Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Racism, feminism, and the issue of FGE.

Once again, a dust-up around FGE (Female Genital Excision) has erupted on a professional listserv that I am on, and once again, the mere mention of the practice has prompted all kinds of accusations and leaping to conclusions.

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.


Daisy said...

Great post, PF. I have personally not blogged about FGE because I didn't know how to phrase my concerns, and as you point out, I even wonder why they ARE my concerns in the first place. I am a member of Amnesty International, and certainly aware that FGE is not a first priority for so many African women. Why, I wonder, do you think it has become OUR priority? Like, what must they think of us, are we obsessed with genitalia in the West? I often think so, particularly regarding transgender issues, and this seems to be another example of the same.

I'd like some more guidelines, like how we might address the issue in respectful ways... did anyone link any informative or enlightened websites that don't employ the usual condescension?

Again, great post and I am glad someone is writing about this in the egalitarian way you have.

ben said...


I've hit this several times, and have been vastly frustrated.

If you don't personally bear the risk of an all or nothing stratagy that puts the emphasis on the moral failure of another group that must repent to upper-class, white, first world values...

Then i strongly suggest that you shut up when it comes to harm reduction.

It's unethical to let your best come in the way of someone else's better, when they are the one who lives the consequences.

so thanks for writing this...

Sarah said...

Great post.

What do you think about ideas like the Heifer Project (www.heifer.org)? I saw one of their organizers give a talk about the project's goals, and I was appalled-- they promise life-altering major gifts of livestock to families that promise not to practice FGE, to send their daughters to school, etc. It just seems incredibly paternalistic to me... I mean, if Western feminists really want to help, perhaps a better way would be to donate money and resources to activists who are working on these issues within their own countries and cultures.

Plain(s)feminist said...

In Adrian Wing's collection, Critical Race Feminism: A Reader, Isabelle Gunning argues that in approaching genital surgeries, one must "understand one's historical relationship to the 'other' and...approach that understanding from the 'other's' perspective, that is, to see the self as the 'other' might see you. Second, one must see the 'other' in her own cultural context as she sees herself." The essay is titled "Arrogant Perception, World Traveling, and Multicultural Feminism: The Case of Female Genital Surgeries," and "world traveling" refers, more or less, to shifting social situations.

I've given money to Heifer before and not paid much attention to that policy. I'm torn, to be honest. You're right - it's paternalist. I'll have to rethink my position on Heifer.

Anonymous said...

It's not as if the practice of telling other people what's oppressive and what's good for them is limited to Africans and FGE. If a battered woman tells you that what she really needs is help learning how to behave in ways that don't piss off her husband, do you go ahead and offer that kind of help or do you persist in the paternalistic notion that she IS a victim of battery and maybe there are other/better solutions to her problem.

There are plenty of white women living in this country whom feminists would say are oppressed but who would not characterize themselves that way. If looking through your own lens is racism when you happen to be looking at someone of another race, what do you call it when you're doing it to someone of your own race?

Plain(s)feminist said...

If a battered woman tells you that what she really needs is help learning how to behave in ways that don't piss off her husband
do you go ahead and offer that kind of help or do you persist in the paternalistic notion that she IS a victim of battery and maybe there are other/better solutions to her problem.

If you think that this is a good analogy for the situation I'm describing, then this is part of the problem I'm talking about. I'm talking about making alliances with African women, who, by the way, are also fighting this practice in their communities. I'm talking about following their lead and using the language they prefer. You are now the third person (the other two on another blog) today to decide that what that means is to adopt a culturally relativist stance and *not* work to end FGE. I am scratching my head as to why, since I took great pains to clarify that this is NOT what I am advocating.

Green said...

I think it should be referred to however the woman who have it done to them want it referred to (grammar schrammar). And I wish that woman WOULD talk about it in her class - there are so many people who have no idea it even happens at all, and I think people should know.

Stentor said...

Excellent post.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Thanks, Stentor.

I have to ask - completely off-topic, but I looked at your profile - is there a big difference in attitudes about wildfire? I'm fascinated, trying to figure out what these might be...

Stentor said...

Plain(s)feminist -- Yes, there are some big differences in attitudes. Maybe I should write a post about it sometime. In a nutshell (and keep in mind that I wrote a whole dissertation dedicated to explaining why this is an oversimplification) you could say that (in the USA and Australia, at least) there's:
* a Smokey Bear attitude in which all fires are bad and should be put out,
* a traditional Australian attitude in which fire is great and we should deliberately burn (or, if your're in the Bush administration, log) everything all the time, and
* a Deep Ecology attitude in which we should leave ecosystems alone and they'll burn naturally when they need to burn

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. :) It helped me figure out how to formulate my, probably not acceptable after the rules of respect you talked about, own opinion on this. *shrug* Ah well. =/

Plain(s)feminist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plain(s)feminist said...

Glad you liked the post.

Anonymous said...

Public Radio International’s “The World” program broadcast a story about Michelle Goldberg’s book The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. The book includes, among other things, an account of a debate between opponents of female genital “cutting” and an African American woman who, as an adult, returned to her ancestral homeland to have the procedure performed on herself as a gesture of cultural solidarity.