Warning: this post contains discussion of matters which some readers may find distressing. That’s partly the point, but please don’t read further if you think it may upset you.
How do you feel about FGM?
The practice, more widespread than you might think, even among Britons, consists of arranging for young women of a certain age to have sensitive parts of their sexual anatomy removed, usually without anaesthetic. It’s all the rage in Africa, Somalia in particular. It’s often referred to as a cultural, rather than a religious practice; muslims assert that not only is it not required by their religion, the practice is against Sharia, and there are examples, it is alleged, of Christian communities in Africa practising it. If you think I’ve used the words ‘practice’ and ‘practising’ too frequently, and that an abomination like this shouldn’t be referred to as if it’s like learning a musical instrument, then I suggest you keep reading.
Personally, coming from my background as a white, privileged cisgender heterosexual male, I can’t help thinking that it’s a bad idea. I have to confess from the start that I even think MGM is a bad idea, and I don’t mean the film studio. After all, the parts of the body we are talking about here are the most sensitive, the most clustered with nerve-endings, the most ‘designed to convey pleasurable sensations to the brain’ parts of the body that we have. Applying a knife to them in any circumstances, no matter the age or mental development of their owner seems – well, probably not quite what the doctor ordered, unless it was a doctor that had diagnosed severe medical problems of some kind or another if it were not carried out, and who had then specified that anaesthetic should be used. And a sharp scalpel. Even then, I’d want to get a second opinion. But at least MGM consists of the removal of what might be regarded as ‘spare tissue’ (although that doesn’t prevent men who have suffered the cut bitterly resenting it). By contrast, FGM usually consists of a lady like the one in the picture, and using the tool she’s holding, while people hold the girl concerned down, removing a large part of the very organs that lead to female sexual pleasure. That, after all, is usually the point. Female sexual pleasure, goes the ‘logic’, is a bad thing. It only gets in the way of male sexual pleasure after all, doesn’t it? Once you have women demanding orgasms, where will it end? They’ll be wanting to run the country next. And then what? We’ll end up not going to war as much. And then what?
Well, if you’re jogging along with my litotes here, and accepting that yes, okay, of course we accept that FGM is a bad thing, it’s illegal after all, isn’t it, then you are complicit, with me, in a post-colonial orientalist conspiracy. For deploring FGM is nothing less than ethnocentrism.
Who are we to condemn tribal practices that go back generations? What is so morally great about western/European/Christian/whatever values that we feel able to preach about whether or not it’s a good idea to cut pre-teen girls genitals? Thus is the logic scarily chronicled by an excellent piece by Sarah Peace, a student at Goldsmith’s College, whose academics (one of them anyway) see nothing to deplore in the practice, instead viewing such a stance as an expression of western hegemony. It is mere ethnocentrism. We don’t know how girls in Somalia feel about it. They might be queuing up to visit the lady with the razor. They see it as an important rite of passage, perhaps. They might feel like incomplete women, sluts maybe, if they don’t get their naughty bits cut off as soon as they can. Who are we to judge them, with our irrational institutions like the House of Lords?
This is perhaps the way to understand the recently reported event where a campaigner against FGM, who at least had the perspective of having suffered under the knife herself, was verbally attacked on a bus by a woman in a niqab for having the audacity to visit her daughter’s school and tell her that the impending removal of her clitoris and sewing up of her vagina was probably not going to be much fun. It is not reported whether the niqab-wearing woman (whom I am going to make the possibly unforgivable logical leap of assuming might have been a muslim) knew that the practice she was defending was forbidden by Sharia, as her co-religionists assert, nor is it known whether she was aware that she could have used modern socio-political doctrine to tell the campaigner where to get off.
It’s certainly an alternative stance, the means by which what seems morally offensive can be presented as possibly perfectly normal and acceptable when viewed from a different perspective. The only problem is that it is a somewhat corrosive position, and has the effect of rendering it simply impossible to make a moral judgement of any kind. Burning women as witches was just something that they did in mediaeval Europe. Lynching black people? Well, that was a cultural artefact of redneck communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Imprisoning Jews and gassing and burning them in their millions? Just something that the Germans happened to do at that point in their cultural development, and essential for their development as a modern state. Putting on blackface and mocking people from Africa and the Caribbean? A very widespread and commonplace cultural tradition among many white communities post-colonial times. Raping women? Just what horny men used to do in the (any culture in the world) throughout history. It was tolerated to a greater or lesser degree throughout that time, but to suggest that there is anything actually morally wrong about it in any absolute sense, is just sociologically naïve. Fobbing off innocent teenagers with this kind of dreck and charging them nine grand a year for it, regardless of whether it benefits them in any useful[i] or otherwise positive sense? That’s just what the community of tired political and sociological academics do, and it’s completely wrong to condemn them for it. Anyone who hasn’t actually been a political academic and known what it is like to have to come up with new ideas that sound like they are fresh enough to get students no-platforming people, isn’t in a position to judge. Okay?
[i] I’m not suggesting that university courses have to be useful. But they do have to give their students some kind of benefit.