Monday, August 20, 2007

Imperialism vs. FGM

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan by someone whose name, oddly enough, is Janice Boddy.
[...]As Richard Shweder notes, "the global campaign against what has been gratuitously and invidiously labeled "female genital mutilation" remains a flawed game whose rules have been fixed by the rich nations of the world." This book describes an opening test match in that game, set in Sudan during the first half of the twentieth century under British colonial rule. I offer it as an extended critique of the continuing campaign, the discourse that informs it, and the imperialist logic that sustains it even now . . .

Much literature on the subject is moralizing and polemical, and regularly alienates those in positions to stimulate change. There are noteworthy exceptions, among them Ellen Gruenbaum’s The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective, two books edited by Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, one edited by Stanlie James and Claire Robertson, and the recent Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka, written under the banner of transnational feminism and framed as a collaborative dialogue among African and Western scholars. These works move beyond judgmental confrontation toward an appreciation of social and historical context and the value of strategic alliances based on mutual respect. Yet in cases too numerous to list, self-righteous critics present and past have leaped to condemn what they’ve only presumed to understand, citing unverified statistics culled from other disparaging publications, relying on self-reference and reiteration to create the truth of their cause. Their typical verdict: that female genital cutting regularly kills, has no valid meaning, and is inflicted on ignorant and powerless women by sadistic men.

My research warns that this view is mistaken, born of little contextual data and a specifically Euro-American set of ideas about person, agency, and gender. I am not arguing that we can reposition an elusive Archimedean point to achieve greater "objectivity"; one can never be truly outside of a culture, there is no such nonplace to be, no "view from nowhere." To say that one’s culture guides and perhaps mystifies understanding is incontestable and trite; taken to its logical conclusion, it applies to analysts as well as their subjects, granting Western critics no unmediated purchase on the practices they decry. Admitting one’s situatedness clarifies one’s responsibility to take seriously what people have to say for themselves, to credit the contexts of their lives. Insight comes neither by Olympian fiat nor through spurious, if therapeutic, empathy.[...]
Boddy seems to have done her anthropological research in a place where the practice is infibulation, the most extreme form of FGM.Is Boddy just another post-colonialist pedant droning on, defending the indefensible? There are glimpses of intelligence in the droning, but sorry, you don't have to be a colonialist to find these practices horrifying and sickening. They should end, and I hope Boddy admits that somewhere in her book.

(Hat Tip: Martin Kramer)

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