Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Women and the perpetuation of female genital mutilation

Dean Esmay has flung out a challenge to the female blogosphere, and I thought I'd take him up on it.

In this post, he points out that the practice of female genital mutilation (known also as "female circumcision") is neither Islamic nor the sole province of men. In fact, it occurs in a cultural band in northern Africa and predates Islam there, and women themselves are generally the agents of its transmission: they perform the majority of these "surgeries."

I am in agreement with Dean that the custom is not primarily an Islamic one, but rather, a cultural practice. However, it tends to follow a geographic distribution that intersects in many places with Islam, so the two are sometimes linked together in actuality, if not in origins. And some Moslems have used a passage in the Koran to justify the practice, although most think that's an ex-post-facto stretch.

Dean has titled his post "Understanding things: a first step towards fixing them." I agree with this notion as well: understanding something can help us in knowing how best to intervene to change it, and why it may be very difficult to do so.

Dean writes (and I believe this is the part of his post that he considers a challenge to the female blogosphere):

Historically, and even today, in most places where female circumcision is practiced, it is primarily done to women by other women...You aren't going to change this horrific, barbaric practice until you get all those aunts, mothers, and grandmothers in places like Egypt to agree that it needs to be changed. And I doubt you're going to get much mileage by blaming their brothers, fathers, and husbands for a tradition that goes back to long before any of them was born.

So, how can we best understand the practice, and is there any way to intervene to change it? There's a vast amount of literature on the topic, both online and off, and this post of mine will hardly scratch the surface--the problem has great complexity.

When one looks at a cultural practice of any sort, especially an ancient one, there are a host of interrelated issues involved, and it can be very difficult to tease out what influences what.

For the ancient practice euphemistically known as "female circumcision" (see this), the milder forms may be roughly analogous to male circumcision, but the more extreme (and more common) forms are most certainly not. They represent a horror of major proportions.

Dean is quite correct in pointing out that women have traditionally perpetuated the practice. This, by the way (at least as far as I know) tends to be true of other similar cultural practices that subjugate women physically (such as, for example, foot-binding, now fortunately eradicated).

In cultures where such mutilating customs are practiced, one reason that women tend to be in charge of performing them on other women (on little girls, actually) is that, in such cultures, men have been traditionally discouraged from touching women's bodies intimately--except sexually, that is, in the proper sanctioned relationships. But the more important reason that women are the agents of their own mutilation is that, of course, women are part of the culture, too. The custom is all of a piece, as is the culture, and women are not separate from it.

In the case of areas in which female circumcision is the custom, it is usually a cultural norm for men to only want to marry a circumcised woman. Of course, women want the girls in their own family to be marriageable; an uncircumcised girl would be a terrible liability. Still another goal of female circumcision is to enforce chastity by reducing female sexual desire, which is felt to be threatening and dangerous. Older woman, therefore, are also trying to control the tendency of younger women to run around and be sexually wild, and thus to reflect badly on the family (sleep around, get pregnant, etc.--all of which is absolutely forbidden in shame/honor cultures).

If you think of each girl who is born as a commodity that only gains worth when married, and if sexual activity prior to marriage (and intact genitalia) would make her unmarriageable, then the entire family--men and women both--will do everything in their power to stop that.

Who comes first, women or men, in perpetuating this endeavor? I don't think there can possibly be an answer; the two are intertwined. But there is no question that it is the cultural demand (expressed as a male demand) for a chaste and sexually tractable wife that's driving it, and the perception that female circumcision is an excellent way to accomplish this.

How could it be changed? Men or women--or both together--could take steps to do so--but, realistically speaking, to make this widespread would require a fairly massive cultural change in the entire way of looking at female sexuality, marriage, and the position of women in society. Although every journey begins with a single step, how do women or men get the courage to buck such a deeply ingrained system?

In the areas where female circumcision is common, it is a fact that women tend to have less political power than men, just as it is a fact that they are usually the actual agents by which the genital mutilation is performed. Most of their power is within the home, as Dean points out. And if female circumcision is the price they feel they must pay to be married and even to have a home and a family, then one can hardly expect them to cast off these chains all by themselves. It is a conundrum.

There are movements in that direction, however. And intervention can occur either through changing male or female attitudes, or both. This rather outdated article (from 1989)--which admittedly comes from a feminist and male-blaming perspective--details some suggestions for efforts in this direction, stressing the importance of education, including education of the women traditionally responsible for performing the procedure:

* Adoption of clear national policies for the abolishment of female circumcision;

* Establishment of national commissions to coordinate and follow up the activities of other bodies involved including, where appropriate, the enactment of legislation prohibiting female circumcision;

* Intensification of general education of the public, including health education at all levels, with special emphasis on the dangers and the undesirability of female circumcision;

* Intensification of education programs for traditional birth attendants, midwives, healers and other practitioners of traditional medicine, to demonstrate the harmful effects of female circumcision, with a view to enlisting their support along with general efforts to abolish this practice.

And here is a very recent article on the topic, which outlines some of the areas in which the UN is actually performing a positive service; general public education seems to be the way to go:

UNICEF is supporting programmes to end FGM/C in 18 countries and conducting initial activities in four. They use a variety of approaches:

In Senegal, largely thanks to the work of TOSTAN, a non-governmental organization that focuses on educating communities about human rights and human dignity, tens of thousands of people have declared their abandonment of the practice.

In Egypt, the FGM-Free Village Model project brings together government and UN partners to encourage villages in the southern region to make public declarations against FGM/C. UNICEF works with individuals who have renounced FGM/C and are willing to speak out and persuade others in the community to do the same.

In Sudan, religious leaders are using their authority to affirm that FGM/C is a violation of spiritual and theological principles. On Monday, government officials, the National Council for Child Welfare and UN agencies will hold a commemorative event that will include an exhibition, religious and secular songs on abandonment of FGM/C and children's performances. The exhibition will include images of girls who died of FGM/C.

...The Maputo Protocol, a regional legal instrument which explicitly prohibits and condemns FGM/C, was ratified by 15 African countries and entered into force in November 2005. A month later, 100 African parliamentarians adopted the groundbreaking “Dakar Declaration,”
which underscores the importance of community involvement as well as legislative change in ending FGM/C...

As I've said before, a mind (or, in this case, minds) can be a difficult thing to change. But not an impossible one. The same goes for that aggregate of minds known as a culture, and the practices that make up that culture.


At 2:26 PM, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but the more extreme (and more common) forms are most certainly not

i call BS.
You show absolutely no data to base this on, especially re: Islam.

At 2:38 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I went back and read Dr Sanity, I would characterize her article as going something like this: She doesn't like Arabs, who generally are Muslims, she is looking for reasons to justify her dislike, she came upon the subject of female circumcision, and basically vented in that direction. Whatever logic or accuracy it might have contained was overridden by a manifest bias against Arabs. Whatever. It's her blog.

I found Dean Esmay's post, on the other hand, an attempt to correct the errors of fact in Dr Sanity's post while at the same time striking a much more balanced position.

Meanwhile, as a typical Westerner I find the practice of female cutting abominable and I am glad that there are educational methods out there trying to get rid of it. Outlawing it, however, by force, would just drive it underground.

As to why these things happen. Bearing in mind that apples are apples, and oranges are oranges, one could, with some hyperbole, point to all kinds of practices that Western women indulge in, including this mindless obsession with weight, makeup, hair, and clothes, that is directed, encouraged, and policed by women, and which really doesn't involve men at all, beyond the fact that men in general want women to be "good looking" or "sexy" or such like.

I mean -- not to go too far afield -- why is it that men just are whatever they are but a woman has to feel an obligation to spend a good amount of her time and her money to "look good", and usually for some guy who doesn't really notice all the work involved?

I would submit that, although female cutting is incomparably gross, it follows the same line of reasoning: sexual status.

And that's part of the reason why it will be hard to abolish. In these societies that practice female cutting, not getting cut would be to be like a woman in our society who, in previous Western incarnations, would be considered a slut, or a witch, etc., etc.

At 2:42 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Anonymous: have you mastered the technique of following a link? If so, please follow the link right before the quote of mine that you have reproduced, and see what it is I'm referring to.

And I make it quite clear that the practice has no real causative ties to Islam; it is a geographical connection, and a spotty one, at best.

I really am getting very tired of people--quite a few of whom are named "anonymous," as it turns out--not fully reading what I have written, and yet commenting anyway (and often rudely, at that).

At 3:07 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

"You show absolutely no data to base this on, especially re: Islam."

It's logic, not data. While it is true that logic can be manipulated, it is pretty obvious when it happens. It is not so obvious when data is manipulated however.

I really am getting very tired of people--quite a few of whom are named "anonymous," as it turns out--not fully reading what I have written, and yet commenting anyway (and often rudely, at that).

Guerrila partisan warfare has always emphasized the hit and run. Then they fade back in the hedgerows, and you can't find them anymore.

Guerrila partisans are some of the best propagandists and hit-run operators around. Somehow, we got to steal them from the socialists.

At 3:26 PM, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ymarkasar said, "Guerrila partisans are some of the best propagandists and hit-run operators around." I hope you weren't including this particular anonymous in this group. A good propagandist, or "hit-run operator" if you want to call it that, would make some sort of effective argument before "fading back into the hedgerows." Nothing about the foolish and obvious incorrectness of anonymous' comment would be effective to influence anyone's thinking -- except to persuade us that anonymous, whomever he or she may be, isn't any too bright.

At 3:41 PM, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

IIRC, the way that foot-binding was eventually eradicated involved setting up networks of families who swore that they would not bind their daughters' feet *or* (and here is the key) allow their sons to marry daughters with bound feet. In addition to making a public statement against foot-binding, this served the very practical purpose of ensuring that girls without bound feet would have potential marriage partners (the sons of other women in the network), thus addressing the fear that a woman without bound feet would be unable to find a husband.

I seem to recall hearing that there was talk of similar networks being formed to combat female genital mutilation, but I can't think where at the moment.

Great post on a very weighty subject, neoneo!

At 6:22 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Who but a human would ever think of such an idiotic practice? Leave the girls alone. Let nature take its course. Anything else is a pathetic projection of men's fear of woman's power.

At 7:07 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Anything else is a pathetic projection of men's fear of woman's power.

And the purpose of male circumcision? (esp. bearing mind that in these same countries boys have their foreskins removed in the their teens) What's that all about?

At 7:36 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It's kosher.

At 8:25 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Megan said...

It's also my understanding that male circumcision is more sanitary. And in this country almost always done at birth.

At 8:38 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

It's also my understanding that male circumcision is more sanitary. And in this country almost always done at birth.

That was the pretext under which it was done for decades in the US, rather less now, as I understand it. And it was/is done at birth. The Jewish practice is done by a special priest (mohel) on I think the seventh day.

I don't know about other groups, I do know it is done here and there in the same regions where female circumcision is done. In Europe it is rarely done.

The cleanliness/health issues have been exaggerated, so, again, what exactly is the logic of male circumcision? What I mean is: I understand the Jewish approach, it's in the Bible, but what about other groups? If there's a "masculine power" element to female circumcision, then what's the element with doing it to guys? Not trying to start a fight, I am generally curious. To say the one type of cutting is hygienic, while the other is not, is not convincing to me.

At 8:41 PM, April 04, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I wouldn't call this an argument in favor of female circumcision but I would consider it a refutation of any argument that suggests that Muslims are somehow more obsessed with sex than we are. I mean, the first couple of times, it was kind of amusing. But we seem to be having an epidemic in this area.

At 1:25 AM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"but what about other groups? If there's a "masculine power" element to female circumcision, then what's the element with doing it to guys? Not trying to start a fight, I am generally curious. To say the one type of cutting is hygienic, while the other is not, is not convincing to me."
Well, other than the word circumcision, and the fact that both procedures are performed on the genital region, there's little if any functional comparison. In male circumcision, despite the anti-circumcision propagandists, the excess foreskin is removed. Big deal. there appears to be relatively little pain during the procedure, and no long term side-effects. I watched the procedure performed on my son (clinical, not religious), and he cried, but it wasn't that bad. Honestly, if you aren't Jewish, I guess the main reason is to look like Daddy... It's really a cosmetic procedure, with some small hygiene benefit. There's almost zero chance of mistake by the Dr. since they use a little guide that clamps on the penis. Compare this to some village in Northern Africa, with an woman with no formal training performing a cliterodectomy with some contaminated ceremonial dagger. That's a removal of the clitoris- roughly comperable to cutting off the head of the penis on a man. I don't think the two compare, and in fact think the term 'female circumcision' should not be used as it is rather misleading.

What I don't understand is why it hasn't been eliminated in the muslim world already- It seems if you just educated them that it's really an animist practice, they'd condemn it in a heartbeat, no?

As for the animist practitioners, perhaps missionaries are the best weapon against this practice?

At 1:43 AM, April 05, 2006, Blogger The probligo said...

It might seem simplistic, but this to me is another instance of "I have a teaspoon..."

There are no "overnight cures" for cultural practices. No matter how repulsive a practice might be, it is not "something new". It has been part of that society for probably hundreds of generations.

The practice of female circumcision is one which many agencies have been working to counter for as long as I have been aware that it existed. Those agencies include the likes of Red Cross, Save the Children Fund, Oxfam...

Please, if ever cultural change is being discussed or considered, can people leave out the arrogant "our way is the best way - send in the missionaries". It frequently is not.

A far better means may well be to find a reputable charity working for the improvement of womens' rights in those areas where circumcision is practiced - and make a donation!!

At 3:23 AM, April 05, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

"Who comes first, women or men, in...this endeavor?"

At the risk of stating the obvious, I'd say the women don't come at all. The horror!

At 9:20 AM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

An important and thought-provoking post, Neo. Many thanks... and thanks also for demonstrating something the UN is actually good for!

respectfully (if ungrammatically),
Daniel in Brookline

At 9:48 AM, April 05, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

Somehow I am reminded of the old blame-the-victim scenario still used in rape cases. Some people are just plain jackasses. Of course women are doing the deed - muslim men aren't supposed to be touching female genitals, except for their wives, now are they? Remember the taliban and how women couldn't even be seen by male doctors? DUH!! What a jackass - as if the men don't condone and enforce this - as if it would still be happening if muslim men opposed it. Let's see, hmmm, men do the honor killings, as well as control the economy,most property and jobs, religion, politics, police and military and the courts, but have no part to play in clitorectomy. Is that how it works? Dumb me! I thought most female muslims were mere property and breeders.

At 10:40 AM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

We were talking about sexual control:

Routine infant circumcision in the United States grew out of a widespread fear that masturbation caused various diseases, a view now universally rejected by the medical community. Circumcision was thought to reduce masturbation and other sexual behavior considered undesirable. Circumcision, depending on how it is practiced, can have a significant impact on masturbation; see masturbation for a detailed discussion.

I don't know if it's propaganda or not. I was done (for hygiene, I suppose), neither of my sons were. There were no problems there, either. I recall that a few years ago, Jamie Glazov, who sells himself as a Russian, an American, a Black man, and a Jew, wrote several articles for Frontpage.com telling you everything you didn't want to know about his intact foreskin. Whatever.

My point is not to equate the two types of cutting. Just suggesting that a cloud of superstition, not necessarily something as simplistic as "evil men controlling women", is involved.

At 11:15 AM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

There's another reason for circumcision.


At 1:11 PM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't realize circumcision was passe. So is there any way I can...you know...get it back?

As to FGM - I think it should be dealt with like suttee was in India. Oops, I forgot - no colonial government to impose our evil Western cultural standards on the helpless aboriginal peoples. Guess we'll have to rely on the NGOs and all their powers of persuasion, then. Too bad for all those girls who'll have to wait...

At 2:45 PM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And that's part of the reason why it will be hard to abolish."

I concur. In fact, Steve, I would go so far as to say the looney "progressive" thinking, that equates FGM with the western practice of wearing makeup, is an impassable bar to progress, not just for the third world, but for the entire world.

At 2:53 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I concur. In fact, Steve, I would go so far as to say the looney "progressive" thinking, that equates FGM with the western practice of wearing makeup, is an impassable bar to progress, not just for the third world, but for the entire world.

Yawn. I went out of my way to dissociate the comparison: my point was that women control their own customs, and who knows why they follow these customs. I specifically did not equate FGM and makeup, but rather the feminine groupthink that clearly underlies both practices.

But then, drive-bys rarely look carefully at what they're shooting at.

At 2:59 PM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I went out of my way to dissociate the comparison between you and a loony "progressive," Steve. Rather, I attacked the clearly postmodernist groupthink that clearly underlies both practices (or at least became clear when I made fun of progressives and you started flapping and squawking).

At 3:10 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Consider yourself the recipient of a handsome apology. ;-)

At 6:09 PM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve: my point was that women control their own customs, and who knows why they follow these customs.

Yeah, those crazy women, huh?

In fact, of course, women as such no more control "their" own customs than men do -- members of both genders are immersed in cultures that transmit values and practices in a variety of ways. They can be -- and in this case they certainly should be -- changed, but to do that it helps to have some comprehension of what it was that gave rise to, and maintains, the practice in the first place. With female genital mutilation, it's fairly obviously a fear of female sexuality -- a fear that we can see exemplified by Steve's choice of what he considered to be a relevant news item.

At 10:40 PM, April 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

If I had as much power as the islamics do, I don't think I'd let a woman control how many heart beats she has in a day, let alone customs.

The primary appeal of Islam is the power men have over women.

The tribal culture of Darfur and Africa, ain't exactly all that different from Islam's culture. Afghanistan and Iraq, are actually "tribal" cultures, you know. It's like Italian mafia on steroids. Big, bad, and metastasized.

At 8:49 AM, April 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dean Esmay: I love how some people are quick to blame the men and hold the women blameless.

This isn't and wasn't the point, of either neo's post or Dr. Sanity's. The point of the latter's was to connect the cultural practice of mutilating female genitals as a means of suppressing female sexuality with a general fear of that sexuality -- on the part of both men and women (though for different reasons) -- that pervades the muslim world. An example of that fear is this quote from the interview that occasioned the Dr. Sanity post:
Dr. Muhammad Wahdan: We have a spinster problem in the Arab world, and the last thing we want is for them to be sexually aroused. Circumcision of the girls who need it makes them chaste, dignified, and pure.

Yes, this sort of mutilation occurs in other cultures than Islamic ones, and predates Islam. But again, that's not the point. The point is that such a practice is entirely of a piece with so many other examples of extreme and often vicious sexual repression that are found in so many, and through so much of, contemporary Islamic societies. This repression is usually perpetrated, actively or passively, by both sexes, but the bulk of its focus is on women -- who, in many Islamic nations, must cover their hair in public, or cover their entire face and body, who cannot appear alone in public, cannot drive or vote, who can be stoned, by Islamic law, for "adultery", and who can be murdered, as in "honor killings", for speaking to male strangers.

Yes, I know: honor killings, like genital mutilation, occur in other cultures as well; and this culture too has examples or supporters of sexual repression, the weight of which commonly falls more heavily on women. But the point is to take off the PC, multi-culti, pomo blinkers that require us not to look at or acknowledge the horrors that occur in other cultures, lest that distract us from the happy-face "diversity" mantras that currently pervade our own.

At 4:21 PM, April 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sally, you and Neo-neocon have obviously never seen the full Esmay. When it comes to victimization, nobody is a bigger victim than white males, especially when put up against those horrid feminists and misandrists and man-hating women that he lves to slander.

He cherry-picks data that agrees with his argument, slams all datat that disagrees as biased, and counts on iFeminists a WHOLE lot.

Trust me when I say: You're better off never again responding to one of his anti-women trolls.

At 4:39 PM, April 06, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Sexism is like allergies in your immune system. It is only bad if you are allergic to harmless things. Since men in Western civilizations, are not a danger, attacking them is sexist and wrong. Since men in Islamic and tribal cultures are a danger, sexism is a good thing.

The Theory of Relative Gains. Or marginal costs, whatever.

I don't exactly have a problem with sexism if it is useful. I wonder if Dean, does.

At 4:42 PM, April 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure the appeal of Islam is so rooted in the desire to control women. The multiculturalist left tries so hard to pretend that never really happens, rather than making it one of their selling points of the religion.

No, they give their support to Islam in spite of its subjugation of women, not because of it. They have their eyes permanently fixed on a far bigger promise that makes the nastier features of Islam a price they're willing to pay to achieve their larger goal.

They realize that they can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. They don't yet realize, and won't until after the eggs are all broken, that they aren't going to make an omelette either. Just a giant mess that will take centuries to clean up.

At 5:51 PM, April 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The appeal of Islam refers directly to Islamists, not others. Islamists don't convert once in Europe because they want to maintain their control of their women.


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