6th of February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. There are often various themes used to illustrate where the global battle again the practice of FGM stands at any given time. For example, 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 wrote an article about this in 2015. [It should be noted that I do not consider this article to be my best writing. I wrote it in 15 days. It usually takes me about 15 months to write an article I am marginally happy with – but that is a story for another day] So in that article, I argue that the main reason why the prevention of FGM is still an uphill task, is a complete failure to engage with women of Africa on this issue. In a very Spivakian sense, 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. In this case: ‘White men [and women] are saving Black and Brown women from Black and Brown men” Furthermore, without accounting for the intersections of class, gender and sexuality that arise in the African woman’s experience, any war against FGM will be shallow and ineffectual. Therefore, we are confronted by a movement against a practice in which those who are most affected are almost always spoken for.
“You know nothing of silence until someone who cannot know your pain tells you how to fix it.” – Simpson and Bostley
White Men Saving African Women…
This is primarily the UN and its component bodies as well as concerned NGOs. The approach here 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 practised.
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 by not seeking or accepting other comparable means for ensuring social acceptance, or interrogating the framework within social acceptance occurs. If as is suggested, the culture itself is discriminatory in terms of gender, in the absence of FGM, 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 of itself proscribes FGM.
The use of language here 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. Thus there is an almost prurient fascination with the bodies of African women and girls. This can be seen in a lot of the Western saviour narrative in Africa.
This position silences African women by denying them their agency, as well as any involvement in the anti-FGM movement. Global civil society starts by ignoring what people in target communities need. 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. Excessive focus on FGM also serves to illustrate how research often proceeds in very harmful and dehumanising ways, especially when its advancement is predicated on ignoring the power imbalances in knowledge extraction and the accompanying histories. A quote cited by Obiora illustrates this:
‘‘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]
… From African Men
Unsurprisingly, the other side of this argument is more insidious, more deadly and more dangerous than the first. Ideally these should be the people on the coalface, people who should be speaking up for the voiceless and the helpless. But as we Arundhati Roy says, ‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’
The FGM debate shows how much African women’s voices are silenced and unheard. 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].
Thus, on the question of FGM in Africa, the subaltern cannot speak, because we ‘presume cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people.’ We depend ‘upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition…’ where we should be teaching ourselves to listen to the African woman, in a way that we can actually hear her. [O’Rourke: 2012]
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, the culture dies and so does the individual. A stagnant culture is no culture at all. Therefore, 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 longevity, objectivity, vitality and validity by grounding it in lived realities. We need to ensure that we are actively listening to the voice of those those who have been made voiceless and words of the silenced. Not asking them to speak what we want to hear. So what if what they are saying does not fit in which our research questions? 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.
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. But we can change this. We must change this.
Ipinyomi, Foluke Ifejola. “Where the Rubber Hits the Road: The Limitations of the Universalism vs Cultural Relativism Debate Impacting FGM Control in Nigeria.” (2014)
Mutua, Makau. “Savages, victims, and saviors: The metaphor of human rights.” Harv. Int’l LJ 42 (2001): 201.
Obiora, L. Amede. “The little foxes that spoil the vine: revisiting the feminist critique of female circumcision.” Can. J. Women & L. 9 (1997): 46.
O’Rourke, Jacqueline. Representing Jihad: the appearing and disappearing radical. Zed Books Ltd., 2012.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the subaltern speak?.” Can the subaltern speak? Reflections on the history of an idea (1988): 21-78.