Michelle Goldberg on relativism and FGM

‘On Feb. 6, 2007, two women, both of whom had been circumcised in Africa , met in the conference room of a small foundation on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a highly unusual debate. It was the fourth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, an occasion for events across the globe dedicated to abolishing the practice.’ One was Fuambai Ahmadu, the American-born daughter of a Sierra Leonean family, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics; the other was Grace Mose, who grew up in an Abagusii village in southwestern Kenya. Mose was there as an active opponent of FGM, and Ahmadu was there as a defender. Michelle Goldberg continues:

“My sitting here is a perfect example that female initiation can have a place in a global society,” [Ahmadu] insisted. “I don’t see that initiation is somehow an impediment to girls’ development.”…As she spoke, Mose, a fervent campaigner against the practice, glared at her. Unruffled, Ahmadu continued, arguing that in Sierra Leone, “female circumcision is empowering.” Toward the end of the debate, a Senegalese woman, incensed by Ahmadu, stood up and said, “I really feel very frustrated seeing an African sister defending female genital mutilation.” A few people applauded.

The Senegalese woman protested the term ‘circumcision’ and said the word should be mutilation. Then Ahmadu got angry.

“In Senegal, in Gambia, in my country, Sierra Leone, there are words that we can use, as circumcised women, against uncircumcised women that are very insulting and very nasty and very offensive.”

In Somalia, too. Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells us that.

The kids at madrassah were tough. They fought. One girl, who was about eight years old, they called kintirleey, ‘she with the clitoris.’ I had no idea what a clitoris was, but the kids didn’t even want to be seen with this girl. They spat on her and pinched her; they rubbed sand in her eyes, and once they caught her and tried to bury her in the sand behind the school.

Later, after a fight, another girl shouts at Ayaan, ‘Kintirleey!’

Sanyar winced. I looked at her, horror dawning on me. I was like that other girl? I, too, had that filthy thing, a kintir?

Ahmadu continues her objection:

Comparing these slurs to the word “mutilation,” she continued, “I may be different from you and I am excised, but I am not mutilated. Just like I will not accept anybody calling me by the n-word to define my racial identity, I will not have anybody call me by the m-word to define my social identity, my gender identity.”

The trouble with that is that it’s not just about her. She can say she is not mutilated, but that doesn’t mean she can say other women are not mutilated – especially since, as Goldberg points out, she was mutilated or ‘circumcised’ at the age of 22, with her own consent. There’s something quite self-regarding about the way she personalizes the issue.

Ahmadu sees herself as speaking for African women who value female genital cutting but are shut out of the rarified realms of international civil society. “The anti-FGM activists have access to the media, and they have enormous resources, so they’re able to influence the media in such a way that most of the women who support the practice cannot,” she told me later that evening.

But most of the very young girls who get mutilated also cannot influence the media, to put it mildly, so to pretend that anti-FGM activists are the big powerful bullies while the fans of cutting are the victims is…partial, at best.

Ahmadu’s argument, that to decry circumcision is to decry her very culture, is a persuasive one. Liberals have many reasons to sympathize with people struggling to hold on to their ways of life in the face of the hegemonic steamroller of globalization. But they have even more reason to sympathize with people like [Agnes] Pareyio who are fighting for individual rights in societies that demand subsuming such rights to tradition and myths about sexual purity. After all, even if relativists like Shweder truss them up in fashionable thirdworldism, such demands are the very essence of reactionary conservatism…To support people like Pareyio – as well as those fighting to implement the Maputo Protocol or working against draconian abortion bans or the terrible iniquities of Sharia law – is to reject relativism. It is to believe that other cultures, like our own, can change in necessary ways without being destroyed.


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