pissing someone off? Causing controversy? But really…is there any other point to a blog than opinion? If all we’re after is the news, we’ll read newpapers and news sources, thank you very much. Blogs are supposed to comment on things. So, good to know. Note to self: enough with the reporting on things. Get commenting instead. Go out on that limb. It’s about time, don’t you think?

Anyway, I sent Dark Daughta a few posts. One on the Keeper (still one of my proudest feminist and environmentalist statements), one on the UK’s new birth agenda (Maternity Matters), and two on female circumcision (Circumcision or Mutiliation? and Further Thoughts on FGM).

I was curious to see what Dark Daughta would think of them. Leave it to Dark Daughta to not only think about them, but to write an explosive 1000 word treatise as well. She picked my posts on female circumcision, of course, and then ran with them. Ran is a polite word for what she did. More like smacked the posts upside down, flipped them inside out, and then shook all of the loose change out of their pockets. She took everything I had thought after my first encounter with a circumcised woman, and all of the conclusions I had come to at that time (and this had involved a lot of thinking back then, trust me), and managed to turn all of those thoughts, all of those culminations of thought, absolutely, irrevocably, upside down. In the space of just one post. Leave it to Dark Daughta to challenge the hell out of you.

Just a few highlights, here:

    Dear Student Midwife:I’m glad that you’re asking yourself questions about how best to proceed. …Maybe examining the culturally based and biased and ofttimes downright racist, response of many privileged feminists who were not born into cultures where genital circumcision is practiced might offer some much needed space inside which there might be less emotionally and politically charged room for a true examination of the issues.There is a power relation here. Are parents in western societies hunted down and denied access to safe male circumcision? Why is the WHO advocating for this procedure when there is a fast growing segment of the male population that is crying out against it?

    When male circumcision of babies who can’t make the choice for themselves is enshrined as a part of at least major world religion, are health care practitioners strategizing about how best to stigmatize grown men who present penises that are mutilated? Are feminists of conscience refusing to sleep with men who are circumcized? Are we looking on them with pity and defining them as mutilated? Are we strategizing about how best to divest them of custodianship of their sons so that we can keep them safe from circumcision? Is anyone noticing that the actual side effects of male circumcision…besides those that go horribly wrong…are minimal because these surgeries are done by skilled practitioners in sterile settings?

    I don’t agree with either kind of circumcision. But I can’t fail to notice that one is filled with shame and stigma heaped on those who experience it, while the other is thought of as a throwback that should be done away with but is still tolerated and executed in hospitals.

    Being useful is definitely not going to include making any circumcized wimmin feel uncomfortable and on the spot about the decisions of their parents. So, labeling a woman’s cuts “mutilations” without checking to see what if anything she says about her own genitalia will go a long way to making a practitioner seem like a judge and not as someone a woman can potentially confide in or turn to.

    Because really, the shock and the unfamiliarity with the view below is ours, not theirs. If we’re gonna pay lipservice to accepting the anatomy of the vulva, we’re going to need to work at really understanding and respecting that wimmin come in all sorts of configurations for all sorts of reasons.

    This “who is civilized” and “who is babaric and uncivilized” binary split that serves the west/the north, giving our cultures a much needed oppressive ego boost needs to GO!

Yowsa. And those are just the highlights. I’d highly reccommend that you go and read the rest of the post, because she writes with so much passion and conviction, and has this incredible way of phrasing things in ways that I would never, ever think of.

Now, how do you respond to a post like that? I didn’t even know where to start. First I had to do a lot more thinking on the subject, which I’ve been doing for the past several days and nights. I wrote an e-mail response to her, which she published in last Sunday’s Reloaded V which started to flesh out some of my thoughts. And now I find myself here again, having done yet another 180 on the subject (my apologies for repeating some parts of my e-mail, but this is pretty much where my thinking is at right now).

I think Dark Daughta is right on a lot of counts. There is indeed an inherent racism/ oppression in a viewpoint which has decided to call one form of ritual cutting “mutilation” while at the same time leting so many other types of cutting fall under the category of “circumcision” or some other word, and therefore under the umbrella of cultural acceptability (male circumcision, labioplasty, clitoral hood piercing, episiotomy etc.). I can see how that is indeed our culture (and by that I mean western culture) taking its own viewpoint on what constitutes a healthy vulva and setting it forth as “right” and “correct” and that anyone else who does anything different to their vulva (especially something brutal or harmful and something we as a culture don’t fully understand) is therefore wrong and backwards and oppressed and brutalized by their own culture…and that this “mutilation” is therefore a form of violence against women. This viewpoint then lays the groundwork for our invasion of their culture; in other words, this viewpoint basically gives us permission to enter their culture and tell them what’s right and wrong, and that they have to stop this cultural practice. And many huge, big name organizations like UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the US Dept. of State, Amnesty International, USAID etc. etc. have all issued policies and statements which call for an end to this practice, and have programs or policies in place which exist to help educate and save these women from their fate.

Calling something “mutilation” implies, by its very nature, that those who are “mutilated” need to be saved. That makes sense, and I see that now, but I had never before thought of it in those terms. So further thinking on this is prompting me to start to refer to this ritual as “circumcision” again rather than “mutilation”. I do appreciate that my view of what constitutes a healthy vulva is certainly not everyone’s view, and who am I (or who are we?) to decide what is or is not the right kind of vulva? Why is labioplasty or clitoral hood piercing okay, while female circumcision is not? And what would happen if circumcision was done well, by medically-trained people using sterile instruments, sharp instruments, making clean, hygienic cuts? So many of the problems inherent in this practice comes from the scarring and infection which is secondary to the cuts themselves. If there was no scarring, if there was no infection, would the damage be less? As Dark Daughta pointed out, female sexuality stems from a lot more than the tiny nub of flesh which is the clitoris. If the clitoris is removed, but in a clean and precise manner, using sharp, sterilized instruments (rather than a rusty tin can or a piece of glass etc.), would women be able to retain a higher level of sexual functioning? I never, ever would have thought that an underground feminist movement to provide clean, hygienic, medically-trained female circumcisions is not that far off from what feminists were doing in the 70s with their underground abortion clinics to provide clean, hygienic, medically-trained abortions, but yeah, I do see the similarity.

I wrote in a comment on my first post that “I undrstand that there are a lot of cultural and personal reasons involved in choosing [male] circumcision, and I don’t feel like it’s my place to say.” So if I can so graciously back out of the debate when it comes to males, why can’t I do the same with females? To say that these girls aren’t educated about the pros and cons of the procedure, that they’re forced into it by their parents and their culture at a young and vulnerable age (usually at puberty), and that they therefore aren’t making informed consent doesn’t hold up, either, because the same can be said of male circumcision. Baby boys are absolutely, positively NOT making an informed decision when it comes to having their penises cut or not. It’s a decision that their parents are making for them for many different reasons, just as it’s a decision that the culture/ parents are making for the girls who are receiving female circumcision. And I ask again: what right do I have to step in to this decision-making process and tell someone that they’re wrong, or that this decision is wrong? I have no right whatsoever.

Now, before someone comes along and rips into me, let me just make this very very clear: I am not advocating female circumcision, nor am I advocating male circumcision. I am not condoning either practice, nor am I saying that they’re both fine and acceptable, and that they should continue unhindered. All I am saying is that it’s not my place to judge these practices, and it’s not my place to make these decisions. Since I’m not a member of a culture that practices female circumcision, the rich cultural context with which this practice resides is lost on me. The shame or humiliation someone of that culture might feel by not being circumcized and therefore not being a full participant of their culture is something I’m never going to be able to empathize with. And I am questioning whether it is right for our culture (Western culture) to go on huge “Stop Violence Against Women” campaigns in cultures which are not ours, in contexts which we don’t fully understand (and probably can never fully understand).

I do think that these practices need to stop. But I don’t think that the impetus for changing this is going to come from us (from the West), and I don’t think it should. If it’s going to change, it needs to come from within; from women and advocates who are of these cultures, who understand the context, who can see the patriarchy at work in such acts, and who want to rise up against it. And when they do, we as Westerners can and should support them with all of the resources our rich, privileged cultures afford us.

I guess the only sticking point I still have at this point is the following: if you’re a member of a culture, and if it’s all you know, and if you’re never exposed to anything else, you will never have the objectivity necessary to ever question or rise up against these practices that you have seen and been a part of since birth? And maybe that is where an organization can step in and offer education to members of these cultures; ideally, the education should come from members of the culture themselves. I think the folks over at RAINBO are on the right track, and if we as Westerners want to support the education of women (and therefore indirectly the hope that eventually these practices might stop), we can do this by supporting organizations like this.

As far as being a practitioner, the take-home lesson here is once again very simple, and very difficult to fully learn: LISTEN TO WOMEN, and DON’T JUDGE. How is it that I can see this so clearly on issues like abortion, where I absolutely, 100% feel that it is not my place to say, and that since I’m not carrying her baby or walking in her shoes, I have no right to judge at all….and yet issues like female circumcision still bring about huge, heaping amounts of judgement? As a white woman from a privileged background, I’ve been trying for awhile to own my privilege, and see the way that this affects my point of view on everything. This is a difficult, never-ending task, and while I feel that I’ve managed to own this on several more obvious issues, this is an issue I hadn’t even picked up on. I guess the ultimate, life-long goal for every evolving human soul is to continue to move towards a state of less and less judgement. To become as close to non-judgemental as you can possibly be. I say possibly, and “close to” because I think being non-judgemental is an impossible goal. Our psyche, our sense of self, our identities, our culture, our experiences and background and upbringing, everything we use to know ourselves as who we are–all of this is based on judgements which we have formed through living, judgements which we have consciously or unconsciously absorbed, and I think it’s impossible to seperate yourself from them. I am not using this as an excuse. Moving towards a more non-judgemental state requires very close and painful examination of those life experiences and background and upbringing and culture. It requires seeing the ways that your life experiences and culture has potentially prejudiced you, seeing the ways you are privileged, seeing the ways that power affects your identity–power you have, or don’t have, or have in some areas but not others. It requires seeing where you come from, seeing the way that this has formed your world view, and then seeing the way that this outlook affects how you see others. That’s a huge part of becoming less judgemental.

The LISTEN TO WOMEN and DON’T JUDGE take-home message means that all future encounters with women who have been circumcized will involve calling it circumcision, following her cues, and letting her talk or not talk about it, as she desires.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this subject at this moment in time. Granted, I will continue to think, and I’m sure my thoughts will continue to evolve. I’d be really interested to hear what others think about this as well. It is a very sticky subject, and it’s not about to get any more clear any time soon.

This entry was posted in Choice, Education, Feminism, Myth, Folklore and Ritual, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Violence Against Women. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

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