Notes and Comment Blog

Little mundane personal private harmless sharia

Jan 20th, 2008 12:12 pm | By

How’s that again?

Amnah is going through a divorce and is baffled at being told that she must wait for three months to remarry, considering that she hasn’t seen her estranged husband for two years. Dr Hasan with an intense look…[Dr Hasan] meets this with a simple reply: “These rulings are all in the Koran. The rulings are made for all.” Amnah has little choice but to comply: Dr Hasan is a judge, and this is a sharia court – in east London.

She has little choice but to comply? Why? If it’s a sharia court in east London, then she does have other choices, doesn’t she?

It is one of dozens of sharia courts – also known as councils – that have been set up in mosques, Islamic centres and even schools across Britain. The number of British Muslims using the courts is increasing. To many in the West, talk of sharia law conjures up images of the floggings, stonings, amputations and beheadings…However, the form practised in Britain is more mundane, focusing mainly on marriage, divorce and financial disputes.

Oh, just marriage and divorce – no big deal then. No impact on people’s lives. Not about floggings and beheadings, therefore mundane and ho-hum.

The judgments of the courts have no basis in British law, and are therefore technically illegitimate – they are binding only in that those involved agree to comply.

Well then it’s not true that Amnah has little choice but to comply. She may have decided to bind herself to obey a sharia court, but she still does have a choice (unless someone is coercing her, which is not mentioned).

So let’s learn more about this Dr Hasan fella. He sounds interesting.

“Whenever people associate the word ‘sharia’ with Muslims, they think it is flogging and stoning to death and cutting off the hand,” he says with a smile.

Ah yes! Such an amusing subject – I can see why he would smile!

Dr Hasan is open in supporting the severe punishments meted out in countries where sharia law governs the country. “Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society…If sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal. Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all. We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.”

I wouldn’t accept it if I were you. My advice would be to say no thanks.

Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s inter-faith committee, admits that to non-Muslims some laws may seem harsh on women. Those who are married to a man with a number of wives can be treated badly, for instance. But he insists that sharia is an equitable system. “It may mean that a woman married under Islamic law has no legal rights, but the husband is required to pay for everything in marriage and in the case of a divorce all the woman’s belongings are hers to keep.”

Oh I see – that does sound equitable! The woman has no legal rights, but – um – well, she has no legal rights. What could be more equitable? I’m like totally reassured.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, points out that during British rule in India, Muslim personal law was allowed to operate and sees no reason why it wouldn’t work now. “Sharia encompasses all aspects of Muslim life including personal law,” he says. “In tolerant, inclusive societies all faith groups enjoy some acceptance of their religious rules in matters of their personal life.”

You mean the men in the ‘faith groups’ enjoy that. The women don’t enjoy it quite so much.

Moving the markers

Jan 19th, 2008 6:18 pm | By

From Catharine MacKinnon’s ‘Turning Rape into Pornography: Postmodern Genocide,’ which is about videotaped rapes as propaganda in Croatia and Bosnia. From Are Women Human? pp 162-3:

Some of the rapes that are made into pornography are clearly intended for mass consumption as war propaganda. One elderly Croation woman who was filmed being raped was also tortured by electric shocks and gang-raped in the Bucje concentration camp by Serbian men dressed in generic camouflage uniforms. She was forced to “confess” on film that Croatians raped her. This disinformation – switching the ethnic labels – is especially easy when there are no racial markers for ethnic distinctions. It is a standard Serbian technique…Serbian propaganda moves cultural markers with postmodern alacrity, making ethnicity unreal and all too real at the same time.

That seemed to me to link up rather nicely with a recent post of Nigel Warburton’s on Slavoj Žižek – who is from Slovenia.

Zizek like many postmodernists, poses as one who knows, who can see through ideology and diagnose the short-sightedness of those in the grip of naive enlightenment ideas or systemic violence that is more or less invisible to most of us. We dim-sighted ones naively rail against what he calls subjective violence (or what we traditionally call ‘violence’), apparently blind to systemic and symbolic violence. Unfortunately when he comes to discussing ‘historian’ David Irving he seems to commit symbolic violence himself…On p.92 of Violence, in the context of a discussion of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Zizek suggests that the freedom of the press in the West is not as extensive as we like to believe because we can’t tolerate questioning of the Holocaust.

Nigel points out that Žižek describes Irving as ‘expressing his doubts about the Holocaust’ – but Irving did a lot more than that: he not only denied the evidence, he also extensively falsified it in at least one of his books, as Richard Evans discovered for the defense at the trial in which Deborah Lipstadt defended herself against Irving’s libel suit. Falsifying evidence is not mere ‘questioning,’ and calling it that is just another kind of falsification. Another example of moving markers with postmodern alacrity.

Promises that should not be made

Jan 17th, 2008 11:30 am | By

Which includes the well-intentioned version offered by Bergen Community College.

In the full knowledge of the commitment that I am freely willing to undertake as a student, I promise to respect each and every member of the college community without regard to race, creed, political ideology, lifestyle orientation, gender, or social status sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those I will come in contact with as a member of the college community…I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.

No; sorry; no can do. I can’t possibly promise to respect each and every member of the college community a priori in that way. Civility is one thing, and respect is another. BCC is within its rights to demand civility, but it is outside its rights to demand respect. And as for sparing no effort – what are the students of BCC, I beg your pardon the members of the college community supposed to do, throw robes of state over every person they come in contact with? How does one even go about sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those one comes in contact with as a member of the college community? One imagines a crowd of frantic Paramus students crashing into each other in their haste and zeal to preserve each other’s dignity in some nebulous but athletic way.

And then of course there’s the educationally and academically and epistemically absurd promise to embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually. They might as well swear an oath to embrace and celebrate mistakes and falsifications and forgeries! The poor bastards are presumably at Bergen Community College in order to learn something, and learning something is among other things a process of elimination. It’s not a process of embracing and celebrating. For that you need to go to Healing Touch Academy or Cuddly Woolly Institute, but not to a real school.

We’re not talking about some pavement artist

Jan 17th, 2008 10:59 am | By

Salman Rushdie isn’t having it.

“I don’t make my decisions based on 25 goondas at the gate,” says Salman Rushdie tartly…Whether it’s India or England or America, he says, “we cannot allow religious hooligans to place limiting points on thought”. This, he says, is as true about the American religious right as it is about the Sikh mobs in Birmingham that prevented the production of a play. “It’s not specific to any religion or any place,” he adds. “Original thought, original artistic expression is by its very nature questioning, irreverent, iconoclastic…it’s really a decision about what kind of culture we want to be in.”

Quite. And that kind is the kind that allows a wide range of thought, as opposed to the kind that squashes the allowable range of thought into a narrow airless little channel. It’s the choice between breadth on the one hand and choking confinement on the other.

He recounts his meeting with India’s most famous contemporary exile, the artist M F Husain, who he recently met in New York. “This is the grand old master of contemporary Indian painting,” Rushdie declares, his well modulated voice rising with outrage. “We’re not talking about some pavement artist. The idea that this man in his nineties should be forced into exile by his own country is a national disgrace. This is somebody who should be given the highest state honours instead of being treated like a pariah.” If India wishes to seem like a cultured country by the rest of the world, he says emphatically, it cannot treat its artists thus—”this has to stop”. So, too, in the case of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen…”I think we are in a dangerous position now in India where we accept censorship by very small numbers of violent people. Two things form the bedrock of any open society – freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.”

Censorship by very small numbers of violent (or sometimes merely noisy) people – that’s what more and more of the world looks like these days, and what a horrible appearance it is. Let’s not have it.

The pope stays home

Jan 16th, 2008 11:48 am | By

Well good. Excellent. It’s about time. Some teachers and students at a university have pointed out that Papal epistemology does not belong at a university. That Papal ways of knowing are not academic ways of knowing; that, in short, there is indeed a tension between reason and ‘faith.’ Well done.

Pope Benedict XVI last night called off a visit to Rome’s main university in the face of hostility from some of its academics and students, who accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo…[A] letter [was] signed by more than 60 of La Sapienza’s teachers, asking that the invitation to the Pope be rescinded. The signatories of the letter said Benedict’s presence would be “incongruous”. They cited a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, while he was still a cardinal, in which he quoted the judgment of an Austrian philosopher of science* who wrote that the church’s trial of Galileo was “reasonable and fair”…La Stampa reported that a number of foreign scientists had since added their names to the initiative.

That’s it! Get in there and mix it up. The pope is always telling everyone what’s what; good for the foreign scientists telling him back.

Rightwing opposition MPs were outraged. One suggested La Sapienza, which means “wisdom” or “learning” ought now to be renamed La Ignoranza.

Right. The pope stands for wisdom and learning and a secular university stands for ignorance. And up is down and wet is dry and now is then.

*Paul Feyerabend, it was.

Relax and enjoy it

Jan 15th, 2008 7:23 pm | By

The bishop of Oxford is ‘personally very happy for the mosque to call the faithful to prayer in East Oxford’. I don’t suppose he lives there, does he? Or does he.

“Faith is a very important factor in the lives of 80 per cent of the world’s population and a public expression of that faith is both natural and reasonable…It is good that we should be reminded of the faithfulness of many members of the community.”

Is it? Why? And even if it is, we get reminded quite a bit already, don’t we?

“It is natural that Muslim communities will gather in a particular area and what matters is that we demonstrate the kind of respect that is the basis of any civilised society.”

Okay. The next time I see Muslim communities gathering in a particular area, in their natural way (like wildebeest gathering at a water hole is it?), I’ll make a point of demonstrating the kind of respect that is the basis of any civilised society. I’m not sure what that is, but I’ll make a point of demonstrating it anyway. Perhaps I just go up to the gathering communities and tell them, in so many words and accompanied by poignant and demonstrative gestures, that I respect this gathering in a particular area ceremony? Would that be it?

“I would say to anyone who has concerns about the call to prayer to relax and enjoy our community diversity and be as respectful to others as you would hope they would be respectful to you.”

Relax and enjoy it. So if one of my neighbours takes to broadcasting a speech by Huey Long through a loudspeaker from a tower for two minutes three times a day every day, I should relax and enjoy it? I should relax and enjoy any old broadcast repeated noise? Or just the kind that reminds me of the faithfulness of many members of the community? Well whichever it is, I’ll find it difficult. The bishop may be a good multitasker but I’ve never been very good at filtering out intrusive noise. I try not to make a lot of racket myself, and I don’t enjoy it when other people do – so the relaxation bit will probably be difficult, and the enjoyment even more so.

“I sympathise with those who find any kind of expression of public faith intrusive, but I think part of being part of a tolerant society is saying, ‘I don’t agree with this but I accept it as part of my responsibility as being part of a diverse community’.”

Why? Why is it part of being a tolerant society along with part of my responsibility as being part of a diverse community? Why is it my responsibility to not mind amplified intrusive noise? Why isn’t it the responsibility of other people to not make amplified intrusive noise? The bishop forgot to explain that part.

Fauziya Kassindja ran away

Jan 13th, 2008 3:50 pm | By

Kpalime, Togo, 1997: Hajia Zuwera Kassindja apologized to her late husband’s cousin, the patriarch of his family, for having helped her daughter Fauziya run away to America to escape having her genitals cut off. She had given her daughter nearly all of her money to run away.

”What the mother did pains me a lot,” the patriarch, Mouhamadou Kassindja, said in a scolding tone…”She is my brother’s wife. It is for me to take care of my brother’s child since he is no longer alive. She acted as though the child were hers. She and the child made the laws. That is why the child did not want to follow the customs.”

She acted as though the child were hers – fancy that. I suppose that might have had something to do with having given birth to her, and raised her for sixteen years?

Though it was common among the Muslims of Tchamba to take as many as four wives, Mr. Kassindja wanted only Hajia. He also shielded his daughters from genital cutting. He could recall the screams of his sister during the rite and her suffering afterward, when she developed a tetanus infection. And his wife often spoke of the death of her older sister from a genital wound. The tragedy had led Hajia’s parents to spare her from the practice. Though the Kassindjas could not read or write, they wanted all their children, including their daughters, to be educated.

This pissed off the relatives.

They accused him of trying to act like a white man. His girls would never be considered full Tchamba women until their genitals had been cut, the elders said, and he was wasting money by sending them to high school.

Never mind; once he died, they got their chance to straighten things out.

Four months and 10 days after her husband’s death, as patriarchal, Muslim-influenced Tchamba tradition dictates, his family required Mrs. Kassindja to leave the home where she had raised her seven children. Her husband’s only sibling, a widowed sister, Hadja Mamoude, moved in and took responsibility for Fauziya. In 1994, two years before Fauziya was to graduate, the aunt, who is herself illiterate, ended Fauziya’s education. ”We don’t want girls to go to school too much,” said the aunt…”We don’t think girls should be too civilized.”

In pursuit of this kindly thought, they arranged for her to marry a man who already had three wives – all of whom had had their genitals cut off, and the blushing groom stipulated that Fauziya must arrive minus genitals too or he wouldn’t be having her. No problem, the family said.

Mrs. Mamoude, herself the second of three wives, broke the news to Fauziya. The aunt’s eyes still get a hard look and her hands slash the air angrily at the memory of her niece’s obstinacy. ”It was for me to decide what was best for her,” she said.

Which, of course, was being taken out of school, scraped clean between the legs, and married to a man with three wives. Much the best thing.

The husband’s relatives had (as is customary) taken most of his money for themselves, but they let Fauziya’s mother have $3,500 of it; she gave $3000 to Fauziya, who escaped on her wedding day, while the women who were to hold her down and cut her genitals off were already in the house. She went to Ghana in a taxi, then to Germany, then to the US, where the INS kept her for a year – but in the end, thanks to a lawyer and a campaign, she won the right to stay.

Many other girls don’t have the luck.

Sighting hate

Jan 13th, 2008 11:40 am | By

Syed Soharwardy tells us why last year.

Syed B. Soharwardy today filed two formal complaints with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission against the publishers of Jewish Free Press and the Western Standards for sighting hate against Muslims. After filing the complaints, he spoke with the media and said that this is a first step towards putting an end towards the hateful and non-Canadian attitude.

Yeah good idea – put an end to the hateful attitude, and do it by force; that’s always a good plan. I don’t like hateful attitudes myself, so I’m glad they’re all going to be put an end to.

Syed Soharwardy thanked the mainstream Canadian Media for protecting the freedom of the press with responsibility and accountability. Syed Soharwardy thanked the various companies for deciding not to sell or purchase the hatemongering issue of the Western Standards.

Yes indeed, self-censorship is so much less trouble than the other kind.

Mohanty, Nussbaum, MacKinnon

Jan 12th, 2008 12:21 pm | By

Here’s a sampling of the wonderful and famous “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” for your delectation. I have to tell you – it’s kack. Read that and then read a page of Martha Nussbaum – for instance her essay ‘Judging Other Cultures: the Case of Female Genital Mutilation’ which I just read this morning; or read a page of Susan Moller Okin or Catharine MacKinnon or Katha Pollitt – and you will see a difference. Mohanty is all pretension and extended jargon-mongering; the others are clear (without necessarily being easy, much less dumbed down) and precise and specific. Mohanty is not really trying to argue a case (if she were, she would do it in a different way); she is doing something more like trying to score points in a very particular kind of game. (And clearly she has succeeded fairly well, since she gets people in a particular discipline to refer to her as famous a lot.) Nussbaum and the others I mentioned are indeed trying to make an argument: they don’t waste time on verbal pirouetting, on showing off their High Theoretical vocabulary, they’re too busy doing other things. Other and better things.

The relationship between Woman – a cultural and ideological composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourse (scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.) – and women – real, material subjects of their collective histories – is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address…I would like to suggest that the feminist writing I analyse here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular ‘third-world woman’ – an image which appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of western humanistic discourse.

That’s Mohanty. Now for a bit of Nussbaum. (‘Judging Other Culture’ Sex and Social Justice page 122):

It is wrong to insist on cleaning up one’s own house before responding to urgent calls from outside. Should we have said ‘Hands Off Apartheid,’ on the grounds that racism persists in the United States?…It is and should be difficult to decide how to allocate one’s moral effort between local and distant abuses. To work against both is urgently important, and individuals will legitimately make different decisions about their priorities. But the fact that a needy human being happens to live in Togo rather than Idaho does not make her any less my fellow, less deserving of my moral commitment. And to fail to recognize the plight of a fellow human being because we are busy moving our own culture to greater moral heights seems the very height of moral obtuseness and parochialism.

And some Catharine MacKinnon, from her essay ‘Postmodernism and Human Rights’ in Are Women Human?:

Abuse has become ‘agency’ – or rather challenges to sexual abuse have been replaced by invocations of ‘agency,’ women’s violation become the sneering wound of a ‘victim’ pinned in arch quotation marks. (p. 55)

Postmodernism has decided that because truth died with God, there are no social facts. The fact that reality is a social construction does not mean that it is not there; it means that it is there, in society, where we live. (p. 56)

Women often serve power and do have power over children, but postmodernists have to portray women actually having power that men largely have in order to confuse people about power. (That they want to avoid being called sexist in the process, we have accomplished.) (pp. 59-60)

I know which I prefer.

How to be famous

Jan 12th, 2008 11:45 am | By

You’ll remember (won’t you?) that my favorite commenter on the FGM question told us that all this had been thoroughly sorted out by the great and famous Chandra Mohanty. I was moved to find out more.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty (born 1955) is a prominent postcolonial and transnational feminist theorist. She became well-known after the publication of her influential essay, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in 1986. In this essay, Mohanty articulates a critique of the political project of Western feminism in its discursive construction of the category of the “Third World woman” as a hegemonic entity.

Ah, good. I’m relieved to know that she took care of that. It’s always irked me, the political project of Western feminism in its discursive construction of the category of the “Third World woman”. You know? The way Western feminists talk about ‘the Third World woman’ all the time and what they’re going to do to her and what an exciting project it is.

Okay I’m lying. I’ve never in my life heard a feminist talk about ‘the Third World woman.’ It’s a stupid category that is way too big and undifferentiated to use for the ‘discursive construction’ of anything. That’s not necessarily Mohanty’s fault, it could be just the fault of whatever acolyte wrote the Wikipedia entry – but whoever wrote that silly sentence, it’s a classic of strawman nonsense. It’s also a good example of doing the very thing one is aiming to ‘critique’ – it treats ‘Western feminism’ as a ‘hegemonic entity’ by discursively constructing it as such. In other words it generalizes wildly about ‘Western feminism’ in the course of charging (by implication at least) ‘Western feminism’ with generalizing wildly. In short, it’s stupid and complacent. And typical. ‘Theory’ punches itself in the eye again.

Slightly long-winded

Jan 11th, 2008 8:11 pm | By

Sorry, that last one is awfully long. But hey, my N&C impulse has been thwarted by necessary detention in jury room and courtroom, and then I’m morbidly interested in perversities of this kind – in ‘feminists’ lecturing other feminists on why they should not talk quite so loudly or harshly about the carving up of girls’ genitalia. So I gave you some detail – it’s there if you want it, if you share my morbid interest, but don’t worry if it bores you. This one won’t count toward your grade.

It didn’t stop there

Jan 11th, 2008 7:57 pm | By

Chapter 2 of the ‘I’m more postcolonialist than you’ follies.

Another respondent:

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.

Ethnocentric feminism

Jan 11th, 2008 11:38 am | By

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.


Jan 10th, 2008 7:54 am | By

Just in case you’re wondering if I’ve run off to Las Vegas or something, I can explain. Posting is light at the moment because I have jury duty. I’ll catch up at the weekend, if not sooner.

Indirect effects

Jan 7th, 2008 11:43 am | By

The Vatican is planning a party. Sounds like fun.

The Vatican has called on Catholics to atone for the sex abuse scandals that have engulfed their church in recent years by taking part in what may be the largest global prayer initiative ever seen…[E]very diocese in the world should name a priest to work full-time on the arrangements for the “perpetual adoration” of the eucharist. This would involve parishioners taking turns to keep a round-the-clock vigil in front of a consecrated host representing the body of Jesus…The aim was “to make amends before God for the evil that has been done and hail once more the dignity of the victims”, who had suffered from the “moral and sexual conduct of a very small part of the clergy”. He did not indicate how long he saw the adoration continuing.

Or, apparently, how the whole thing would work. How would parishioners taking turns standing around in front of a bit of bread ‘make amends’ (before God or before anyone else) for sexual abuse of children by priests? It’s not exactly entirely altogether perfectly clear – but hey, these people know what they’re doing, they’re experts in the field, if they say standing around in front of pieces of bread I mean perpetual adoration of the eucharist will make amends, then –

I gotta go.

The patriarchal matriarchy

Jan 6th, 2008 11:43 am | By

Ah yes, the matriarchy myth. That’s one I haven’t gotten around to yet. Long overdue!

I have been a close observer of the myth of matriarchal prehistory for fifteen years now and have watched as it has moved from its somewhat parochial home in the feminist spirituality movement out into the feminist and cultural mainstream. But I haven’t been able to cheer at the myth’s increasing acceptance. My irritation with the historical claims made by the myth’s partisans masks a deeper discontent with the myth’s assumptions. There is a theory of sex and gender embedded in the myth of matriarchal prehistory, and it is neither original nor revolutionary. Women are defined quite narrowly as those who give birth and nurture, who identify themselves in terms of their relationships, and who are closely allied with the body, nature, and sex—usually for unavoidable reasons of their biological makeup. This image of women is drastically revalued in feminist matriarchal myth, such that it is not a mark of shame or subordination, but of pride and power. But this image is nevertheless quite conventional and, at least up until now, it has done an excellent job of serving patriarchal interests.

Precisely. Difference Feminism bollocks. Yes we are nurturing and sweet and slightly dim, but that’s a good thing. Bleah. We’re not nurturing and sweet, dammit, we’re ornery and crabby and disobliging and we bite.

[I]t is my feminist movement too, and when I see it going down a road which, however inviting, looks like the wrong way to me, I feel an obligation to speak up. Whatever positive effects this myth has on individual women, they must be balanced against the historical and archaeological evidence the myth ignores or misinterprets and the sexist assumptions it leaves undisturbed. The myth of matriarchal prehistory postures as “documented fact,” as “to date the most scientifically plausible account of the available information.” These claims can be—and will be here—shown to be false. Relying on matriarchal myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves feminists open to charges of vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court.

Relying on any kind of myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves the people who rely on it looking like chumps. ID, Afrocentrism, Noah’s ark, the Goddess; away with all of it.

The conception of the family as a subject

Jan 6th, 2008 10:30 am | By

This idea that human rights are for individuals rather than for groups is relevant to the Vatican’s reflection on the Rights of the Family in the context of the Universal Declaration, too. (Do you see a pattern here? There is one. Religions, especially coercive, totalizing, domineering religions such as Catholicism and Islam and Protestant fundamentalism, are suspicious of human rights and would like to elbow them aside in favour of group rights, especially [of course] religious-group rights. We need to watch that, so that we can fight back.)

This bit of the Pontifical Council’s ‘reflection’ is the giveaway:

One aspect of fundamental importance for the promotion of human rights is recognition of the “rights of the family”. This implies the protection of marriage in the framework of “human rights” and of family life as an objective of every juridical system. The Charter of the Rights of the Family, presented by the Holy See, implies the conception of the family as a subject that includes all its members. The family is thus a whole which should not be divided up when it is being dealt with by isolating its members—not even for reasons of social substitution which, although necessary in many cases, should never put the family as a subject in a marginal position.

What’s that saying? That the family should be treated as a person, indivisible and with rights, and that in aid of that the members of the family should not be treated as indivisible persons with rights, they should be treated as parts of an indivisible whole. The family is a subject, with all that that implies, and the people who make up the family are merely parts of that subject.

That’s a really terrible idea. It’s also nonsensical. Families aren’t persons; no matter how united and loyal and loving they are, they still are never persons, they are groups of people, and a group of people is never the same thing as one person. You don’t add a person and a person and a person and get one big person, you get three people; three different, separate people, each with her own wants and needs and plans. They may all cohere and cooperate and agree, fine, but that still doesn’t make them all one person. No group has a mind; no group is aware; no group has consciousness or sensations or feelings or experience. All those belong to single individuals, one at a time. They may want to make sacrifices for the good of their family or religious group or political party, but that is still not the same thing as the notion that any of those groups has its own rights. Beware of anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise.

One at a time, please

Jan 6th, 2008 9:40 am | By

Beware of ‘religious and cultural specificity.’ Beware especially when religious and cultural specificity is invoked in the context of human rights. Religiously and culturally specific human rights are not the real thing, they are impostors wrapped up in burqas. The International Humanist and Ethical Union knows.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) representing the 56 Islamic States renewed its attack on the Universality of Human Rights at the 6th Session of the Human Rights Council that ended on 14 December. On Human Rights Day, 10 December, Ambassador Masood Khan, speaking on behalf of the OIC, claimed that the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam “.. is not an alternative, competing worldview on human rights. It complements the Universal Declaration as it addresses religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries”.

No, it doesn’t; it doesn’t complement, it competes; it contradicts, it denies, it deprives, it prevents.

Even a cursory reading of the Cairo Declaration shows just how widely its definition of human rights differs from those of the UDHR. No “complementary” document (the word implies adding to, not subtracting from) should restrict the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Yet this is precisely what the Cairo Declaration does. Under Shari’ah law a woman has no personal autonomy. A women’s word or the word of a non-Muslim counts as half that of a Muslim man; and they are valued as half that of a Muslim man. No woman is considered an autonomous individual but needs a guardian: her father, husband, son or another male relative, and may not make autonomous decisions. Freedom of religion is limited to freedom to become and remain a Muslim. Apostasy and any actions or statements considered blasphemous are harshly punished, in some states by death.

Oh that kind of religious and cultural specificity.

On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution “Combating Defamation of Religions” by 108 votes to 51 with 25 abstentions…The resolution expresses “deep concern about the negative stereotyping of religions and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or belief”. But the only religion mentioned by name is Islam…The Western delegations stood firm, however, in their opposition to this resolution. The Portuguese delegate, speaking for the EU, explained clearly why: “The European Union does not see the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ as a valid one in a human rights discourse. From a human rights perspective, members of religious or belief communities should not be viewed as parts of homogenous entities. International human rights law protects primarily individuals in the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief, rather than the religions as such.”

Human rights are for humans, not for groups. Human rights are for individuals, not for groups. The IHEU ends on a depressing note…

Notwithstanding these objections, those opposing the resolution found themselves on the losing side of a two-to-one majority in favour. The implications of this resolution for freedom to criticise religious laws and practices are obvious. Armed with UN approval for their actions, states may now legislate against any show of disrespect for religion, however they may choose to define “disrespect”. The Islamic states see human rights exclusively in Islamic terms, and by sheer weight of numbers this view is becoming dominant within the UN system. The implications for the universality of human rights are ominous.

Don’t submit

Jan 4th, 2008 12:02 pm | By

Anthony Grayling points out a great and central struggle of ideas:

[A]re individual human beings capable of overcoming such limitations of circumstance…to achieve by will and endeavour what they identify as good…? Or are people, or the vast majority of them, too weak, too fallible, too constrained by those circumstances, to be able to do this, meaning that they are essentially dependent, and need to be instructed and guided by the few who assume the role of leaders, teachers, those who know the right answers and possess the truth?

I would say we’re all more or less weak and fallible and constrained, but not so weak and fallible and constrained that we are essentially dependent. That’s perhaps a somewhat optimistic view, but I do think most people can change and learn and improve.

The monolithic ideologies require a dependent, submissive mass mind; in recovering the classical idea of individual potential for autonomy – the capacity of individuals to shape themselves according to their conception of such truly human goods as love, friendship, pleasure, kindness, knowledge and discovery, creativity and achievement – the modern western liberal and secular mind has fought to break itself free from that imposed dependency.

The fight is risky, because people are weak and fallible and they can always go toddling off towards fascism or jihadism or God hates fagsism or some other combination of ignorance with bullying. But the alternative – a dependent, submissive mass mind – is so awful (and anyway also risky) that the risk seems worth it.

This is not a merely abstract point…[T]he matter is so fundamental that it merits far more than blog-bitesize examination. That examination might show why there can be such passionate opposition to anything that requires the entrapment of the human mind in the cage of one big truth that demands submission, the yielding of the autonomy that is our central human potential – think of the Christian tenet of “dying to the self” and what is meant by the “sin of pride” (viz thinking one can get by without God), remember that “Islam” means “submission”, think of Stalinism: they are all about obedience, heteronomy, dependence, tutelage, amounting even to a prohibition against thinking for oneself; for the first sin in Eden was disobedience, and the disobedient act – all too significantly – was one of acquiring knowledge. And what is this submission and heteronomy but the condition of slavery…?

Exactly. And I suppose that’s one of my most bedrock beliefs or assumptions – my ‘religion’ if you insist – that thinking for oneself is of the essence of being human, and that if you give that up you miss what it is to be human; you miss the kernel of the experience; you might as well be a cat or a potato. ‘Be a Potato for Stalin/Allah/Jesus’ – no thank you.


Jan 3rd, 2008 1:09 pm | By

The Vatican seems to have a strange lack of acquaintance with reality – at least its Council for the Family does. It has a statement on the family and human rights which floats weirdly free of the difficulties that humans tend to encounter.

The father and the mother, as a couple, with the characteristics proper to them, procreate and raise the child. The child thus has the right to be welcomed, loved and recognized in a family.

That’s a pretty idea, but the trouble is, it’s the Vatican itself that does more than any other human institution to make that right impossible to implement. It’s the Vatican that forbids birth control, thus removing (in intention at least, which is what’s relevant) people’s ability to avoid having children who are not wanted and thus at risk of not being welcomed. The same applies to abortion. The child may have a right to be welcomed and loved, but what of it? who is going to force the parents to welcome and love the child if they don’t in fact want it or (in the event) love it? The Vatican? How?

As the first natural community, the family is the exemplary place for solidarity. In the family human beings gradually become aware of their dignity, acquire a sense of responsibility, and learn to give attention to others. In the family, solidarity develops beyond the spouses’ love relation and extends to the relations between parents and children, siblings, and inter-generational relations.

Need for reality check again. ‘In the family, solidarity develops’ when it does, but when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Has no one at the Pontifical Council for the Family ever encountered an unhappy (a ‘dysfunctional’) family? Has it never encountered a family that is more indifferent than anything else? Or one that is downright hostile, or one that is bullying and demanding and controlling? One that is shot through with tensions and jealousies and resentments? One that is estranged? Does the Pontifical Council for the Family really seriously think that all families are of their nature and essence loving and loyal and generous? Some are, certainly, but all of them? No. Yet the Pontifical Council prattles away as if it had never even read any Jane Austen, or any newspapers.

Family values people are like that, I suppose – they’re so keen to stamp out all the freedoms and choices and eccentricities and ways of living that thrive outside the familiar ones that they’re forced to pretend there is no flourishing outside The Family and no misery inside it. But then do they convince anyone?