Chapter 2 of the ‘I’m more postcolonialist than you’ follies.
Why do feminists still have to analyze everything using the concept of ‘oppression?’ Why are -you- using the term as though everything feminist has to be talked about in terms of oppression. There are times when that’s okay, but there are other times when it is not…When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, by naming them oppressive, for instance, they may be putting other women into situations which could be dangerous for them, or which could at least change the course of their lives, and not always favourably, if they decided to act on this new way of perceiving it. What should be respected is the fact that not all women will be able to make positive change in their lives…For starters, referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement. Call it FGE. If the genitals are severely mutilated, thats another thing.
When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, they’re doing various things to other women. Uh…yes. And? That is, obviously, always the case with any kind of suggestion or campaign or movement for social change. Abolitionists may have been putting slaves into situations, union organizers may have been putting workers into situations, anti-apartheid campaigners may have been putting South African blacks into situations. That’s always true, and it is as well to be careful. The protests in Kenya over an allegedly stolen election have gone in a very bad direction and I would not at the moment jet off to Kenya to fire people up for more protests. But is it therefore a general principle that no harmful practice should be called a harmful practice because it’s always safer just to let things be? Well, not for the young girls who get their genitals sliced off it’s not!
‘Referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement.’ Yes indeed it is, and that is exactly why I and others do it. We’re making a value judgement: chopping off female genitalia is mutilation, it’s bad, it should stop. No I damn well won’t call it FGE: ‘excision’ is the right word to use for a tumor, not for a normal set of genitals. As I rather heatedly said on the list, calling FGM ‘excision’ is like calling footbinding orthopedic surgery. And I’m not going to call it FGE if it’s just a little bit of mutilation – I’m not going to save ‘FGM’ for severe mutilation. I don’t think mild genital mutilation is okay or that it deserves a pass or a dang euphemism.
And more from the first respondent, the one from ‘Ethnocentric feminism’:
I will note that I was careful to add two citations to my response, the James and Robertson volume, as well as Mohanty’s famous essay (and now body of work) on the problematic application of Western feminist concepts, frameworks, and analyses to non-Western locations…Both of these sources and collection of authors are very careful to make nuanced, complicated claims about both Western feminism and female genital surgeries, rather than the broad-brush condemnations of the latter or caricatures of their critique of Western feminism that have dominated the discussion on this list thus far.
You see, Mohanty’s essay is famous (and now it’s a body of work), therefore it’s important. This is the classic argument from celebrity that is all too familiar to those of us who follow the antics of the trendy. They love to tell us how famous their heroes are – the famous Judith Butler tells us how famous Derrida is, and acolytes everywhere tell us how famous Judith Butler is. Then when they’ve finished doing that they tell us how nuanced and sophisticated the famous work of all these famous people is. They never manage to reproduce or imitate any of the nuance or sophistication, they just keep endlessly waving at it. Very careful, very nuanced, very unlike ‘the broad-brush condemnations’ of – of what? Of female genital surgeries? Surgeries? Excision wasn’t euphemistic enough, now we’re talking about surgeries? When the vast majority of them are nothing of the kind, when the vast majority of them are performed with a pair of scissors and no anaesthetic? Surgeries?
It’s scary, isn’t it?
Indeed, critique of problematic moves in Western feminism should be allowable without it being equated with total dismissal of Western feminism, just as the critique of female genital surgeries should be allowable in a register other than self-righteous moralizing condemnation that seeks to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world, “modern industrialized countries” always (unsurprisingly) coming out on top in this type of analysis…
Good point, excellent point, except for one tiny thing: nobody was seeking ‘to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world’; yet again, that’s just self-righteous bullshit. This particular writer (she wrote all the nonsense in ‘Ethnocentric feminism’ too, as I mentioned) specializes in silly hyperbolic inaccurate depictions of claims that never were. Another tiny detail is that no one said anything about ‘modern industrialized countries’ coming out on top, either.
As many within the literature on transnational feminisms have also shown, the contest to prove some cultures or places or religious communities as “more” oppressive toward women than others is one of many longstanding ways of measuring savagery and barbarism more generally, and was a common strategy used to justify colonialism (e.g., “just look at how they treat their women!”).
Yes…we know imperialists often condemned practices that involved women (like sati for instance, and they were right, even if not all of their reasons were), that is not a newsflash, but so what? Does it follow that contemporary feminists are being imperialist in calling FGM FGM rather than ‘excision’ or (pardon me while I swear) ‘surgery’? No it does not. The ‘feminists’ who call FGM ‘surgery’ are being soft-headed at best and conceitedly self-serving at worst.
Speaking personally, I thought I was quite careful to make specific and nuanced claims which, in this previous email at least (see below), were chopped up (another kind of “cutting”?) to suit the poster’s polemical purposes of caricaturing me as advocating for a nihilistic world wherein nothing – not even hierarchy and women’s oppression – means anything anymore.
That was me – I chopped up the ‘nuanced claims’ – that is to say, I excerpted them, with ellipses to show where the cuts were, in the usual way when one quotes someone else. Yet our commenter is so vain and so self-obsessed and so self-important that she apparently thinks it’s droll to pretend that my excerpting something she wrote is the same kind of thing as an adult gouging out a child’s clitoris and cutting off her labia. She wants me and others to talk of female genital surgeries, as she does, instead of female genital mutilations, yet she’s not embarrassed to compare excerpting from something she wrote (while the original remains in the archive and everyone’s Inbox as opposed to being thrown in the garbage like the child’s bleeding pieces of flesh) with the carving up of a child’s crotch. That’s what I call a healthy sense of priorities!
I am surprised by the responses to my original post, which I thought was a fairly mundane (and even rather dated) argument in the feminist literature; moreover, I am stunned at the level of anger and defensiveness on this issue. If such critiques are still this threatening to the USAmerican feminist establishment, there is much to be worried about. It seems to me a more appropriate response to positions about which we feel strongly, but which have nevertheless been demonstrated by a substantial body of non-Western feminists and feminists of color to be problematically racist or colonialist, is (at a minimum) interest, curiosity, openness, (self-)reflection, and thoughtfulness.
Hmmmmmmmmyeah, except maybe when it’s been presented in such a preeningly self-satisfied yet energetically prosecutorial way, we don’t actually feel all that interested and thoughtful, we feel more like repelled and incredulous and deeply alarmed that this buffoon actually teaches.