Last post on FGM, for now

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For whatever reasons, the topic of female genital mutilation always brings out an odd type of commenter, always male (of course), usually someone who insists on seeing it as the equivalent of male circumcision (which is like comparing what Van Gogh did to getting one’s ear pierced) and/or who vigorously defends multiculturalism, a warped argument because you cannot defend torture and trauma. And even if the procedure is carried out antiseptically and with plenty of pain killers, the procedure itself constitutes a trauma by its very nature. Of course, the mutilation is usually not performed antiseptically.

We went through all of this in the at-times painful thread below. The post was noticed by an organization that alerted me to their new film on this topic, and I’m posting this let you know where you see the film. If you want to argue further about this topic, first go to this site and download the file. (It’s kind of long, so be patient.) Then watch it. It is not hysterical or emotional. It explains the deep roots of the practice and how many girls look forward to it as a right of passage, celebrated by the community. But the filmmakers then make it clear that the procedure leaves every victim traumatized and in pain, and it has life-long consequences. As a girl who refused to be mutilated explains, if the other girls had the slightest understanding of what it actually entails. they would refuse as she did.

Surf through some of the links over there. You’ll see that this is not about intolerant Westerners sneering at an honored cultural tradition. Those objecting with the most passion are either victims of the mutilation or girls who have refused to undergo it. The protests are coming from African women, not arm-chair snobs blogging from their air-conditioned living rooms.

The issue raises all sorts of questions of freedom – the freedom to choose what is done to your body, the freedom to observe your thousand-year culture, the freedom to be left free of meddling from outsiders. And I don’t claim to have answers to all of these issues. What I do know is that if men in their teens had to undergo similar mutilation, they would be a lot less enthusiastic about the “cultural” argument. And if more of the girls knew exactly what was being done to them and all the grief it would cause them in the future, they too would be a bit less delighted to stand there while the knife is sharpened and… Well, watch the film.

There is a reason why all these groups have formed and why so many African women are speaking out. Maybe those who want it done should be permitted to preserve their tradition and choose their own path. But since it is mainly done in a state of ignorance, I would argue that we should do everything possible to at least educate them as to the reality of their choice. And again, that’s not the arrogant belief of a snobby white guy looking down at disgust at something in another culture he finds disconcerting. It’s what thousands of African women and global health workers are fighting to do. It’s about saving lives, about protecting women from unbearable pain and suffering.

As we are seeing in Iraq, there is a deep-seeded cultural attitude toward gays that justifies murdering them (my US tax dollars at work). “It’s their culture.” Same with honor killings. Does the mantra, “It’s our culture” excuse all behavior no matter how sadistic and unjust? Tough call. What is not a tough call is what Western nations should do when their citizens wish to participate in these activities in any way, whether it’s on their soil or during weekend trips home. The answer must be “No, that goes against the social contract you made with this country when you sought its citizenship. And some things are non-negotiable.” It’s not like getting annoyed at someone for spitting watermelon seeds on the restaurant table. It’s about cruelty to and subjugation of women.

Thanks for your patience. This has been a subject that has bothered me for years and I can’t be silent. Now, I’ll try to get back to China and the US.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Wow! You picked up some jerks in that last thread. It was nice to see you showing a lack of civility, Richard. Full marks.

September 23, 2009 @ 11:00 am | Comment

Thanks. I tried to be civil – to a point. They can only push me so far when it comes to issues like this, where the alternatives are human decency vs. pseudo-cultural sensitivity that really amounts to contempt for women.

September 23, 2009 @ 11:08 am | Comment

I posted this at the end of the thread below, but I think I’d like to repost it here:

HongQi, here’s a comparison for you – FGM and foot-binding. The Nationalists and then the Communists outlawed the practice because it was feudal and literally crippled women, even though this was against the wishes of millions of Chinese people. Was this a case of a “cultural difference” not being respected?

September 23, 2009 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

In the face of something so obviously wrong as FGM (even I find it much easier to use the acronym rather than raise the image of what it actually is by writing it long-form) the only thing worth doing is simply saying how wrong it is and resolving to banish it forever.

To the people who like to go on about circumcision – I actually sympathise with your point of view, but not with the way you raise this issue on threads dealing with something which is so obviously worse.

September 23, 2009 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

Richard,

If you ask the girls that if they want to be FGMed, you probably get Yes from most of them – not because they like it, but because they wouldn’t be able to find a husband among their people if they don’t.

You may say that they can marry to other men, but in that case they are going to be killed by their brothers for marrying infidels.

The same thing goes for Ramadan and burqa. You ask them and they all say yes they love it, because if they don’t they are going to suffer consequences in their community. And then they call it a different culture and you must respect it, otherwise they are going out to kill people (and to attack people with syringes lately). What’s the difference here?

This is a much deeper problem than you thought. There are certain aspects in certain religions that are very troubling to us, but here is the difference: I advocate banning all of them even with an iron fist; you are selective on your own emotional preference – typical liberal trait I must say.

September 23, 2009 @ 5:24 pm | Comment

Oia, you brought this up in the last thread, and I asked, How do you know where I stand on burqas and Ramadan? There are many, many things I have never posted on here, such as the cruelty of the Myanmar dictatorship and the hypocrisy of Hugo Chavez. That doesn’t mean I accept those things. This thread is about FGM, nothing else. The fact that enforced burqas is bad doesn’t lessen the badness of FGM. I haven’t written a single post on healthcare. Does that mean I tolerate a bad healthcare system? No. It means this is a one-man blog that can only write about a very limited set of topics. Your logic is weird.

September 23, 2009 @ 11:53 pm | Comment

I agree. Some things just suck. Traditions needs to be changed if it’s stupid. We are human and we are fluid.

September 24, 2009 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

“I don’t depend only on human rights groups for my information. I first became aware of the horrors of the procedure from a first-hand account by Ayaan Hirsi.”
This does not say anything. I am telling you to get the feeling of the general population about FGM and their cultural view of it through balanced and rigorous academic papers. Why do they want it? What do they think of it as? What’s their attitude? You apparently only read a vocal selective people describing it, delivered through the network of human rights groups or other developed world media, who probably only present it in order to prove their point, and you think you know everything and their view of their own cultural practices are illegitimate.

I am not saying subsidizing specifically FGM. I am saying to give them general medical facilities and equipments to perform any surgery, which will include FGM. I am also not saying to give priorities to FGM to other surgeries. Right now, it maybe impossible to do on a wide scale, but it doesn’t mean it gives logical grounds to ban it and kill their culture practices, just because you don’t think it’s safe for them. (That’s a very condescending attitude by the way. This attitude is almost similar to a parent forbiding a children from doing something, because it’s dangerous.) That whole argument was trying to make the point that it’s a logic fallacy that a cultural practice is illegitimate, just because it is not carried out safely currently, but it could be done safely with developement.

What gives you or the developed world the right to decide what is right and what is wrong and the moral standard that everyone have to live up to? Imagine this situation, what if suddenly there is an advanced culture that appeared on earth and they feel that eating with spoons is the most horrendous crime on earth. They can also say, “oh, we accepts multiculturalism, but eating with spoons is the crime of humanity and the limite. We know the arguments of moral relativity, but the crime of eating with spoons can never be accepted.” These people are so much more technologically advanced that no cultures can stand in their way and can only watch as their own culture gets changed. Then in a few hundred years, everybody on earth forgot about it and eating with spoon becomes a demonstration of how “education and awareness eventually helped them recognize that any such procedure is inherently wrong”. I know you think it’s ridiculous, but these African, Mideast or Asian culture also thinks that not performing FGM or honor killings is ridiculous.

“There is no way to perform FGM without trauma, no matter how safely it’s performed, because the end result is mutilation. And every time the woman gives birth she needs to be cut again; it’s a gift that keeps on giving”
You mean, in your opinion, no one can get FGM without trauma, based on your own understanding of human psychology. I assure you that the women that received FGM are very emotionally stable and do not need to constantly consult therapist just to get on with their lives. Also, I quoted the second part because you seem to only be aware of type III FGM, which is the least practiced method of FGM, even though moral-relativism-wise it does not matter.

Also, realize that preventing pain and suffering is also an arbitrary moral value. A moral system can very much praise it. The same can be said of equality of all humans. Equality is just another way of power distribution, and it’s not fundamentally more legitimate than inequality (like everything else), without making a few moral assumptions.

September 25, 2009 @ 2:58 am | Comment

it doesn’t mean it gives logical grounds to ban it and kill their culture practices, just because you don’t think it’s safe for them. (That’s a very condescending attitude by the way. This attitude is almost similar to a parent forbiding a children from doing something, because it’s dangerous.)

Yeah, well some things should be banned because they are unsafe, like using crystal meth and driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and cutting out people’s hearts in religious ceremonies, once a vital part of Incan culture. And foot binding. Do you think parents should allow children to do dangerous things, by the way? You think it’s okay to let your kids play with a loaded shotgun? However, this post was not about imposing a ban, and you are putting words in my mouth. If it is ever banned it will have to be done by the societies that practice it themselves – it has to be their choice. What I applaud is the Scandinavian countries’ approach to discouraging it among their citizens, and I hope other countries follow suit. “If you want to have your vagina mutilated, fine, but that goes against this nation’s laws and you can’t have it both ways.” We on the outside have no authority to come in and ban your practices. What we can do is discourage our own citizens from joining the fun. Many mothers in Cambodia, in comparison to those in the US, have a very different attitude about their children having sex for money with grownups. We may not be able to change that. But we can make it clear that US citizens are not permitted to go to Cambodia to sleep with children, and if they do they will face the consequences.

Your eating-with-a-spoon analogy is obscene. As i made clear many times, I am for all kinds of multiculturalism. Once there is a victim, maimed and bleeding or dead – that’s where i draw the line.

I see you carefully avoided the foot-binding analogy. Do you think it’s okay in any culture for women to be treated as sub-human ornaments forced to endure constant, unbelievable misery? Does moral relativism excuse any aberration, such as honor killings and foot binding and religious human sacrifices?

Again if a society practices FGM, it is that country that will have to ban it, not outsiders. But we on the outside are fully entitled to speak out against it, as I speak out for the rights of people jailed for writing about democracy on the Internet. I try to be polite on this board and refrain from insult, but as I read your words the phrase “moral pigmy” kept coming to mind.

September 25, 2009 @ 3:45 am | Comment

“Do you think parents should allow children to do dangerous things, by the way? You think it’s okay to let your kids play with a loaded shotgun?”
My analogy is to compare the attitude, not the nature of the deed. You or developed countries are not a parent of those African and Mideast cultures. Parent should be able to do it for their children, but to assume that you are in the position to educate them as “parent cultures” is to say that those African and Mideast cultures don’t know any better, thus very condescending.

“”If it is ever banned it will have to be done by the societies that practice it themselves – it has to be their choice. What I applaud is the Scandinavian countries’ approach to discouraging it among their citizens, and I hope other countries follow suit. “If you want to have your vagina mutilated, fine, but that goes against this nation’s laws and you can’t have it both ways.” We on the outside have no authority to come in and ban your practices. What we can do is discourage our own citizens from joining the fun. Many mothers in Cambodia, in comparison to those in the US, have a very different attitude about their children having sex for money with grownups. …… But we can make it clear that US citizens are not permitted to go to Cambodia to sleep with children, and if they do they will face the consequences. Again if a society practices FGM, it is that country that will have to ban it, not outsiders. But we on the outside are fully entitled to speak out against it, as I speak out for the rights of people jailed for writing about democracy on the Internet.”

Actually I complete agreed with the above part of your post. Apparently I didn’t get your stance of not trying to induce those governments to impose a ban on this practice or induce the people to give up the practice, but only criticize from outside and let their culture make their own decisions, since you were talking about how barbaric this practice is and how they should be educated to think that FGM is a crime (which I feel is a form of brainwashing). Other countries and cultures absolutely have the right to speak out against it or ban it within their own culture, since the morals of those culture are incompatible with the practice. But this culture or country would not be really multicultural, despite what they claim, but it is still the culture or country’s right to decide their own moral system. I also want to make it clear that I think that a society that is completely multicultural would not function, but a society that is at least tolerant of other cultural practice under other societies would prosper and have no conflict with its fellow societies.

“…We may not be able to change that…” I want to make it clear that my stance is that the “modern” globalized cultures should not attempt anything at all to impose a change in a different culture.

I did not write anything on foot-binding, because I have a lot to say about it and I have a class to attend. I will now address that. Again, yes, for that culture, if they want to bind their feet as a practice, then it is fine. The women want it. It is their own cultural sense of beauty. Just like developed nation’s women getting breast implants for themselves, these women are getting it not only for the men, but they also feel that big feet are ugly. You keep thinking, using your own opinion, that nobody could possibly want that and they must be forced and dragged into doing it, all of these dictated by men. Back in the pre-modernized China, everyone, men and women, feel that it is beautiful. You can bet that grown women that did not get foot binding regretted their class that they are born into and feel inferior in their self-esteem when compare to someone who got their feet bond. If the woman who were born into an upper class but did not get her feet bond, she is going to curse her mom for not doing it when she is young. Also your appraisal that they are only enduring constant unbelievable misery is based on your experience and your estimate of how they feel. Plenty of the Chinese women feel fine back then living with it. I think the biggest issue for this practice for western now is that it may not be done by the person’s choice. However, if it is possible to do when one is an adult, and suddenly the Chinese culture feels that small feet is beautiful again, and a lot of women begin to practice it, and now that they have the technology and medical facilities to reduce the pain, would you still feel that it is barbaric and they should be educated?

“The Chinese overcame these obstacles” (From the last comment of the first FGM post)

First of all, this is again cultural condescension. Only the western culture viewed it as an obstacle. The Chinese culture (in the past) did not. This is a prime example of my hypothetical situation where the cultural genocide is forgotten and the culture completely changed to conform to the arbitrary (as in the civilization with most power gets to set it) standard.

“Your eating-with-a-spoon analogy is obscene. As i made clear many times, I am for all kinds of multiculturalism. Once there is a victim, maimed and bleeding or dead – that’s where i draw the line.”

How is my analogy obscene? You are being too vague.

Also, I have another hypothetical universe that demonstrates one can not be multicultural by setting an arbitrary standard (which others could very much sees it as ridiculous or immoral) and refuse to be tolerant of every cultural standard. Imagine in that same universe where the eating-with-spoon culture is dominating culturally and economically. They can also claim the following: “As we made clear many times, we am for all kinds of multiculturalism. Once there is a spoon, being used to eat or drink – that’s where I draw the line.”

September 25, 2009 @ 5:57 am | Comment

And that’s it, FTC. No more.

September 25, 2009 @ 6:03 am | Comment

The Nationalists and then the Communists outlawed the practice because it was feudal and literally crippled women

Just as a note, the practice was also denounced several times before then and even the Qing Dynasty made efforts to stop it. Only when the Nationalists started killing people for foot binding did it begin to die out.

Lastly the prevalence of that custom is widely exaggerated by Western reports.

driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and cutting out people’s hearts in religious ceremonies, once a vital part of Incan culture

I don’t think you should say human sacrifice is a “vital part of Incan culture”. It wasn’t any more “vital to Incan culture” as anti-Semitism and witch burning were vital parts of European culture.

It’s just vile, and a lot of cultures are capable of doing stuff like that. Once you equate barbaric practices to the culture or people of a region, they start defending it.

So resist the urge to get on that soapbox and embroil women’s and human rights with Western/anti-Westernism.

September 25, 2009 @ 6:23 am | Comment

Merp, if you’d been following the threads you’d have seen that I did indeed equate it with antiseimitism and slavery and other Western “cultural anomalies” that were once widely accepted but that were always inexcusable. Footbinding is just one of many examples I used, and I applaud the Chinese for doing away with it, as we did with slavery.

For FTC’s edification (he thinks foot binding is fine), I suggest he read Wild Swans. It is always painful, it is always torture. To see actual photos, please go here. Warning: these photos are gruesome. Foot binding is gruesome. China realized it. We all realize it.

September 25, 2009 @ 6:26 am | Comment

I believe foot binding would still be around if contemporary Westerner’s tuned up their criticism of it to the degree they do today.

September 25, 2009 @ 6:42 am | Comment

Merp, your argument doesn’t make sense to me. Are you saying that Scandinavians don’t have the right to prohibit cultural practices with which they disagree? Because that would make the countries that practice FGM less likely to outlaw it?

September 25, 2009 @ 7:27 am | Comment

No. I think the Scandinavian countries are doing the right thing. They should toss Shari’a into the trash as well. It’s their country.

Generally Scandinavians are not as loud and obnoxious as British or American protesters, who often entrench nations in their “bad habits”.

For example dog eating and whale eating in Korea/Japan respectively. PETA has only turned a dying practice in a culture war. Consumption of dog meat was on the decline in Korea until PETA got involved.

September 25, 2009 @ 8:13 am | Comment

What gives you or the developed world the right to decide what is right and what is wrong and the moral standard that everyone have to live up to?

I may be wrong, but it doesn’t appear anybody is proposing to go into Africa and force the natives to change their customs. All that’s happened is that Scandinavian countries have made the point that there are certain barbaric things immigrants aren’t allowed to do, even if it is their custom back home. This is no worse than Chinese people asking foreigners to respect laws and customs in China.

That said, during the last years of Apartheid South Africans complained that the rest of the Western world was imposing its values on them (which they were). Not many people were impressed by that argument and eventually the South African government had to give in. I don’t think that was a bad thing.

September 25, 2009 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

There’s a new comment up there that’s been held by my spam filter. This will be my last word on this because I don’t want to continue arguing over something about which we all know where the other stands.

I know the history of foot binding well. I know it was something many women wanted done, because it was “what they did” at the time. History is full of such examples, and honor killings are one of the last vestiges of these cultural aberrations that those carrying them out feel are normal, justifiable and an important part of their culture. A recent example in my own part of the US a few years ago was cock fighting, in which the roosters tear each other to shreds. It was long a part of the culture but was successfully banned, and I am fine with that. This is America, where we have our principles, right or wrong, and if you live here you have to abide by them.

Again, I wouldn’t be in favor of the US demanding China stop binding the feet of young women. We can lobby for it, but the change has to come from China.

if it is possible to do when one is an adult, and suddenly the Chinese culture feels that small feet is beautiful again, and a lot of women begin to practice it, and now that they have the technology and medical facilities to reduce the pain, would you still feel that it is barbaric and they should be educated?

Absolutely. This is not just about appearance. Foot binding turns the person into a cripple, and every step hurts Some victims have to keep breaking their toes, as described in sickening detail in the book Wild Swans. It is certainly their right to do it. It’s our right, if we choose, to say it’s a bad thing that by its nature subjugates women and turns them into hobbled show pieces living in constant pain. No one, contrary to your assertion, “felt fine” with the procedure. it is impossible to feel fine. Maybe they wanted it, but they experienced atrocious pain, always. Any such equivalent exercise is something I would condemn, as I do the head-to-foot burqas of some Middle East countries. I’m not going to dismiss these things as cultural niceties. If the woman takes the burqa off she can be beaten. It happens. Hirsi was in effect kidnapped and mutilated kicking and screaming, against her will. It’s not like they are all lined up happily waiting to be mutilated.

This is not a matter of a hypocritical westerner coming in and imposing their values, as you speciously argue. The objections to foot binding that led to its being illegal in China came from within. Not everyone was so delighted with the process as you would have us think. There was enough momentum against it to ensure its being wiped out.

I have the freedom to choose at which point a cultural tradition crosses the line into barbarism, something that merits a protest. These guidelines are personal, and I don’t have to account to anyone for them, but they are not, from my perspective, random or inconsistent. When children are raped and/or sold into sexual slavery, when women undergo agonizing physical procedures that guarantee pain and complications their entire life, when an entire segment of the population is repressed because of their sex or their sexuality – these fit my own criteria. There is no argument that can justify these things. You can cleverly say this is what these people want, but I know that in each of these instances there are many who protest and fight. The practices are all rooted in ignorance and in most cases based on a premise of the woman being inferior, a commodity there to serve at the whim of her husband. In the case of gays, it’s built on ignorance and extreme prejudice. Yes, yes, this is their culture, we should respect it – and I am all for respecting their culture. Until it involves murder, torture, subjugation and abuse. I know, what’s torture in my eyes is jolly good in theirs. But I have enough evidence in every one of these cases to know that this is a grotesque oversimplification. Just as with the slaves in America, there was always a segment of society that recognized its inherent evil and eventually they won. So, too, with FGM, foot binding and child prostitution. These practices thrive in ignorance. Information and education can wipe them out, as has happened many times in the past. Don’t worry, the culture can still thrive. FGM isn’t the one tie that binds them together. And drawing false parallels such as “eating with a spoon” is facile, it’s cunning, but it’s also obscene. If anyone fails to see the difference between the two – i.e., the lack of a victim, mutilated and bleeding – then I don’t want to argue with them about this. Thread closed.

Oh, and thanks Peter. Apartheid is a good example. I’m sure FTC is a big fan.

September 26, 2009 @ 5:23 am | Comment

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