It used to be that we - "we" being Western feminists - used the term FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). We did this because that's how we saw it. Only - surprise! - African* women don't like being told they have mutilated genitals. And, too, they didn't appreciate the Western imperialist approach that cast their societies as backward and evil, while Western feminists ignored the brutalities within our own cultures. (This is where some readers on the professional listserv said to themselves, "aha! She said there are brutalities within our cultures! She is equating FGM (they don't much care what language other people choose) with things like high heels and male circumcision!" More on this in a minute.)
African women have tended to use the term FGE to describe the practice. Other terms that are used in an attempt to work with African women as allies and to be respectful and culturally sensitive include FGS (Female Genital Surgery) and FGC (Female Genital Cutting). There are, indeed, many terms in use, and there are politics around which terms one uses. One may be completely opposed to the practice and call it "cirucmcision," for example, which is a word that many Western feminists oppose because they think it doesn't do justice to the "barbaric" nature of the practice. (They get mad, too, when you try to point out the racist and imperialist attitudes that are illustrated by using words like "barbaric" to talk about non-Western cultures.)
There seems to be no way to get a certain segment of the feminist population to understand that it is possible both to oppose practices like FGE and still seek to use respectful terminology. This is perceived as attempting to "whitewash" (an interesting phrase, since we're talking about mostly White women slinging racist slurs as mostly Black women) the issue. In fact, on several occasions when this issue has come up, it has progressed in the following way:
1) Someone uses terminology that is other than "mutilation," or suggests that Western women have been imperialist in their approach to the problem in the past;
2) Someone responds with, "how can you not care about this terrible practice?! If you think it's so great, why don't you have it done?!"
And immediately, it is third grade, and we are on the playground again.
Meanwhile, what does it do for African women in America when so many American feminists have considered opinions about their genitals? I'm not saying we shouldn't care about FGE, and I do oppose it. But I mean, we don't say, "What can I do to help?" Instead, we say, "Those poor women have mutilated genitals! Ew! How disgusting and horrific! I'm so lucky that I live somewhere where that wouldn't happen to me!" And then we go off to the bathroom to vomit our lunches, or to the dermatologist for our Botox, or to the plastic surgeon for a boob job, or whatever.
Again - not equating. But why are we so fixated - to the point of distraction, really - with Black women's genitals? And meanwhile, the women whose vaginas so intrigue us may not have clean water, or adequate shelter. They may be living, for the short remainder of their lives, with HIV. They may be being raped repeatedly when they leave the refugee camp to get water and firewood.
One feminist (who gave me permission to post this here) wrote the following on the listserv:
I just want to ask why [FGS] is getting so much attention when, if you poll a large number of women on the African continent, I have the sneaking suspicion that FGS would not top the list of priorities with regards to the struggles they face as "Global South" women. (This isn't to say FGS would not be listed as an issue of concern, but would this be the main issue?)
I've been wondering about feminist discourse of late and whether or not we can truly transcend our "vagina" politics (monologues or dialogues) to create complex perspectives about women's experiences and struggles for social change and social justice.
If we continue to get stuck viewing all women's struggles as only existing between her legs, we are going to miss viewing these issues through a wider lens and to assess our body politics within the larger political arena of neocolonialism, global poverty, etc.
One thing I know, without knowing the different ways in which FGS is practiced, is that these practices do not exist in a vacuum.
One thing I also know is that I will not teach on the subject of FGS in my Women's Studies classroom. I don't feel like reducing present-day African woman's bodies to their genitalia - with the historical examples of Sara Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus," and enslaved women, I think more than enough of us have been contemplating and capitalizing on their vaginas for far too long.
I am dismayed that prominent feminists cannot, or will not, hear the voices of women of color telling them "I want your help, but I don't want you to cast me as someone with a mutilated vulva and vagina. I don't want to be an object of pity. I don't want you to talk about my culture in ways that focus only on the problems, while you proclaim yourselves to be the Great White Hope and ignore your own racism, ethnocentricism, and imperialism in approaching me. I want to speak for myself, and I want you to respect me and to listen."
It is, of course, the same debate over and over again. Trans. Sex work.** Racism in the Women's Movement and in Women's Studies. "I will not use your language because it does not say what I want it to say. It says what you want it to say, but you are not in a position to name yourself. You do not speak for women. I am your rescuer. Shut up and let me rescue you."
*Africa is not the only place in which FGE is practiced, but this discussion focused on Africa.
**The feminist who let me post her words would disagree vehemently would this connection. I don't want it to appear that she shares my particular argument re. sex work.