Warning: Some images and links might be considered NSFW. In addition, I use the term “Western” for a lack of a more convenient one to refer to European, Canadian, and American people and audiences.

EDIT: A commenter rightly pointed out that the title, which originally contained “Razor-Thin” instead of “Fine,” could be taken for a very insensitive pun. I was thinking along the lines of alliteration, not a pun, and sincerely apologize for my lack of insight on the matter.

There is something of an innate conflict that exists in the minds of those who are more liberal or progressive-minded, a tension between anti-racism and the desire to see human rights applied in a truly universal fashion for everyone. In other words, the unwillingness to engage in what might be construed as cultural imperialism can clash with the very notion of universal human rights.

This can lead right back to racism, however, when extreme relativism takes over. Excusing the violation of human rights with “that’s their culture and we must respect it” essentially says “you over there don’t deserve the same rights as I do over here.” At the same time, the way in which outsiders tackle harmful cultural practices can serve to accomplish absolutely nothing beneficial.

FGM is one of the best-known arenas where this tension is palpable.

Earlier this week, Lisa Wade of Sociological Images posted what she called A Balanced Look at Female Genital “Mutilation” (quotes are hers, not mine), in which she adds her own points to a report released by the Hastings Center. The crux of her argument is, in her own words:

While FGCs [female genital cuttings] are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”

 

I saw what she had to say as a valid point about critically examining the Western perspective on FGM. To many, that, as well as what she goes on to say, comes off quite like advocating for FGM on some culturally relativistic level, especially since any real criticism of FGM is absent in the post, aside from an acknowledgment that “none of these [genital mutilation] procedures likely sound appealing.”

The link has been making the rounds among people whose reactions have mostly been of understandable and justifiable disgust and anger, notably Zinnia Jones and Ophelia Benson. Both take Wade to task for what they saw as her trivialization of the non-consensual mutilation of children’s genitalia.

 

 

Neither, however, address what I find significant in Wade’s piece. In response to Wade’s claim that “people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children,” the latter said:

The obvious is obvious. It also turns out that girls of 5 don’t like being held down while someone slices off bits of their genitals with a razor. Next platitude?

 

While it is true that Wade’s piece does not discuss many of the harms of FGM, that particular point made in the Sociological Images post is not as much of a platitude as one might think. Most conversations about FGM among Westerners not had by sociologists and other such academics indeed center around some version of “Ugh, that’s so horrible and disgusting! Who would do that to children?!” at best, and, at worst, a variant of “Let’s kill the monsters that do this!” This corroborates some of what Wade initially posits: Westerners’ reactions are highly informed by their particular perspectives in ways that they might not fully comprehend. To them, it’s clear and unquestionable that FGM is bad and that its practitioners should feel bad.

How they hope to actually enact change with that approach is beyond me. To endlessly remind ourselves that we know that FGM is a terrible thing accomplishes very little more than what has been done before. In terms of a Western audience, or one familiar with Western thought, it is absolutely no surprise that relatively few to none, even of those who are accused of being apologists for it, actually condone or support FGM in any way. “FGM is bad” is the real platitude in this context.

It’s also interesting to note that many of Wade’s more fact-based points are valid, especially in light of what most Westerners mistakenly think about FGM: that all or most versions of it involve infibulation; that FGM kills sexual pleasure and drive; that men do it to women; that it is an African practice; and that, most notably, Western-led efforts against it would help. In reality, infibulation is not very common, women who have undergone FGM can experience sexual pleasure and desire*, women enforce and perform FGM on other women (although it does stem from patriarchal notions about governing femininity and female sexuality, something Wade neglects to mention), some non-Africans do it, and Western-led efforts (which often rely on outlawing) are usually unhelpful at best and backfire at worst.

To point these things out does not necessarily trivialize FGM. Presenting actual information about it and covering new ground instead of reasserting that it’s wrong — which, again, most of the audience at home already knows — is a needful thing.

 

Even if we wholly disregard concerns of cultural imperialism and anti-racism, the fact remains that telling people that their cultural practices are wrong doesn’t exactly help to prevent said practices from occurring. It’s practically and realistically useless. The most effective way to enact change, by far, is to support local, grassroots efforts focused on reducing and eventually eliminating harmful customs like FGM. In addition, attempting to understand the cultures and contexts in which FGM arises can actually help efforts to combat it. Doing so is not supportive towards the practice in nature.

Grassroots, local efforts that not only include the voices of the very women whom we hope to help, but are actually led by them, generally accomplish the most. See: The Sudan National CommitteeCampaign Against Female Genital Mutilation (CAGeM)a panel assembled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the International Organization for Migration, the Geneva Department of Institutions, and the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children; the way in which Equality NOW supports grassroots orgs instead of itself intruding; and efforts in Egyptian villages.

There is something to be said for expanding the Western discourse about FGM beyond the obvious, i.e. “it’s wrong.” Tackling mistaken notions about FGM among communities where it is not practiced, as well as within communities where it is practiced, is also a worthy goal. By not merely rehashing what is obviously appalling about FGM, Wade rubbed her audience the wrong way, but also covered new ground where few others do.

To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal. Outlawing said practices does little to change the cultural zeitgeist regarding them. The lowered rates of male genital mutilation reflect not on the efforts of some outside entity declaring it wrong, but forces and voices from within the group working towards change.

Furthermore, let us not forget that Western culture did not stop the non-consensual mutilation of normative women’s genitals overnight, nor did the practices end, because someone from an outside group came in and declared it wrong. It took time for the legal and cultural consequences of Western FGM to end it, but the change occurred slowly and thoroughly enough to where the mutilation of normative women’s genitals has become quite taboo — to the point where largely people have forgotten about it. How can we expect others to simply and suddenly end their harmful practices because we call them wrong, especially when we face a backlash?

Do not mistake me: FGM is wrong. It is a tragedy every time it occurs. It is harmful. It should end by whatever means necessary. If I could completely end it, I would. If declaring it wrong accomplished anything, I would do it ceaselessly. Unfortunately, simply reminding ourselves that it’s wrong accomplishes little. In the interests of actually ending FGM, knowing more about it and discussing it in a way that isn’t alienating might accomplish more than just reminding ourselves that we disagree with it.

At the very least, let’s not mistake information about it that isn’t 100% criticism of it for apologetics.

* To clarify, the clitoris is more than just the external nub. The fact that women who have undergone FGM can experience pleasure and desire is actually a fantastic argument for opposing it, as many cultures that practice FGM do it with the intention of eradicating female sexual desire.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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36 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ophelia Benson
    December 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm —

    I don’t think seeing FGM as a terrible practice is incompatible with supporting local opponents of FGM.

    And I disagree somewhat about the usefulness of insisting that a bad practice is bad. There’s a lot to be said for the effect of making it strange, to use the Brechtian term. Male GM is weirdly normalized in the US, and it takes some shouting to disrupt that. It’s worked that way for me, for instance.

    • Profile photo of Heina Dadabhoy
      December 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm —

      “I don’t think seeing FGM as a terrible practice is incompatible with supporting local opponents of FGM.”

      Agreed. I don’t know where you’d think that I would disagree with that statement. I’d just prefer that we go beyond that in tackling it.

      “There’s a lot to be said for the effect of making it strange, to use the Brechtian term. Male GM is weirdly normalized in the US, and it takes some shouting to disrupt that.”

      It is already quite strange to us and our audiences. We’ve been shouting that FGM is bad from across the ocean for a long time now with little to no effect. It will take some of their own doing the same to enact change.

    • Profile photo of Jeff Peoples
      December 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm —

      “Male GM is weirdly normalized in the US, and it takes some shouting to disrupt that. It’s worked that way for me, for instance.”

      I don’t think it is weird at all. It’s largely normalized in the U.S. because the majority of men are circumcised and the majority of those circumcised men do not care. I would not be surprised if the majority of men who oppose circumcision are actually uncircumcised themselves, or they are women.

      Being circumcised myself, I find vigorous opposition to male circumcision to be obnoxious. It is a pseudo moral outrage and sympathy for something that most men are not bothered at all by. In fact, any male who has been to high school probably had the experience of being *glad* they were circumcised, as the perception of uncircumcised penises were considered less aesthetically appealing.

      Male circumcision is not analogous to FGM (or whatever you wish to call it) because unlike much of FGM, sexual pleasure and desire are not affected at all by it. I am personally acquainted with men who were circumcised as adults, and they attest to it–as well as research.

      In fact the portrayal of male circumcision as “mutilation” is in fact a form of degradation. Just as a person would not likely wish to have their tattoos or piercings called “mutilation”, calling male circumcision “mutilation” is equally peculiar.

      I have spoken with men who are opposed to circumcision, and they are often men who are themselves not circumcised, and perversely enough they have past experiences of having their own non-circumcised penises ridiculed. One eventually even admitted to having carried his resentment into adulthood. Thus, many men who are circumcised are anti-circumcision out of their own insecurities and resentment about the common aesthetic preference for circumcised penises. I have no interest in arguing about whether the aesthetic appeal is a cultural construction or not, I only point it out to reveal the background to much of the condemnation from males who oppose circumcision.

      There is also the tragic and pathological reaction that a minority of circumcised men experience when being told that their foreskin is some sacred flesh that without they are somehow incomplete. Just check out some of the websites out there–some men apparently sink so low with despair that they try to replace their foreskin with surgery. Although most men, including myself, are quite comfortable with their circumcisions, be aware that your sentiments cause tremendous harm to a minority of men.

      My dad circumcised me when I was a baby because he didnt want me to go through the experience he had of circumcision as an adult. At the time he went into the navy, circumcision was a requirement (I have no idea why). And it was sufficiently unpleasant that he wanted my brothers and I to be saved from that experience. After his own though, he experienced no change in sexual experience.

      The origin of male circumcision is mysterious, and many cultures practiced it, not just the jews. The Egyptians have practiced it as well. I suspect it was likely originally a form of ritual initiation into a privileged class, or brotherhood, just as there is hazing in fraternities or tribes across the world–and it may have been perceived as aesthetically appealing, just as scarification, tattoos, footbinding, neck stretching, piercings, or the other myriad forms of body modification. There are ancient accounts of it, such as carved scenes in Egyptian tombs, one practitioner boasting about enduring the pain, and Herodotus noting Egyptians did it for cleanliness.

      I for one appreciate my circumcision, and I am glad that my dad did it while I was a baby. I have no memory of it, and I personally prefer the aesthetics of it. There is something to be said about giving a person a choice, but then again, I’m fine with my dad not giving me one–he also gave me vaccines without my choice, and there is a whole cult of people who find vaccination to be of the devil.

      • Profile photo of Will
        December 12, 2012 at 7:07 pm —

        Way to make this discussion all about you and your dick. No one gives a shit about your penis, dude, but your comment is a perfect example of people being completely obliviously blind to their own cultural biases while pointing the finger elsewhere.

        • Profile photo of Jeff Peoples
          December 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm —

          “Way to make this discussion all about you and your dick. No one gives a shit about your penis, dude, but your comment is a perfect example of people being completely obliviously blind to their own cultural biases while pointing the finger elsewhere.”

          Huh? I didn’t bring up male circumcision. And could you explain how what I said is an example of cultural bias? And also cite where I pointed a finger–don’t know what you are referring to.

          And of course, moral opposition to male circumcision is precisely about men who have or will be circumcised, I being one of them. So in fact, people who are against circumcision are kind of caring about my penis(or allegedly caring)-at least by proxy.

          It seems like I hit a nerve with you. Why such the belligerent reaction? I have my theory.

      • Profile photo of cluisanna
        December 16, 2012 at 8:18 pm —

        The problem I have with male circumcision is not that it is particularly brutal (it isn’t), but that it fundamentally undermines bodily autonomy of children for non-essential reasons like religion or an arbitrary beauty standard. The USA is known for not respecting children’s right to consent, and this is just another symptom.

  2. Profile photo of techspoon
    December 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm —

    I think I have to stand up for Wade here a little bit. I follow her posts very regularly, and one of her strengths is her ability to comment on something that is happening without voicing a strong opinion on it. I think that is the nature of sociology-observation of social trends and culture without prejudice. I think if you asked her “do you support FGM” she’d say of course not.

    The thrust of this piece (at least as it seemed to me) was to point out the shortcomings of approaching this issue from a purely western perspective. I think some cultures might view our almost universal application of braces to preteens to be barbaric, especially because the braces are not always medically necessary, but of course saying braces are barbaric sounds ridiculous to someone raised in North America.

    The message I got from her piece was that we need to use different language when addressing this issue, language that is more reflective of the people we’re trying to target and the entire truth of the issue. If you ran up to the average circumcised man and yelled “you’ve been mutilated and will NEVER have a fulfilling sex life!!!” I don’t think he would be convinced that he shouldn’t have his children circumcised. He might be pretty pissed at the implication that his sex life is unsatisfying when he may feel it is indeed satisfying.

    I do think that the piece was a little clumsily written, but I feel like I learned something from it that I wouldn’t have from the typical “FGM is evil” type story I normally see. I also would point out that Wade mentioned the surge of FGM in the US, which is frequently referred to as “vaginal rejuvenation” or other nonsense, which is sold as non-barbaric because it is plastic surgery done to adults. Language matters.

  3. Profile photo of criticaldragon1177
    December 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm —

    Heina,

    I’ve always been disgusted by FGM, ever since I first heard about it. But as bad as it maybe, I can see why some people would be cautious when it comes to condemning it.

    • Profile photo of Heina Dadabhoy
      December 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm —

      How we condemn it and where matters in terms of actually working to end it.

      • Profile photo of criticaldragon1177
        December 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm —

        Heina,

        I agree

      • Profile photo of dr. dr. professor
        December 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm —

        Yes and condemning persay might not be even the most effective way to curb such practices depending on what particular ethnolinguistic group you’re dealing with.

        Sometimes the solution is something you’d never expect until you actually live with them.

  4. Profile photo of Luarien
    December 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm —

    This is all terribly true. The most obvious points where I see the standard Western approach being a problem is the outlawing of FGM practice in hospitals. Due to prevailing cultural forces, it will still be practiced. It just gets done in dirty environments with glass shards and other improvised equipment instead of in clean facilities like hospitals and clinics when it’s outlawed there.

    These kinds of laws and bylaws don’t help. They only drive the practice underground and not only make it harder to understand, but they make it harder to unwind. We must essentially treat these cultures as full as people, not children that can be bullied into submission.

  5. Profile photo of geoffrey
    December 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm —

    I really appreciate your input on this. You’ve managed to express my thoughts on the post with far more eloquence then I could have managed. FGM is one cause that definitely has a “white men saving brown women from brown men” problem. I interpreted Wade’s article as an attempt to bring awareness to the serious racism issue the US has when discussing FGM, but clearly quite a few people read it otherwise.

    Any form of non-consensual surgery performed on individuals is horrific, but the issue of bodily autonomy is such a global problem, including within the US, that white westerners certainly have no place to point fingers.

    • Profile photo of dr. dr. professor
      December 12, 2012 at 6:42 pm —

      Yeah this is a tough question. Generally helping local communities that ask for help on humanitarian projects is the way to help people affected by these practices, and giving the women power over some important economic task is the mode of help I see most effective (although not always…).

      But they often have to ASK for help for it to be effective. Dropping in uninvited does not engender change.

  6. Profile photo of ragdish
    December 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm —

    I can respect Dr. Wade’s committment to being culturally sensitive when rendering judgements on practices such as FGM. I just think that her article is badly written and subject to misinterpretation.

    I was born in India but raised in the west. I am culturally biased and indeed I find the following abhorrent:

    1. Sati
    2. Child marriages
    3. Consanguineous marriages
    4. Caste system
    5. Dropping babies from 30 ft ceremonies (yes it’s true)
    6. Dowry marriages
    7. Honor killings

    I agree it would serve no purpose for me to go to the country of my birth and shout from the rooftops “Hey assholes! Stop doing this shit! It’s fuckin’ wrong!”

    I visit India all the time and I am proud of feminists like Arundhati Roy. And despite my criticisms, I respect that Gandhi helped shape a democracy through non-violence. Secularism is still championed in India. There is growing atheist and secular communities there of all stripes.

    Indeed, to end the practices I’ve listed above would involve the very cultural sensitivities that Professor Wade describes ie. a mutual collaboration among all parties including those in the west and the indigenous groups (ie. feminists, atheists, skeptics, etc..) in India. Professor Wade needs to rewrite her article and phrase it in this manner.

    • Profile photo of freemage
      December 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm —

      “I can respect Dr. Wade’s committment to being culturally sensitive when rendering judgements on practices such as FGM. I just think that her article is badly written and subject to misinterpretation.”

      I went back and read Wade’s article, and this is pretty much what I’m coming away with. It isn’t merely that she refrains from stating the obvious; it’s that she also refrains from making a point. To-wit, at no point does she actually say, “Hey, you twits! If you would adopt this approach, you’d have much better luck in ending this practice!” The closest she comes to that is in her summary paragraph, but even there, it’s not clear exactly what she regards as an “impressive intervention”.

      And some of her bits were flat-out debunked by Ophelia and others, most notably the bit about, “Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.”

      She has seven bolded comments. Of these, I’d say numbers 2, 6 and 7 could hold some merit if they were reformulated. 3-5 are either flat-out false, or remarkably inept apologia. Item 1 is little more than tone trolling.

      • Profile photo of Heina Dadabhoy
        December 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm —

        Wait, where did Ophelia debunk that? Because it is patently false to claim that women who have undergone FGM cannot experience sexual response/pleasure. If nothing else, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s writings are proof of this, and she is far from a lefty-liberal apologist to say the least.

        • Profile photo of freemage
          December 13, 2012 at 11:29 am —

          Gah. First off, I need to make a double–no, wait, a triple apology–to you, Ophelia and Avicenna. As I’m sure you’re aware, this was all over Freethought Blogs the last few days, and my memory blurred the link-thru reading I was doing on the discussion. So apologies to both of them for the misattribution, and apologies to you for creating further confusion.

          Now, to the debunking in question:

          http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/2012/12/12/a-balanced-look-at-female-genital-mutilation-is-anything-but/

          Essentially, this goes back to my point–Wade did a horrible job writing this particular column. The item in question makes it sound like all women who undergo FGM have no sexual arousal difficulties at all. Rather, the studies that Wade cites merely say that some women have fairly regular sexual function, often after extensive therapy.

          It’s this sort of careless phrasing that is leading to charges that Wade is actively diminishing the harm done by FGM.

  7. Profile photo of James Fox
    December 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm —

    Sure a balanced view can be helpful; however it seems to me that the main issues raised by Wade are mostly ones of decorum and word choice, and where the uncontrollable emotional response of disgust doesn’t mean you need to act out or communicate your feelings. And often, especially in third and second world countries, it’s the educated and the laws they pass that precede the Zeitgeist of the masses when other cruel and barbaric (Yes I think FGM is barbaric, but that does not mean I think the practitioners are barbarians) habits have been curbed through the enforcement of laws. Sometimes the innocents don’t have the ability to wait for good thoughts, encouragement and education to have the desired effect. And when education is mostly an act of political will in these situations, education can work just fine in conjunction with legal prohibition just as it has for child sex abuse, infanticide, and child slavery.

    • Profile photo of Will
      December 12, 2012 at 6:17 pm —

      And when education is mostly an act of political will in these situations, education can work just fine in conjunction with legal prohibition just as it has for child sex abuse, infanticide, and child slavery.

      Yeah, because child sex abuse, infanticide, and child slavery are totes non-existant, amirite?

      The thing that makes this statement ethnocentric is that it comes from an assumption that all people value laws and legal systems in the same ways. For example, there may be people in a rural village with little-to-no interaction with national governments–why should they care about what the state outlaws?

      I think FGM is barbaric, but that does not mean I think the practitioners are barbarians

      This just seems like semantic games to me. “I think Fred Phelps’ protests are homophobic, but that does not mean I think he is a homophobe!”

      Even if you don’t really think the people themselves are barbaric, the problem is that the language used often does not make this distinction and reduces entire groups of people down to this practice.

      Also, word choice matters. How many times have we feminists made this argument? Why is it no longer a good argument in this situation?? The dismissive responses to calls for more sensitivity on this topic are disappointing.

      • Profile photo of James Fox
        December 12, 2012 at 7:27 pm —

        “Yeah, because child sex abuse, infanticide, and child slavery are totes non-existant, amirite?”

        I have no idea what this means.

        So at what point does an act that is acceptable in another culture become loathsome to you?
        It seems to me that most societies in the word would hold similar views on FGM as I do; so if my view is more or less universal among most cultures as well I hardly think it qualifies as ethnocentric. It would be similar to the practice of allowing a girl of 12 to legally be sold into a marriage or foot binding. Most cultures and societies would find these practices horrible and disgusting and have made it illegal. Ergo holding a similar view would not be ethnocentric in light of its universality.

        ” For example, there may be people in a rural village with little-to-no interaction with national governments–why should they care about what the state outlaws?


        And sure, let’s not have laws because some people don’t care or won’t know, or are too isolated to get it, or their sensitivities will be offended; except that perhaps they will and perhaps the rule of law does matter to them, and possibly they aren’t quite the isolated backward folk you think they are and they’d change their minds if some government types and health care workers came by and held a meeting to explain things.

        ” This just seems like semantic games to me”

        It’s no more a semantic game than saying that you find the beliefs of a religious/political/libertarian/wooish person absurd or odious but do not hold the same view of the individual believer. We all make similar reasonable accommodations with regularity.

        Also, word choice matters. How many times have we feminists made this argument? Why is it no longer a good argument in this situation?? The dismissive responses to calls for more sensitivity on this topic are disappointing.

        Did I say word choice doesn’t matter?
        Did I say being sensitive when trying to change minds and educate was not a good thing?

        • Profile photo of Will
          December 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm —

          I have no idea what this means.

          It means what you said came across as if a combination of education and laws has made those things disappear. And it hasn’t. If that’s not your intention, you should re-word or re-state your point.

          So at what point does an act that is acceptable in another culture become loathsome to you?

          Well, that depends on the practice. I’m not going to speak in generalities–that’s part of the problem with this topic.

          It seems to me that most societies in the word would hold similar views on FGM as I do; so if my view is more or less universal among most cultures as well I hardly think it qualifies as ethnocentric.

          Oh yeah? And it seems this way based on what? Your reading of blogs on the internet? What makes you think “most societies” care about this issue at all, much less agree with you about it?

          And it wasn’t your position on this that I called ethnocentric, it was your assumptions about the effects of legal prohibition.

          If you’re going to start asserting cultural universality to a cultural anthropologist, you had best start breaking out the ethnographic and ethnological data. Otherwise, you’re just making shit up.

          And sure, let’s not have laws because some people don’t care or won’t know, or are too isolated to get it,

          Never said let’s not have laws or that they’re to isolated to “get it.” I said they simply don’t care or have their own social rules that aren’t based on what you or I would think of as laws because they’re not from a state entity. You’re applying a statist understanding of social organization universally, and that is certainly ethnocentric.

          except that perhaps they will and perhaps the rule of law does matter to them

          Perhaps they will, but so far the literature I’ve read on this topic says otherwise and actually shows that many of these laws backfire and drive the practices underground.

          and possibly they aren’t quite the isolated backward folk you think they are

          I never said they were backward–you did. I said many times they simply don’t care about national laws or legal systems and those systems often don’t touch their lives in any meaningful way.

          and they’d change their minds if some government types and health care workers came by and held a meeting to explain things.

          This statement belies your ignorance of how these things work and your blindness to the histories of colonialism in many of the places where these practices happen.

          It’s no more a semantic game than saying that you find the beliefs of a religious/political/libertarian/wooish person absurd or odious but do not hold the same view of the individual believer. We all make similar reasonable accommodations with regularity.

          No, it’s quite different. I’m not talking about individuals, I’m talking about how entire groups are reduced based on this practice and the concomitant language that is used in the process.

          Did I say word choice doesn’t matter?
          Did I say being sensitive when trying to change minds and educate was not a good thing?

          No, you did not say those specific words. But I wonder what the purpose of reducing Wade’s argument to a tone argument is if not to dismiss it as irrelevant? I’m certainly willing to grant that you do not think that word choice doesn’t matter, but you’ll have to tell me why the only thing you bring up in response to Wade’s post is about her concern with language and you dismiss everything else in the post as useless.

    • Profile photo of dr. dr. professor
      December 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm —

      when education is mostly an act of political will in these situations, education can work just fine in conjunction with legal prohibition just as it has for child sex abuse, infanticide, and child slavery.

      Oh my my friend, go to a rural Indian or African village and you’ll learn how futile that statement is. I had similar perceptions before my work with Engineers Without Borders, and those were smashed into atomic dust.

      As will says, local groups usually have no care for the law, and the law either
      1) Doesn’t care
      2) Is corrupt as hell and exploits these people
      3) Is simply non existant

      Stopping straight out genocide is one thing, but reforming a practice within a local linguistic or ethnic group that has been around for many hundreds of years with “political will and education” is a pipe dream. Generally the solution is extremely specific to the group in focus. I can give some concrete examples if you would like.

      The thing that tends to work in most communities in my personal experience is to give the women more education and power in some way. The “way” to do that depends entirely on the community in focus.

      • Profile photo of punchdrunk
        December 12, 2012 at 9:09 pm —

        You don’t have to go any farther than our experience with ‘Indian Schools’ or our own American history outlawing Native cultural practices because they were ‘barbaric’ and people on the reservations needed the educated white man to explain their backward ways.

        Progressives and scientists really need to be aware of their own recent histories with ‘outside’ cultures.

        • Profile photo of punchdrunk
          December 12, 2012 at 9:13 pm —

          Oh, and we always needed to be ‘educated’. I cringe a little bit whenever I hear that word from progressives and liberals.

          ‘Oh, if those poor dumb bastards were just smarter.’ I know that’s not what people mean, but it’s a pretty loaded word. Information is neutral. ‘Education’ makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I always see shades of ‘enlightening the primitive’.

          • Profile photo of dr. dr. professor
            December 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

            Yeah “education” can destroy cultures. A lot of indigenous people who’ve been educated in how to do things (like food procurement, transporation, etc.) the western way have ended up destroyed and destitute.

            It’s why you have to
            A) Work with a community that requests help
            B) Become on of their citizens to determine how to deliver it.

            At the point, education can often be a good thing because you know how to teach them skills they can use to live better within the context of their culture. And education usually means “learn how to build a way to get clean water and maintain it”, “learn how to produce valuable local goods (like oils, foods, fabrics, whatever is their thing..) sustainably and raise the economic standard of the village”, etc.

            And it’s in this education where you can help oppressed populations, but it’s intricate, you really need to be careful when helping them not to skew certain power dynamics or create hurtful conflict.

            It is very very complicated, but again, one thing I find is universal is that if you empower women, the communities get better fast and abusive behavior tends to subside more.

  8. Profile photo of ronaldtaylor
    December 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm —

    What an insensitive pun. I mean Jesus Christ.

    • Profile photo of Heina Dadabhoy
      December 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm —

      Oh my Noodly Lord…. that’s awful. I was thinking alliteratively, not in terms of a pun. I’m not sure what I should do at this point, though.

  9. Profile photo of dr. dr. professor
    December 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm —

    I’ve done things with both Engineers without Borders and Doctors without Borders (I was their engineer) and seen some several developing areas, including a lot in my ethnic homeland, India.

    And one thing both groups do is a “site assessment” to figure out how within that culture you can hope to get even the simplest things done. And the reason this is is that we come with a very different frame and basically need to live as one of them to determine how any change can be made, and what the best changes are for the community.

    When speaking about long-held cultural practices (not wars and ethnic conflicts, etc.) living as one of them for an extended period is the only way to make a human rights oriented change.

  10. Profile photo of Will
    December 12, 2012 at 7:10 pm —

    I’m just going to leave this link here, if you don’t mind. For anyone who is interested in this topic from an anthropological perspective, this book is an excellent resource: Ellen Gruenbaum’s The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective.

  11. Profile photo of hellboundalleee
    December 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm —

    I’d like to see more conversations about culture and just exactly what it is. So many people think culture is staid and quantifiable, which it isn’t, and define it by the standards of those who have power over it. We forget that “their culture” includes those individuals who have no say in cultural standards and practices, i.e. children and women usually, and those in opposition–the “counter-culture.”

    I often say, jokingly, “has no one learned the lessons of ‘Fiddler on the Roof?'” In all seriousness though, where exactly do we think oppression comes from? Sure, the toughest and richest “culture.” But it first and foremost comes from OUR culture. Our very first oppressions come from the very system we are taught to hold dear–the family. The hierarchical power structure of The Family. Indeed–I don’t care if the one holding down the powerless human being is a man or her mother or brother or a doctor.

    I’m old enough to remember the second Wave. When women had the Ovaries to come out and call for the overthrow of the Family as we know it. The Overthrow of Culture as we know it. But now we must respect all cultures, and, if we follow the manifesto of humanism, we must believe the family is the number one way to achieve the virtues of humanism. This is where humanism and I separate. This is where I stand with those women we still hold up as heroes–anarchistic feminists who not only call for the abolition of Hierarchy, but actually know what it means.

  12. Profile photo of Jack99
    December 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm —

    Thanks, Heina for this post. I admit to feeling terribly conflicted sometimes.

    On this site, I was very reluctant to pile in about the sexism of orthodox Jews in NY, for instance – I mean you feel like a damn Nazi!

    I think the debate here is very much more sophisticated than even a year ago, thanks to you, Will and Jacob, along with DrDr and ragdish.

    I agree with Will, though, we need to be very cautious, the whole subject is fraught with misinformation – there is this for instance on Australian Aboriginal FGM

    http://www.adelaide.edu.au/apsa/docs_papers/Others/Pringle.pdf

    To what extent do we still rely on 19th century just so stories?

  13. Profile photo of tfyfwya
    December 13, 2012 at 6:30 pm —

    “By not merely rehashing what is obviously appalling about FGM, Wade rubbed her audience the wrong way, but also covered new ground where few others do.”

    I’m sorry, but if you think that she covered new ground or that the above is the reason that people were critical of her article, then I am forced to assume that you either did not read or did not understand both the original article and the criticisms leveled against it. What she did was the same liberal prevarications we always see, and she was soundly and rightly called out for it.

  14. Profile photo of Alex
    July 1, 2013 at 2:19 am —

    “To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal.”

    I can’t speak for every country in Europe, but my experience as a Norwegian is that most countries in Europe do not consider male genital mutilation normal. When discussed here, it’s typically stated that “Circumcision is something Jews, Muslims and Americans do,” which would suggest to me that it’s not commonly done outside the US apart from by people with specific religions.

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