". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, November 30, 2007

Female Genital Mutilation - Yet Another Debate

Do non-practicioners have any right to criticize this practice and attempt to end it? Is this practice really bad for women at all, or isn't merely western cultural colonial point-of-view? Some African women, who are anthropologists, are currently presenting a different perspective.

These women seem to have voluntarily undergone the ritual in their home regions, as adult women choosing for themselves, which, I would think, have a different effect and reception upon those who are choosing to experience the practice as physically mature women, with all the rights of being American citizens, with full cultural-anthropological knowledge, than it is upon those it was forced upon as infants, children and pubescents, all with the spoken or unspoken enforcement of ostracization, inability to be married, etc. if not mutilated -- in other words you must be mutilated to be part of the group. Inside the group is protection (as far as that goes these days); outside the group there is nothing for you other than prostitution and degradation. While with the more severe forms of fgm, you have massive infection, sterility and / or fistula. (The number of African somen suffering from fistula is enormous, and far higher than anywhere else, and is directly connected to severe fgm.)

Dr. Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, writes:

[ It is difficult for me — considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own — to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to — they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers. ]

The article about this conference, with links to the writing / work of the African anthropologists - apologists for fgm, is in the NY Science Times here. The discussion thread following the article should also be read.

And, as it inevitably does in any discussion of female genital mutilation, the practice gets called circumcision, and becomes skewed to discussing of male circumcision, and then gets compared to vanity-cosmetic surgeries among non-African women.


Foxessa said...

How about certain other cultural practices, like 200 lashes for being raped? Or demands to be allowed to murder a school teacher for naming a teddy bear "Muhammed," -- particularly in light of the enormous number of men who are named "Muhammed" and who are walking around right this minute with that name?

Love, C

Foxessa said...

This is who Alima Traore is.

One of my friend's anthro class is studying this asylum case

I sometimes wonder why anthropologists are considered the most worthy people to discuss or judge FGM. I'm going to try to explain what I think I may mean by that, and hopefully not offend anyone.

I also think I think I'm wrong, since anthropology isn't, at least any longer, only studies of non-literate 'exotics' with the hope of learning more about the history of humanity, culture and evolution of both, via the remnent of the long ago and the far away.

Nothing is really that far away, anywhere, now.

And this FGM issue is something we're living with. A little girl that has had this done to her, or whose parents want this done to her, may be going to school with your daughter.

For example, from that Times' article, and you will see here with Ms. Traore, whose family is also forcing her into a marriage she does not want, a very different picture than the 'joyous' response to the ritual that is described the U of C post doc adult woman's:

[ Some 95 percent of women in Mali have undergone genital cutting, according to State Department reports. The procedure takes various forms, ranging from the removal of the clitoral hood to the excision of all of the external genitalia. Ms. Traore’s clitoris and vulva were removed.

The cutting is performed, a 2001 State Department report said, with “a special saw-toothed knife,” usually unsterilized and almost always without anesthesia. Some tribes in Mali believe, the report said, “that if the clitoris comes in contact with the baby’s head during birth, the child will die” or that “a man could be killed by the secretion of a poison from the clitoris upon its contact with the penis.”

Ms. Traore has lived here since 2000. She arrived on a tourist visa and stayed on a student visa, attending college and studying nursing. But her student visa expired in 2003.

She would like to stay.

“It is a better place for women than Mali, because in Mali women don’t have any voice,” she said. “Because it is the men who control.” ]

Love, C.

A. said...

And should we not have criticised slavery or foot-binding? Both cultural practices in certain times and places.

One point though, fistula isn't necessarily directly connected to fgm. It's caused by obstructed childbirth, which in turn can be the result of child marriage (young bodies not mature enough for childbirth) or just a mother with small pelvic bones who cannot reach a hospital for a caearean delivery. Obviously it can be the result of Type 3 fgm but this is practised only in certain areas of Africa whereas fistula is common throughout.

You may possibly be interested in the account of a Senegalese woman living in France who has just undergone reconstructive surgery, in French or in English.

Foxessa said...

a. -- Thank you for the clarification re the frequency of fistula among African women.

Your blog is interesting, by the way. Such lovely and evocative images. And the last entry includes a couple of my favorite books.

Love, C.

Phil said...

FGM sounds like a horrible practice, and clearly we should be opposed to it being forced upon anyone. It should be an illegal practice where children are concerned.

However if some women want to undergo the procedure, fair enough. For instance, I doubt anyone would seriously suggest someone has no right to undergo cosmetic surgery. There are reasons to oppose it, such as better allocation of medical resources, but certainly not on rights grounds in and of themselves.