6th of February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The theme for 6th of February 2016 was “Achieving the new Global Goals through the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation by 2030.” However, current statistics casts doubt on the possibility of achieving this. It is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. If current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to FGM by 2030. Therefore it seems that despite the best intentions of global civil society, the international community is still losing the war against FGM.
I argue that the main reason for this is a failure to engage with women of Africa and issues arising from intersectionality. This is akin to trying rescue someone who is stuck in mud but not wanting to get dirty. To remove a rotten tooth, you have to stick your fingers into the affected mouth. If you plaster over a septic wound, the infection will persist. There are two pitched camps in the FGM debate and the African woman’s body is the battleground over which this war is fought. With complete disregard for the African woman. Without accounting for the intersectionality of the existence of the African woman’s existence the war against FGM will be slow and ineffectual. Intersectionality is a concept arising from critical race theory which describe the ways in which oppressive systems – racism, sexism, classism, etc. – are interconnected and how its impact cannot be examined separately from one another. The vast majority of women who undergo FGM are black, African, uneducated, lower-class and poor. This has caused the voices of the victims of FGM to be silenced by a debate as positions are taken on their behalf.
“You know nothing of silence until someone who cannot know your pain tells you how to fix it.” – Simpson and Bostley
First Camp: Global Civil Society
This camp is populated primarily by the UN and its component bodies as well as concerned NGOs. This camp prescribes criminalising FGM as the first step to eradication. The term ‘mutilation’ was adopted to encourage criminalisation, by indicating that harm had been visited on someone contrary to the shared values of humanity. However, nothing in the literature suggests any understanding of the culture in which FGM is practiced.
FGM is (wrongly) perceived to be necessary to preserve morality and therefore ensure marriage, and marriage is (wrongly) seen as absolutely necessary for social acceptance and identity; marriage is a sign of community responsibility, as part of the attainment of personhood within African philosophy. FGM thus becomes part of the path of the accepted process of becoming – becoming a person, becoming a woman, becoming a significant part of society. The movement to criminalise FGM ignores the African woman’s path to social acceptance without seeking or accepting other comparable means for ensuring social acceptance. It ignores the African woman’s positionality. If as is suggested, the culture itself is discriminatory in terms of gender, the culture will just find new ways to discriminate. Criminalisation of FGM, would then not resolve the underlying issues of violence against women in Africa. Historically it has been difficult to ban cultural practices. Non-enforcement of laws banning FGM indicates that the laws are ineffective because they impose an extraneous morality. The first step then should not be criminalisation but fostering a communal and cultural morality that proscribes FGM.
The use of language in this camp is also unhelpful. The language is deliberately intended to invoke revulsion. ‘Mutilation,’ ‘barbaric,’ ‘savage,’: these words have been used to describe what some see as a cultural practice integral to their way of life and integral to achieving personhood. Revulsion is invoked, but not in the people who are agents of FGM. Only external revulsion is invoked. To no other end than the revulsion itself. We cannot refer to 200 million women as mutilated, without reducing their humanity in the eyes of the rest of the world to their FGM experience. Human dignity is done away with. It is this type of language which informs the ‘Savage-victim-saviour’ metaphor identified by Mutua. We are all first human. In what ever we do, we must remember that. Always.
This position silences African women by denying them their agency, and involvement in the anti-FGM movement. Global civil society starts by ignoring what people in target communities are doing. It also suggests that dictatorial governments and international law become excessively involved in African family life. A single issue approach will not win the war on FGM. The intersectionality of the existence of African women has to be paramount in the war against FGM. African women are more likely to be poor, more likely to be uneducated, more likely to be married young, more likely to contract AIDS. It is strange that we do not perceive these things are interconnected. A quote cited by Obiora illustrates how the FGM debate sometimes ignores the bigger picture:
‘‘I have visited villages where, at a time when the village women are asking for better health facilities and lower infant-mortality rates, [pipeborne water and access to agricultural credit], they are presented with questionnaires … on female circumcision.’’ [page 70]
Second Camp: ‘Africanist’
Unfortunately the second camp is more insidious, more deadly and more dangerous than the first. Ideally this should be the camp on the coalface, the camp who should be speaking up for the voiceless and the helpless. The FGM debate shows how much African women’s voices are silenced. To paraphrase G K McDonald – it is to Black men that we turn for the story of the Black race, it is White women who are listened to on issues of gender equality, it is to African American women that we turn to for the experience of black womanhood and it is African men who tell the story of Africa [page 9]. Effectively silencing the African woman.
Can the subaltern speak? Not when we presume cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people. Not when we upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988). Can the subaltern speak? Reflections on the history of an idea, 21-78.
The arguments in ‘favour’ (I write this with derision) of FGM are an extreme application of cultural relativism which emphasises the primacy of culture to the detriment of human rights or physical well-being. The culture relativism narrative contradictorily encourages intransigence of culture; yet the very nature of culture is fluid. Changes in culture occur when society either distances itself from a particular ideology, or the ideology is no longer relevant to communal life. FGM is a harmful cultural practice of no relevance from which we should distance ourselves as rapidly and effectively as possible.
It is cultural extinction and the relentless erosion of traditional practices that spurs cultural relativists to dogmatically resist any legislative attrition of culture. Much of this inflexibility is due to the interconnectedness between culture and identity, where the perceived destruction of culture is felt keenly to be the obliteration of society-constructed individualism and communal identity. The destruction of a culture is seen as the destruction of the person. However, by causing culture to stagnate, no account is taken of the changes in society; traditional voids appear and some cultural artefacts remain, while other traditional practices die off. Harmful artefacts are extremely detrimental; FGM is a classic case. The stagnation of culture itself leads to the destruction of the person.
For change in culture and promulgation of anti-FGM legislation to be effective, policy-makers have to be willing to take the debate outside ‘formal legal structures’, lending it objectivity, vitality and validity. We need to hear the voice of the voiceless and words of the silenced. The tension between cultural relativism and universalism has become unnecessarily politicised; the debate has allowed states to utilise these conflicting stand-points as an attack or defence based on largely state-centred egocentric governmental ends. This is done at the cost of the well-being of African women. The bodies of African women should not be sacrificed on the altar of an academic debate. There is an African proverb that says ‘When two elephants fight, it is grass that suffers.’ When two strong and dominant theories are in conflict, it is the weak and least powerful, women, who are meant to be protected, that get trampled upon… or ignored.
The War against FGM ignores the real needs of Africa and African women. FGM serves as a linchpin for the variety of intersectional issues that impact female sovereignty in Africa. A significant number of African women, have no choice in where their live, whom they marry, how many children they have. Many African women are subject to arbitrary domestic and public violence despite legislation. African women’s bodies have become battlegrounds in warfare from Nigeria, to the DRC, to Rwanda and South Africa. Without addressing gender parity, gendered violence, fair trade, true democracy, female sovereignty, the right to education, the right to development – the war against FGM in Africa will continue to be an exercise in futility.
Read more at: Ipinyomi, Foluke Ifejola. “Where the Rubber Hits the Road: The Limitations of the Universalism vs Cultural Relativism Debate Impacting FGM Control in Nigeria.” (2014)