Members can sign in here.


UFOs, FGM, WTF - Aliens in Africa?

Published 12th April 2010 - 9 comments - 4333 views -

"When I was an alien, cultures weren't opinions." - Kurt Cobain, Nirvana ("Territorial Pissings")

Female genital cutting (FGC), also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), or female circumcision, is any procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs "whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons." The term is almost exclusively used to describe traditional or religious procedures on a minor, which requires the parents' consent because of the age of the girl.  [source: wikipedia]

The struggle against Female Genital Mutilation is given high priority in the international community.  The WHO, the UN, UNICEF and UNFPA all undertook and undertake various actions to combat it. Of the Millenium Development goals, agreed in 2000 by 192 UN member states and at least 23 international organisations, Goal 3 -to Promote gender equality and empower women and Goal 5: Improve maternal health are directly linked to the fight against FGM. As can be seen in the definition given at the beginning a naming dispute already shows some controversy - to instead of Female Genital Mutilation rather say Female Genital Cutting tries to avoid the implication of "excessive judgment by outsiders as well as insensitivity toward individuals who have undergone some form of genital excision". This kind of arguments over wording and abreviations in the papers of international bureaucracies usually represent much deeper going quarrels over the "interpretive predominance" (or "Deutungshoheit" as German political scientists say) of the issues  at hand - basically how to identify a problem and to tackle it.

Very evident become those quarrels when the question is invoked "whose" problem it actually is. Many people want to "save" Africa, but do they really care about the Africans themselves? What if those have a different understanding about certain problems than their self-appointed saviours, be it the form that economic development takes or the fight against FGM?

the UFO has landed

An *interesting* case of 'international aid' is thus the project Clitoraid by the International Raëlian Movement, a religious group founded in 1974 by the French race-car driver Claude Vorilhon, author of books about his alleged abduction by extraterrestrials who calls himself Rael. His adherents believe that all life on Earth was created in scientific labs by a species of those extraterrestrials, the Elohim, who were mistaken by the humans as angels and gods - Jesus and Buddah are examples. As New Age religion Raelians have a very liberal attitude towards sexuality which in their opinion "is a gift of pleasure to mankind by the Elohim". The movement aroused controversy in the past by its use of the Swastika in combination with a star of David and especially with its firm Clonaid that claimed to have cloned a human being in 2002.  Clitoraid seems to combine in a similar way media-attention seeking with the Raelian views on sexuality and messianic promises of modern technology:

"Rael, the spiritual leader of the Raelian Movement decided to help as many women as possible to regain their sense of pleasure and founded Clitoraid, a private non-profit organization with the aim to sponsor those women who want to have their clitoris rebuilt.

Considering the huge number of Burkinabe women who are candidates to be operated on and as Clitoraid received offer from a few doctors to travel to Bobo Dioulasso and help rebuild the clitoris of all the circumcised women, the Prophet Rael declared: “Instead of using Clitoraid’s collected money to operate on just a few women, we should create the first Raelian Hospital, the “Pleasure Hospital”, and operate on all African women, for free, with the help of Raelian or non-Raelian benevolent doctor.
The planned facility should be built in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. It will be composed mainly of one operation room and two additional rooms. We will need about $70,000 to build and equip it. We will keep you posted on the construction plans in the Hospital section.

It is a crime against humanity that today, in this so called enlightened 21st century, women in under-developed countries are subjected by force to participate in the sex trades, are denied common freedoms as we know and enjoy in the west, and in certain cultures, are slaves to barbaric practices such as clitoral mutilation in the name of religion and, moreover, male dominance. We can all help. we can support our sisters, and Adopt a Clitoris!"

Clearly not much is done yet and while even though it says "adopt a clitoris" the donations go directly to the anonymous American charity.  Matthew Greenall notes on his blog that there is almost no information available besides a few stories that Clitoraid offers on their website and after writing to collegues in Burkina Faso: that "the organisation (I am not sure whether he is referring to clitoraid or AVFE the local affiliate) is known to the national committee against excision, but no more detailed information is available from this source."

Clitor-aid or Clit-o-raid?

Clitoraid still immedeatly drew criticism notably by Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, an assistant professor in the Politics department at the University of San Francisco who in her blog "Can? We? Save? Africa?" wants to provide "Critical thought on aid, philanthropy, and giving towards Africa". With an internet petition "feminists challenging clitoraid" and a facebook group she rallies against the financial support for this venture by the San Francisco sex-toy enterprise Good Vibrations as well as by the feminist dildo-guru Betty Dodson. Under the slogan "No, you can’t have my clitoris!!" Kamau-Rutenberg writes:

"Western feminists have taken over the space, displaced African women’s voices on the issue, and have carelessly thrown about their neo-colonial weight in ways that have served only to further entrench the issue."

She than gives a link to "critical African women’s voices about Western discussions of the topic" where one can read in the introduction by Prof. Gloria T. Emeagwali, Chief Editor of Africa Update:
"Nigerian feminist and literary critic, Molara Ogundipe- Leslie, in her provocative and insightful text, Recreating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations (AWP, 1994), wonders at the growing popularity of "narratives of victimhood" about African women, in Euro-American discourse, over and above their other experiences-a discourse totally isolated from the "violence" done to women's bodies in Western cosmetic surgery and disembodied from the roles and activities of African women in other non-sexual domains."

Further there, in "Brief Reflections on Clitorodectomy" by Ifeyinwa Iweriebor:
"What is bothersome is not so much that people have a negative opinion of the practice, but that the issue is misrepresented as a form of child abuse or a tool of gender oppression. The language and tone of the outcry in most cases reflects a total lack of respect for the culture of other peoples. Even more bothersome is the false portrayal: the falsification of statistics and a successful demonization of the practitioners.

There may be an on-going debate about the effects or necessity for the procedure, but the essential truth is that the practitioners do not perform genital surgery on their girls, (nor on their sons for that matter) to oppress them or do them any harm. For them the procedure is carried out for the noblest of reasons, the best of intentions and in good faith. The fact that it can be performed in public in the countries that permit it demonstrates that the practitioners do not consider it dirty laundry or a dark hidden secret."

So FGM type III including infabulation and excision for a girl in Somalia is like a rhinoplasty for a San Bernardino teenager? Both might indeed be the result of certain conditions in the contexts of the cultures in which those girls are born and brought up in and we might not be in favour of both cutting-operations, but does that mean we have to suspend our moral judgment and not think and not compare necessity, brutality and consequence of each measures and ignore the obvious differences in favour of 'respect for cultures'? Isn't this instead of an argument about FGM rather an attempt to change the subject? As well, I might do a bit of hairsplitting here, but that practicioners of a certain practice might think that this procedure is good, harmless and not oppressive doesn't necessarely mean that it isn't really so, again: who are we to not judge?  
This kind of ambivalence and moral volatility on the issue might be the reason Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg felt obliged to affirm her dedication to womens pleasure in another post, provoked by a readers comment:

"I am NOT opposed to Clitoraid because it offers reconstructive surgeries. I am opposed to it because of their demeaning campaign. Again, I am ALL for women’s pleasure!  But I am also for respect and against humiliation. Nobody’s genitalia should be talked about in the way that Clitoraid is talking about African women’s genitalia."

'Take me to your leader'

What to make out of this fuss between New Age and Postmodernity? I do share the sentiment of Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg that the language on the Clitoraid website is demeaning and objectifies African women and would add that the approach of the Raeliens might not only 'entrench the matter' more (is that possible?) but actually hurt the fight against FGM by identifying those opposed to it with a crude moral absolutism of a dubious sectarian origin. It could as well add to the cultural alienation of Africa from the rest of the world by advancing clichés about the 'barbarism' of Africans through the 'yuck'-factor. Those however are tactical questions: how to fight a problem already identified. The moral question in the meanwhile if FGM is a problem, 'right' or 'wrong' after all -even though Kamau-Rutenberg positions herself against the practice in her post on the issue on the 8th of April- in the reading she recommended this is not clear at all. It seems to me rather that at least some of those authors by 'anthropologizing' the practice imply or indeed try to argue that understanding the cultural context of FGM means to accept it as something 'authentic' or even 'natural'. So while I do think that "putting parts of a body on adoption" (W.J-R) indeed might remind on slavery, the talk of 'peculiar' cultural institutions demanding respect for the sake of being "the own", does so as well. So does finding euphemisms for those because they otherwise would appear unbearable to great parts of the global civil society. This popular contemporary sentiment, the reverent silence when somebody cries ''It's my culture!" is neither plausible nor can it always consequently be followed as Kamau-Rutenberg demonstrates herself in her words about the Raelian "UFO-cult" (It's their religion and culture after all and they 'essentially' mean well, how about some respect?).

Further by implying that a private (even if fraudulent) venture that is based on offering a service for voluntary participation is '(neo-)colonial' seems to stretch the meaning of the word in a way that it loses its meaning and her talk of "the Western Feminists" so it appears to me, implies that to have a moral opinion and to support a prefered side in this question is wrong if one doesn't belong to a certain identity or territory. Whe shouldn't forget here the many Africans that fight against FGM as f.e. the NGO Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) or individuals like Waris Dirie and many others who chose to use strong words like 'mutilation' exactly to emphasize the pain and suffering FGM causes and to rally support for its abolishment globally because they see this as a humanitarian issue that concerns everybody. Organisations like REACH Uganda are now able to successfully work to carefully convince locals to abolish the practise because of several decades of hard work and very loud shouting by human-rights-activists lobbying and campaining for its ban as well as for institutional support and funds for those programms.

moral absolutism, moral relativism, moral realism

Is there another lesson from this storm in the teacup about modern, premodern, postmodern and hypermodern 'sexuality-dispositifs'*? I think so. All moral questions are universal questions, be it of war and peace, for-or-against death penalty, "honour"-killings or FGM, it simply can't be avoided to take a side. To understand this and that certain practices are part of a culture, does mean 'respect' must be administered carefully (this is true for the Raelian as well as the Sabiny and all other cultures) and it does not follow out of an anthropological study or the creative wording of literature-theorists that we are dispended of our own personal moral judgment and the responsibility for our own action and in-action in todays world. To understand how something came to be (or to assume this) does not mean to agree with it. On the contrary, real solidarity is only possible between equals, pittance is always demeaning if it takes the form of "adopting body parts" or merciful handouts to the poor within injust or dysfunctional global social structures. We have to avoid and fight the branding of Africa and its people as the eternal victims of 'history', 'geography', 'others' or 'themselves' in favour of careful differentiated analysis and rather focus on pragmatic ways of supporting the struggle for Human Rights, mutual global problem-solving and help to self-help. For this goal endavours like the Raelian attempt to 'jump on the bandwaggon' in a long-term struggle, in order to raise funds and attention for themselves, have to be exposed and I'm thankful for the ongoing efforts of Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg in that. I do oppose any wavering or euphemisation however on the subject of the 'wrongness' of FGM itself, or implications that 'culture' (or anything else for that matter) might divide humanity into different species that don't need to care for each other or that we have no need for individual moral opinions anymore.  
Moral questions have to be discussed, on occasions loud on other occasions and places those discussions might have to be toned down a bit to allow specific and pragmatic solutions. Moral absolutism, the conviction of an absolute truth in moral questions does not allow for argument, while moral relativism makes dialogue redundant in favour of the status quo and cynical power games. A moral realist approach seems to me appropriate because it takes into account the difficult moral universe we are living in, by still not sacrificing the vision of a better world for all mankind. 

*I included this reference to Michel Foucault because I have observed that his work or rather his language is sometimes used in order to explain various problems away or to imply the moral equivalence of different but similar issues (as f.e. connecting cosmetic plastic surgery and FGM via terms like 'bodypolitic' or 'biopower', yes it's both about bodies or 'life',  so?) .



  • Aija Vanaga on 12th April 2010:

    To add to this topic, I would also suggest to take a look to movie ‘Desert flower’. Review of it soon on my blog!

  • Daniel on 12th April 2010:

    Moral questions are by definition universal, yes, but a behaviour can be understood as a a cultural expression, or a moral statement, depending on how we choose to look at it.

    It actually has a great impact if we think that young women are mutilated because their fathers, or whoever, wants to inflict pain on them them, or if we think that the person who does this to them has good intentions.

    In the first case, the morally reasonable thing would be to fight the practice with police means, or in deed, to operate on mutilated women. In the secon case a community-based approach that involves all actors is more reasonable, and I think that is often the preferrable choice in the real world.

  • Clare Herbert on 12th April 2010:

    Really interesting post on FGM.

  • Stefan May on 12th April 2010:

    Very good idea.

    Thanks smile

    My point was exactly that morality is part of culture of course and what we observe is a ‘culture-war’, a clash of different value systems in which one has to be very careful of vilification of the opponent but also of ‘benign neglect’ and the betrayal of those values we hold dear and that are necessary for a free and democratic society (because culture is about power), that’s the whole point of my article.
    ‘Good intentions’ are often very resistant to arguments, so I wouldn’t say police means are necessarily always the wrong choice. Existing laws protecting the child have to be enforced, everything else would be regress. They can (and should) however be accompanied by education and a struggle for cultural change in order to be effective. This is of course best done by those who know the language and the customs of the people in question and who are convinced that this is good for their community. Those are the people we should support and show solidarity with. But again, let’s not confuse goal and tactics here. In countries where those laws do not exist yet, one for sure has to begin with the education and the cultural struggle. For that one has to be able to defend ones own values in an ongoing conversation and not surrender to the defenders of the status quo.

  • Daniel on 13th April 2010:

    I wouldn’t call this a “culture war”... which is the culture “we” are fighting against? African culture? Genital mutilation is just a cultural practice, something much smaller than a culture. The women are the victims of this specific practice, but they are the upholdes of the culture that does it to them, as much as the men. To come to grips witht the problem I believe in community work that let people revalue their own culture. Good intentions may be deaf to arguments, but that depends very much on where these arguments come from.

    In deed, police means may be the right choice in some situations, and as far as I know a number of states have banned the practice, even if they don’t manage to live up to their promises.

  • Stefan May on 13th April 2010:

    I meant ‘culture war’ in the sense of ‘Kulturkampf’ or those American political struggles about abortion etc. FGM is part of a larger package indeed of ‘traditional culture’ as opposed to ‘modern culture’ and to territorialize the question by declaring this about ‘African’ values is clearly wrong, that’s why I gave reference to those Africans who fight against FGM.

  • Jodi Bush on 14th April 2010:

    Stefan, very interesting and i like your writing style. The Clitoraid campaign is absolutely absurd.

    My personal opinion is that regardless of justifications invoked (be they cultural, health, ritual, sexual) in cutting/mutilating/removing a young girl’s clitoris they are infringing on her right to choose. The child is in no position to understand the impact on their future health or sexuality, and therefore cannot make an informed decision. In most cases they’re not even given even a guise of choice. That’s why I think it is wrong. The way it is tackled however, that’s more complex.

    I agree with your statement that “we have to avoid and fight the branding of Africa and its people as the eternal victims of ‘history’, ‘geography’, ‘others’ or ‘themselves’ in favour of careful differentiated analysis”. I think you’re right - it’s easy to fall prey to catch-all analyses when actually the causes, issues and remedies are incredibly complex.

  • Hanna Clarys on 22nd April 2010:

    I don’t think you can ever speak of ‘good intentions’ in this case. Even if it are intentions coming forth from tradition or culture. This practice should be ended, if not with what Daniel called the community-based approach (which would also be of my preference), then with laws, punishment, etc. It should be banned no matter what.

Post your comment

  • Remember my personal information

    Notify me of follow-up comments?

    --- Let's see if you are human ---

    Apples grow on what? Add a questionmark to your answer. (6 character(s) required)