Ethnocentric feminism

I had a hard time tearing myself away from the computer Wednesday and Thursday mornings to catch the bus downtown to the courthouse, because there was a lively (not to say acrimonious) discussion on a Women’s Studies list I subscribe to, about Female Genital Mutilation. I may have done something myself to contribute to the acrimony. Okay I did. I got annoyed. Repeatedly. (But one is limited to two messages a day, so there was a limit to the damage I could do.)

It started with the (astonishing, I thought) fact that the practice was called ‘circumcision’ – which staggered me because I thought it was apologists for the practice who called it that and that opponents all called it Female Genital Mutilation (which is what it is) as a matter of principle. What could feminists be doing euphemizing the horrible practice? I wondered and wondered, then someone rather gently asked the same question, so I decided to provide backup. (I haven’t been posting to the list much, if at all [I can't remember if I've posted before], because I’m not a women’s studies teacher, so I figured I would just read and be silent; but that’s over.) Backup is useful on that list, I think, because there is a strong current of orthodoxy and orthodoxy-enforcement there, and it looks to me as if more people speak up when other people are speaking up. Certainly that’s how it fell out with this discussion. So I expressed my astonishment in stronger and somewhat ruder terms – and there were other comments – and before long out came the classic retort.

This collection of essays problematizes the “M” for mutilation (which I thought was a critique by now well-entrenched in Women’s Studies) as much as an “E” for excision, given regional differences in the types of procedures performed, and “circumcision” is rejected for the very reasons already named – this is not exactly what occurs (one of the editors suggests “S” for sugeries; another option is “C” for cutting). The book does a very nice job of pointing out that while no one is turning cartwheels about female genital surgeries, and that African women themselves have taken steps to end such practices, this is a far cry from the explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage voiced by Western feminists about practices in “other” countries, as performed precisely on cue on this listserv, according to a script that seems not to have changed in 20 years.

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was no ‘explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ in any of the messages. None of the messages started out by saying ‘Here is my colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ – or ‘Here is my outrage as a colonialist ethnocentric Western feminist’ – or ‘My colonialist ethnocentric sense of superiority is outraged at the practices in “other” countries.’ No; no one said anything like that; so what was the accusation doing there? The usual. The usual boring, hackneyed, thought-free, self-flattering attempt at intimidation via orthodoxy-deployment and guilt-mongering.

[D]iscussion of female genital surgeries and potential analogues or comparisons with male circumcision should be possible without the accompanying ethnocentric outpouring of feminist outrage. The notion that female genital surgeries are uniquely violating, singularly oppressive to women, primarily about the control of women’s sexuality, a sign of women’s unique powerlessness and violation in Muslim cultures, or the most pressing problem facing the women who undergo it has been *exhaustively documented* as reflective of Western feminist priorities, a fundamentally imperialist feminist analysis that operates on the basis of Western feminist conceptions of gender, sexual hierarchy, and the oppression of women…The result is the characterization of non-Western women as uniquely victimized, exploited, and damaged by “their” men or their barbaric “culture”…

No it isn’t. It isn’t because the ‘outpouring’ (such as it was) wasn’t ‘ethnocentric’; because not all ‘non-Western women’ are subject to FGM, in fact the vast majority of them are not; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘non-Western women’ in general; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘West good non-West bad huh huh huh’ or any other such brainless grunting; because the discussion wasn’t about trying to ‘characterize’ all non-Western women (which would be a bizarre project) but about calling the practice of cutting off and sewing up women’s genitalia a harmful practice. That’s all it was about – yet it was called ethnocentric, colonialist, fundamentally imperialist, and (horror of horrors) twenty years out of date.

So, not for the first time, I learned that it is simply not possible to satirize this kind of thing adequately, because it’s always more fatuous and delusional and above all self-flattering than one can imagine in advance.

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