Swans Commentary » swans.com July 13, 2009  



Female Circumcision And The Tahirih Justice Center


by Michael Barker





"Female circumcision has been condemned as a 'torture' or 'degrading treatment' that lacks any 'respect for dignity' of women and girls. And it should be. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious manifestations of 'degrading treatment' and lack of 'respect for dignity' lie in the modus operandi of many Westerners (feminists and others) who have intervened in this matter. The resistance of African women is not against the campaign to end the practice, but against their dehumanization and the lack of respect and dignity shown to them in the process."
—Obioma Nnaemeka, 2005. (1)


(Swans - July 13, 2009)  A potent weapon of transnational elites in the advancement and legitimization of imperialist conquests is the nebulous concept that is human rights. (2) Women's rights are no exception, and as Zillah Eisenstein observes: "Women's rights as a discourse both legitimizes [neoliberal] democracy and critiques other-than-Western forms of democracy simultaneously." (3) In this regard, as the introductory statement by Obioma Nnaemeka conveys, there are many problems with the way that predominantly liberal feminist groups pursue their campaign against the practice of female circumcision, which is more commonly referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In contradiction to the stated objective of protecting global human rights, and specifically women's rights, a good case can be made that mainstream feminists act unconsciously as agents of imperialism. This article will demonstrate this argument by critically evaluating the role of a leading women's rights group, the Tahirih Justice Center, which has played a central role in raising public awareness of Female Genital Mutilation in the United States.

Baha'i Justice and Asylum Seekers

Inspired by the religious practices of the Baha'i, (4) the Tahirih Justice Center's mission statement notes that it "works to protect immigrant women and girls seeking justice in the United States from gender-based violence." According to their stated objectives, the Center "enables women and girls fleeing gender-based violence to access justice in the United States through high-quality pro bono legal services and bridge building public policy advocacy." While at present the Center represents diverse women and cases, it is significant that the legal proceedings at the heart of the 1997 foundation of the Tahirih Justice Center concerned Female Genital Mutilation.

According to their Web site, Layli Miller-Muro (a member of the Baha'i National Committee for the Advancement of Women) (5) founded the Center after "her involvement as a student attorney in a high-profile case" representing Fauziya Kassindja (or Kasinga), "a 17-year-old girl who had fled Togo in fear of a forced polygamous marriage and a tribal practice known as female genital mutilation." With Miller-Muro's support Kasinga "was granted asylum in 1996 by the US Board of Immigration Appeals," and the Center notes how this "decision opened the door to gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum." The following year, using her proceeds from the book she co-authored with Ms. Kasinga about the case, Ms. Miller-Muro "established the Tahirih Justice Center to protect other women and girls in need." Given the central role of this case in the establishment of the Center it is worth considering in finer detail.

After arriving in the United States as an asylum seeker, Ms. Kasinga had her initial immigration hearing in August 1995: here she was represented by Layli Miller-Muro, who at the time was a law student at American University, and her request for asylum was officially denied by the judge. After returning from the United Nations Women's Conference (held in Beijing, China), Miller-Muro then took up Kasinga's case in earnest. Not surprisingly the issue of female circumcision was a hot topic at this conference, and Sondra Hale recalls how:

At the nongovernmental (NGO) segment of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995, the difference between the number of workshops directly about female circumcision and the number of presentations on other panels was staggering. "FGM" (as it is referred to by "those in the know") became a celebrity international topic... I was alarmed that no one mentioned how many of these workshops were sponsored by Western-controlled international agencies with their own agendas! (6)

Either way, when Miller-Muro returned from the conference she contacted Karen Musalo -- a lawyer at the International Human Rights Clinic at American University -- who then successfully appealed the previous decision resulting in the Board of Immigration Appeals granting Kasinga political asylum (on June 13, 1996). (7)

Charles Piot, with his important article "Representing Africa in the Kasinga Asylum Case," enables us to fill in some more of the details regarding this landmark case. Indeed, he states that:

The arguments advanced by the lawyers involved in the Kasinga case and the images in the media reporting on it circulated widely and came to define much more than Kasinga's travails or the practice of female genital cutting itself. Like Robert Kaplan's demonizing piece in the February 1994 Atlantic Monthly, "The Coming Anarchy," they evoked and inserted themselves into a genealogy of racist stereotypes about Africa that have long mediated the West's relationship to the continent. In so doing, they glossed over complex local realities and once again fictionalized and fetishized Africa as the West's Other. (8)

Moreover, Piot himself "played a minor role in the Kasinga case," as he filed a letter with the court (used initially at the August 1995 hearing), "based on a reading of the ethnographic literature which affirmed that the Tchamba of northern Togo practiced clitoridectomy and that it was likely that a Tchamba woman would be expected to undergo the procedure before she married." He continues, however, that:

Much to my astonishment -- for I had said nothing of substance about Kasinga herself, and I had used anthropological scholarship that was a half-century old -- my letter was used right through the trial process and cited in the BIA's [Board of Immigration Appeals] final opinion on the case as expert testimony that reinforced the case Kasinga's lawyers were trying to make (see US Dept. of Justice 1996). This gives some indication of the house of cards on which this legal case was built. (p.225)

As recounted on the Tahirih Web site, while at the United Nations Women's Conference (in China) Miller-Muro was able to enlist "the support of Equality Now, the Baha'í Community, and other human rights organizations." This aid, especially from Equality Now, was critical in creating a supportive media environment that publicity "clearly played a major role in the case's outcome," Piot observes, despite the fact that such supportive media coverage was "never mentioned by the lawyers during their arguments, or by the judges in their ruling" (p.227). Piot notes that by working with the "media-savvy New York-based feminist human rights group, Equality Now," Kasinga's lawyers were put "in touch with New York Times metro-area correspondent Celia Dugger" whose related article was published on The Times front page on April 15, 1996. (9) Further, the ties between FGM activists and The New York Times were strong before this, as in 1994, Efua Dorkenoo wrote that: "Since 1992 Mr. A.M. Rosenthal, has had a regular column on FGM in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune." (10) Returning to 1996 though, follow-up articles written by Dugger were then published on April 25, June 14, and September 11, with the latter piece...

... emblazoned with pictures of dirt roads and submissive women, with heads bowed before male patriarchs... Its evocation of images of the immutable nature of patriarchal tradition in a timeless Africa was extraordinary. Dugger had never been to Africa before her July trip, spoke neither French nor Tchamba, and spent only a few days in the country. Yet she wrote an article read by millions that spoke the "truth" not only about Kasinga's personal odyssey and Tchamba culture but also about an entire continent. (p.231)

No surprise then that since this time, Dugger has been well rewarded for her good work by imperialist interests reaching far beyond her employers at The New York Times, and from 2002 until 2003 she served as an Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the elite think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. Likewise, Layli Miller-Muro herself presently serves as a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Additionally, in 1998, Miller-Muro was a recipient of the Voices of Courage Media Award from the International Rescue Committee's (see Right Web profile) "humanitarian" Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Tragically, the meanings that were created in the courtroom during the Kasinga case, which are still "widely cited in the press and beyond," have meant that appreciating the existence of a "counter-discourse about the meaning of female genital cutting is today for most Westerners utterly unthinkable." Thus Piot continues that while Ms. Kasinga's right to freedom from violence was secured, the method of securing it presented and reinforced the "crudest, most essentializing images and stereotypes." That is, "Kasinga was assumed by all in attendance to be a member of a 'patriarchal tribe' with 'immutable cultural norms' that practices 'forced polygamy' and 'mutilates' its women. Women of the tribe, it was suggested, 'are brainwashed into believing that mutilation is good for them.'" (11) Leti Volpp makes this last point clear by pointing out that:

Part of the reason many believe the cultures of the Third World or immigrant communities are so much more sexist than Western ones is that incidents of sexual violence in the West are frequently thought to reflect the behavior of a few deviants -- rather than an integral part of our culture. In contrast, incidents of violence in the Third World or immigrant communities are thought to characterize the cultures of entire nations. (12)

Moreover, as Shamita Das Dasgupta adds:

Many white Americans presume that "other" cultures, especially minority ones, are far more accepting of woman abuse than the U.S. culture. ... American mainstream society still likes to believe that woman abuse is limited to minority ethnic communities, lower socioeconomic strata, and individuals with dark skin colors. The impact of this public violence of imperialism, classism, and racism on battering in the private sphere of home and intimate relationships has, unfortunately, received little research attention." (13)

Returning to female circumcision, former Carnegie Corporation scholar Richard Shweder recapitulates the aforementioned criticisms:

If you read and believe those statements or most of the other things you find written about "FGM" in the popular press (which, for the most part, are recapitulations of the advocacy literature) then you must conclude that Africa is indeed a "Dark Continent," where for hundreds, if not thousands of years, African parents have been murdering and maiming their daughters and depriving them of the capacity for a sexual response. (14)

Shweder goes on to suggest that the "evangelical interventions of global feminists and human rights activists" supplement and support the "civilizing" missionary efforts of militant Protestants in Africa. Indeed, with regard to female circumcision he concludes that "the harmful practice claim has been highly exaggerated and that many of the representations in the advocacy literature and the popular press are nearly as fanciful as they are nightmarish." Moreover, despite being far from radical, Shweder equates much female circumcision activism as a form of imperial liberalism. He writes:

Political liberals, I believe, ought to be concerned about the totalitarian implications of imperial liberalism. They should worry about the coercion that would be needed to enforce the doctrine that our gender ideals are best, that our ideas about sexuality and reproduction are best, that our ideas about work and family are best, and moreover, good for everyone. They should be especially cautious with such an emotionally charged and poorly understood issue as circumcision (both male and female), because the temptation to demonize others and impose one's will is especially great and there is a general reluctance to recognize the particularity, even the peculiarity, of one's own point of view. (15)

Writing before the Kasinga female circumcision controversy, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan demonstrate that the ideas in this article are not new. They critique the film Warrior Marks (1993) that was directed by Pratibha Parmar and produced by Alice Walker, and its accompanying coffee table book authored by Alice Walker entitled Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women (Harvest Books, 1996). Prior to producing Warrior Marks, Walker had penned a novel based on female circumcision entitled Possessing the Secret of Joy. Grewal and Kaplan surmise that both "are recent examples of contemporary Euro-American multicultural feminism in its imperializing vein as global womanism." They continue that by "Proposing 'benevolent' rescues and principled interventions, Warrior Marks advocates a return to the interlocking traditions of missionary projects, modernizing practices, and global sisterhood." (16)

Fittingly, the Warrior Marks producer, Alice Walker, presently serves on the board of patrons (and matrons) of a British group called the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development (FORWARD) -- a group that was formed in 1983 "in response to the emerging problems caused by female genital mutilation being seen by health professionals." FORWARD's founder, Efua Dorkenoo, is perhaps most famous amongst female circumcision circles for her role in co-editing with Scilla Elworthy (formerly Scilla McLean) the book Female Circumcision, Excision and Infibulation: The Facts and Proposals for Change (Minority Rights Group, 1983). Again it is interesting to point out that the publisher of this book, Minority Rights Group, maintains ties to numerous philanthropic elites like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute (and even the British government's Department for International Development, and the misnamed US Institute for Peace). Moreover, Minority Rights Group's former research director, Scilla Elworthy, is involved in much other "humanitarian" work as in 1982 she founded the Oxford Research Group, and she is also an "individual funder" of George Soros's International Crisis Group. (17) (The International Crisis Group, like Minority Rights Group, was a participating organization in the 2006 Global Day for Darfur coalition -- for a discussion of the problems associated with such activism see "The Project For A New American Humanitarianism.") (18)

"Justice" Board Members and Funders

Given the controversial nature of the initial case that led to the founding of the Tahirih Justice Center it is fitting that they receive strong bipartisan support from corporate and political elites. Thus the secretary of the Center's board of directors is Laurie Plessala Duperier, who until recently was also vice president and associate general counsel for Altria Client Services -- a company formerly known as Philip Morris (the world's largest tobacco company). Other notable current board members include Sara Glenn (who serves as senior counsel and director of government relations for Shell Oil Company), and Lidia Soto-Harmon (who brings excellent elite connections to the Center, as she formerly served as the deputy director of the President's Interagency Council on Women, which was chaired by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the US Department of State).

Moving along, the Tahirih's board chair is filled by noted "humanitarian" activist Frank Kendall, who is an advisor to the neoliberal think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, and also sits on the executive directors' leadership council of Amnesty International USA. (19) More interestingly, Kendall counts amongst his former employers the weapons manufacturer Raytheon Company, where he served as corporate vice president of engineering, and the US Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he acted as director of tactical warfare programs. On top of this Kendall has carried out pro bono human rights work for a controversial group called Human Rights First, which counts Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world, among its funders. At this point, reference should be made to Kendall's online resume, which boasts that he was a "major contributor" to Human Rights First's "effort to secure passage of the McCain anti-torture amendment." At face value such an achievement is worth commending; however, as Alfred McCoy observes -- contrary to views expressed by mainstream media commentators -- the McCain amendment still leaves plenty of room for torture (see "Why the McCain Torture Ban Won't Work"). Finally, it would appear inconsistent that as an individual ostensibly committed to justice, Kendall has committed himself to the "global defense, space, government services, homeland security and commercial aerospace market" by becoming a managing partner of Renaissance Strategic Advisors (in 2008).

These obvious conflicts of interest between the Tahirih Justice Center's stated mission and their selection of board members require an examination of its former board members and in so doing will provide a more nuanced understanding of the type of work promoted by the Center. Some former board members include:

•   Sunita Gandhi who is a former World Bank economist and is now the president of the Baha'i-inspired Council for Global Education. Tahirih executive director, Layli Miller-Muro, is also a board member of the Council for Global Education, as is Tahirih board member, Michael Penn.

•   Mona Grieser has acted as the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, and has recently served as a Director of the US Agency for International Development/Hygiene Improvement Program.

•   MaryAnn Holohean was the former vice president of the Fund for the City of New York, which was set up by the Ford Foundation in 1968. With regards to connections to elite women's rights groups, Abigail Disney, who is a current board member of the Fund, is also a board member of the Global Fund for Women. (20)

•   Michael MacLeod who was a director of the Advocacy Institute in 2003 (at least) -- which is now known as the Advocacy Center at ISC. (21)

•   The late Michael Maggio who was a member of the Americas Advisory Committee of the elitist Human Rights Watch. (22)

•   Vasu Mohan who is a member of the International Foundation for Election Systems' team in India (see Right Web profile from 1989). The president of the Foundation, from 1988 until 2007, was Richard Soudriette, and given the close links between the work of the Foundation and the imperial National Endowment for Democracy (NED) it is fitting that since 2007 Soudriette has been a member of the secretary of state's bipartisan Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion.

•   Marti Thomas was a staffer to the former House minority leader Richard Gephardt (who since 2009 has been the chair of the NED). While serving as a Tahirih board member Thomas was employed by Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a Washington, based public relations and lobbying firm. Notably, in 2005, Quinn Gillespie & Associates worked for the White House to build a coalition of business and Congressional leaders, called Americans for Border and Economic Security, to emphasize the economic benefits of immigrant workers.

•   Marla Zometsky, while serving as a Tahirih board member, was a program officer for the core NED grantee, the National Democratic Institute. After leaving this position she went on to act as a representative on Amnesty International's women's human rights steering committee.

Another three former Tahirih board members have all previously worked in various capacities for the Worldspace Corporation (also known as 1worldspace). (23) These are Mimi Alemayehou, Ufo Eric-Atuanya, and Andra Grant.

•   Mimi Alemayehou was nominated by President George W. Bush to be the US director of the African Development Bank in March 2008.

•   Ufo Eric-Atuanya was senior policy advisor on international trade to the US secretary of commerce from 1998 until 2000, and amongst other things he "co-drafted and sought passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)." Here it is useful to refer to Anthony Fenton's 2004 brief review of AGOA; he wrote: "The AGOA was seen as combining 'the worst terms of both NAFTA and harsh IMF structural adjustment programs' while benefiting primarily 'huge US corporations.' Last year, Bill Fletcher of the Transafrica forum assessed AGOA's impact: 'AGOA has been a real mixed bag, but overall it's a sham...Exports continue to be largely oil...AGOA doesn't carry with it human, environmental and labor rights to protect people in areas where production is supposed to be taking place.' Quite simply, according to Fletcher, elsewhere 'The notion that AGOA has actually benefited African countries is a gross misrepresentation.'"

•   Andra Grant is a project management consultant who formerly worked for the Office for Social and Economic Development at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel. She served as the secretary of the Tahirih Justice Center.

Finally another notable former board member was Theresa Loar, who now serves on the Tahirih Justice Center's advisory board, and is vice president of global strategies for the global engineering and consulting (disaster profiteering) firm CH2M Hill -- a firm whose current president is a former executive at the larger better known war profiteer, the Bechtel Group. Significantly, Loar was the founding president of the Vital Voices Global Partnership -- a group that was formed as an "outgrowth of the U.S. response to the UN 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in l995." According to their Web site, Vital Voices, currently works in collaboration with the NED in Afghanistan, and has recently obtained funding from the NED for their work in Venezuela and Iran. (24) In this regard it is interesting that former Tahirih board member Farida Azizi has in the past worked as a senior adviser for the Afghan Women's Program with Vital Voices.

Another liberal women's group that is connected to the Tahirih Justice Center is the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) -- a group whose executive director, Eleanor Smeal, had been president of the National Organization for Women prior to helping form FMF in 1987. One link between the two liberal groups comes via Tahirih advisory board member Hauwa Ibrahim, who in 2005 received FMF's Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women's Rights Award; (25) however, a more direct connection arose in 1999 when Tahirih worked "in partnership" with the Feminist Majority Foundation to establish the Afghan Women Project. To get an idea of the narrow version of feminism that FMF promotes, it is useful to turn to the work of Ann Russo who critically analysed their Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan (a campaign launched in early 1997). In summary, Russo concludes that:

While the FMF's Campaign draws public attention to the discrimination and violence facing Afghan women under the Taliban, its discourse is embedded in an ahistorical and Orientalist framework that assumes the benevolence and superiority of the US in establishing gender equality. Thus, the FMF reproduces an imperial feminism tied to US state interests in empire building -- a feminism that evades accountability for the consequences of US militarism while it establishes its own power and authority in determining the future of Afghanistan. The imperial feminism of the FMF is an example of how actions taken to challenge hegemony can in fact support and reify the hegemonic projects of the state. In effect, the FMF draws upon the same imperialist and problematic ideas about women as those expressed by the Bush administration to protect Afghan women in the name of empire. (26)

In 2007, FMF again leant its "support" to Afghan women by giving another Eleanor Roosevelt Award to Sima Samar, an individual who is the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Sudan, and chairperson of the USAID-backed Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Given all this information -- which is controversial considering that the Tahirih Justice Center is apparently committed to justice -- it is appropriate its work is funded by a variety of imperialist corporations. Thus particularly notable groups listed as funders of Tahirih's work include Creative Associates International Inc., ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, Estee Lauder, Sony, and even the misnamed US Department of Justice. (27)

The Long Fight for Justice

This article makes the assertion that the Tahirih Center promotes imperial goals over any true feminist agenda or push for civil rights. The sincerity, or the goodwill, of the activists associated with the Center is not questioned; nevertheless, their activities are promoting anti-humanistic outcomes, whether they intend to or not. Naturally this is just one of the many dangers of engaging in a paternal and -- logically -- patriarchal form of liberal activism that fails to incorporate a radical analysis of the historically constructed institutional structures that drive injustice and imperialism. Yet this is a problem that extends beyond the work of well-meaning liberals, and even that of radical activists sometimes works to smooth the way for imperial interests. In this regard Ann Russo observes:

It seems essential to continue critical and reflective dialogue among feminists about our own beliefs, assumptions and politics in relation to US empire and imperialism, in the past and present. This includes a deeper interrogation into the ways in which empire shapes and informs US feminist efforts to build connection and solidarity across the divides of race, class, culture and sexuality within and outside of the borders of the USA. As many post-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-racist feminists have argued, feminism must go far beyond an exclusively gender-based analysis of women's lives in order to build transnational solidarity. A feminism that recognizes the ways in which empire intersects with patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and heterosexuality in terms of both oppression and privilege would provide for and create a broader ethic of accountability in critically challenging its own terms and conditions.

Referring to Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty's 1997 work, (28) Russo adds that "feminists based in the USA must critically interrogate our assumption of the USA as a democratic and liberal state with a serious interest in spreading 'democracy' and 'freedom'." Moreover Russo adds that...

... feminists need to create a politics where "the imperial or colonial actions of the presumably Democratic U.S." are made visible and subject to feminist action. Ultimately, then, the basis of transnational feminist solidarity must be a spirit and practice of equality rather than "saving," respect rather than pity, accountability rather than superiority. (29)

It should be recognised that justice will never come from capitalist elites. Justice can and does flow, however, from citizenry comprised of critical thinkers. So for all citizens intent on creating a just world order it is imperative that they harness the power of their numbers, and work collectively to slowly and surely upend the unjust imperial powers that be and replace them with a caring, thoughtful model of society instead.




1.  Obioma Nnaemeka, "African Women, Colonial Discourses, and Imperialist Interventions: Female Circumcision as Impetus," In Obioma Nnaemeka (ed.) Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses (Praeger, 2005), p.30.  (back)

2.  Jean Bricmont, in his book, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War (Monthly Review Press, 2007), writes: "Human rights, whose invocation in the 1970s was a way for the United States to restore its reputation after the Vietnamese debacle, were taken up by many progressive movements as their primary, if not sole, objective. Worse still, numerous left intellectuals consider it their mission to criticize Western governments for their excessive caution and timidity. To hear their complaints, one might gather that the main problem in the world today is the failure of the West to intervene in enough places (Chechnya, Tibet, Kurdistan, Sudan) and with enough force to promote and export its genuine values, democracy and human rights." (p.66)  (back)

3.  Zillah Eisenstein, Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (Zed Books, 2007), p.2.  (back)

4.  The Tahirih Justice Center derives its name from Tahirih, who was a member of the persecuted Babi (or Bayani) faith, i.e., the immediate precursor of the Baha'i Faith. Tahirih was executed in Tehran in the summer of 1852, a full decade and a half before the official genesis of Baha'ism in Adrianople on the Black Sea coast of the Ottoman empire in 1866-67; see Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-50 (Cornell University Press: 1989).  (back)

5.  It is also worth mentioning that Layli Miller-Muroe's father, Larry Miller, also serves as a permanent board member of the Tahirih Justice Center. As well as having served with the Baha'i National Teaching Committee of the United States, Mr. Miller was also appointed by the Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly to the board of directors of Mottahedeh Development Services (a Maryland-based agency, affiliated with the Baha'i faith, which claims to "provide skills, models and other assistance to realize the vision of active service to the larger community as an immediate and organic expression of Faith"), where he served as chairman for a number of years. He also served on the governing board of the leadership team of the Baha'i Business Forum for the Americas. During his career as a business consultant, his clients included Air Canada, AIESEC International, Allina Health Care, Amoco Oil, American Express, Honeywell, Compass, Alabama Power Company, Bell Canada, Chick-fil-A, Clark Schwebel, Coca-Cola, USA, Corning, Delmarva Power & Light, Dial Corporation, Eastman Kodak, Exxon, USA, Harris Corporation, Honda America Manufacturing, Landmark Communications, McDonald's Corporation, and Merck.  (back)

6.  Sondra Hale, "Colonial Discourse and Ethnographic Residuals: The 'Female Circumcision' Debate and the Politics of Knowledge," In Obioma Nnaemeka (ed), Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge (Praeger, 2005), pp.215-6.  (back)

7.  Karen Musalo now directs the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, which was founded in 1999 and describes itself as "the nation's leading organization supporting women asylum-seekers fleeing gender related harm, at both the practice and policy levels." Funders of the Center's work include the Ford Foundation.

Fauziya Kassindja presently serves on their advisory board alongside the likes of Sheila Dauer (who is director of the Women's Human Rights Program for Amnesty International USA), and Susan Martin (who is a cofounder of the International Rescue Committee's "humanitarian" Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children -- see Right Web profile).  (back)

8.  Charles Piot, "Representing Africa in the Kasinga Asylum Case," In Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf (ed.) Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p.224.

Notably two other chapters in Abusharaf's edited collection focus on female circumcision in Sudan. Both articles examine the work of the Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women's Studies (BBSAWS), a group that was the "first civil society institution and organized women's group ever to launch a campaign against female genital mutilation." (p.144) Indeed, "Female circumcision represents one of the main concerns tackled by BBSAWS since its inception." (p.175) BBSAWS has received seven grants from the National Endowment for Democracy between 1996 and 2007.

With regard to Kaplan's work Betsy Hartmann writes: "In 1994 journalist Robert Kaplan popularized [Thomas] Homer-Dixon's views in an Atlantic Monthly piece on 'The Coming Anarchy,' which proclaimed the environment as the most important national security issue of the 21st century. Much of the article dwells on West Africa, which Kaplan presents as a hopeless scene of overpopulation, squalor, environmental degradation, and violence, where young men are postmodern barbarians, and children with swollen bellies swarm like ants. Kaplan's article did for Africa what The Bell Curve did for the United States: it reintroduced racism as a legitimate form of public discourse. But whereas The Bell Curve was at least attacked by some elements of the liberal press, 'The Coming Anarchy' captured the imagination of the liberal establishment, even that of President Clinton himself."

Betsy Hartmann, "Population, Environment and Security: A New Trinity," In: Jael Silliman and Ynestra King (eds), Dangerous Intersections: Feminism, Population and Environment (Zed Books, 1999), p.11.  (back)

9.  Founded in 1992, Equality Now, which is funded by all manner of liberal foundations (including the Ford Foundation and George Soros's Open Society Institute), works "for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world." The fact that Gloria Steinem -- who in March 1979 wrote an article in Ms magazine with Robin Morgan titled "The International Crime of Genital Mutilation" -- serves on Equality Now's board of trustees provides a useful indication of the limited form of elite feminism that the organization promotes. Importantly, in 1996, when Equality Now began working on the Kasinga case, the executive director of the center was former Rockefeller Foundation employee Surita Sandosham. Since then Sandosham has become a senior director for Synergos, an "anti-poverty" non-profit that works with corporations to whitewash their involvement in facilitating the global spread of poverty: for instance Equality Now board member Alan Detheridge, who is a former vice president of Shell International and presently sits on the board of the misnamed Africare -- which in addition to accepting funding from many of the same liberal foundations as Equality Now obtains funding from the imperial democracy-manipulating organization, the National Endowment for Democracy.  (back)

10.  Efua Dorkenoo, Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation - The Practice and Its Prevention (Minority Rights Group, 1994), p.82.  (back)

11.  Charles Piot, "Representing Africa in the Kasinga Asylum Case," p.230. Piot makes an important point when he points out how: "In the United States, an applicant cannot get asylum based on his or her status and claims as an individual. Kasinga's lawyers could not have argued that their petitioner was caught in an ugly family dispute... The law requires that asylum claims be based on membership in a cognizable social group that comes under persecution. This contradiction is the proximate cause of the demonizing imagery that Kasinga's lawyers were forced to draw on. To win their case, they had to portray her as coming from an unchanging patriarchal society of mutilators." (p.232)  (back)

12.  Leti Volpp, "Feminism versus Multiculturalism," In: Natalie Sokoloff with Christina Pratt (eds) Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender, and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2005). By way of an example of such racism, Volpp writes: "An article in The New Yorker about arranged marriages in South Asian communities suggested that dowry murders are the cultural alternative to Western divorce -- a way to exit relationships. Instead, the more appropriate analogy is to equate dowry murders with domestic violence, specifically, domestic violence murders in the United States. The philosopher Uma Narayan has calculated that death by domestic violence in the United States is numerically as significant a social problem as dowry murders in India. But only one is used as a signifier of cultural backwardness..." (p.41)

Uma Narayan writes "When I began looking through the articles in my file, and through several books that either wholly or partly address issues of domestic violence in the U.S., I did not come across any book or article that centrally focused on U.S. women murdered as a result of domestic violence (even though I found a fair amount of writing on legal issues pertaining to women who killed their batterers). In all of the American 'domestic-violence' readings I initially went through as I began writing this piece, I found no data about the number of women who are annually killed as a result of domestic violence, though I found plenty of other kinds of data on facets of domestic violence such as injuries and homelessness. None of several American feminist friends I called knew off-hand roughly how many women were killed by their partners each year in the United States. Nor could they find this figure easily when they went through their collections of books and articles on the subject." Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism (Routledge, 1997). p.89.

For an overview of the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States, see INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology (South End Press, 2006).  (back)

13.  Shamita Das Dasgupta, "Women's Realities: Defining Violence against Women by Immigration, Race, and Class," In: Natalie Sokoloff with Christina Pratt (eds) Domestic Violence at the Margins (Rutgers University Press, 2005), p.61.  (back)

14.  Richard Shweder, "When Cultures Collide: Which Rights? Whose Tradition of Values? A Critique of the Global Anti-FGM Campaign," In Christopher Eisgruber and Andras Sajo (eds), Global Justice and the Bulwarks of Localism: Human Rights in Context (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2005).

Interestingly, in 2002 Shweder co-authored a book with Martha Minow and Hazel Markus (eds), entitled Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies (Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2002). This is significant because Minow is a board member of the US-backed Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, and in 2005 was identified by Edward Herman and David Peterson as being a member of a group they referred to as "The New Humanitarians."  (back)

15.  Richard Shweder, "'What about Female Genital Mutilation?' And Why Does Understanding Culture Matter," In Richard Shweder, Why do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology (Harvard University Press, 2003), pp.197-8.

For a defence of female circumcision from a different angle, see Fuambai Ahmadu, "Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outside Reflects on Power and Excision," In Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund (eds) Female "Circumcision" in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000). This debate was even publicized by The New York Times in late 2007, see John Tierney's online posts "A New Debate on Female Circumcision" and "'Circumcision' or 'Mutilation'? And Other Questions About a Rite in Africa."

Recently Ahmadu wrote: "When donor agencies use the media to conflate the horrors of sexual violence against innocent girls and women in the aftermath of our war-torn country with the practices of female initiation, it is our duty to educate them that before the various western women's movements existed, before the all-powerful National Organization of Women, our Bondo ancestors stood against sexual violence and all forms of sexual insult and molestation of girls and women within our various ethnic groups. When our western feminist sisters and activists come into the country and represent us to their audiences as sexually "mutilated" and "castrated" it is up to us to re-educate them about the female sexual anatomy they presume to know so much about: the bulk of the clitoris is beneath the vaginal surface and along with other parts of the genitals and other areas of women's bodies remain very sensitive and perfectly functioning for most women after excision."  (back)

16.  Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, "Warrior Marks: Global Womanism's Neo-Colonial Discourse in a Multicultural Context," In Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (eds), Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media Global Womanism's Neo-Colonial Discourse in a Multicultural Context (Rutgers University Press, 2003), p.258. They point out that Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf at a talk in April 1997 referred to the film Warrior Marks as a "postcolonial civilising mission" (p.257).

Alice Walker's connection to imperial feminism is now bolstered by her position on the advisory board of a group called Women for Women International -- a group that counts among its elite funders the notorious National Endowment for Democracy. In addition it is noteworthy that Walker's daughter, Rebecca Walker (who was recently named one of Time magazine's fifty most influential American leaders under forty), is a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation. Third Wave describes itself as a "feminist, activist foundation that works nationally to support young women and transgender youth ages 15 to 30." However, given her mother's elite connections it is fitting that the foundation appears to support an elite population agenda, as their executive director, Monique Mehta, is the secretary of the neo-Malthusian Funders Network on Population, Reproductive Health and Rights. Moreover, other Third Wave board members include Supriya Pillai (who formerly worked for Population Services International), and Alexandra Teixeira (who was a former consultant to the United Nations Population Fund).  (back)

17.  In addition, Scilla Elworthy is a council member of the World Future Council (see "Who Wants A One World Government?).  (back)

18.  A comprehensive critique of "Save Darfur" activism is provided by Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (Knopf, 2009). Additionally, watch the online debate between Mamdani and John Prendergast that took place on April 14, 2009, at Columbia University.  (back)

19.  The chairman of Center for Strategic and International Studies is Sam Nunn, an individual whose background I examined in my recent article "General Electric: War Corporation, Liberal Hangout, Or Both? " (see Right Web's profile of the Center -- completed in 1989.) Although not mentioned in the aforementioned article, Nunn is a board member of Chevron, a corporation that funds the work of the Tahirih Justice Center.

For those interested in exploring some of the problems associated with Amnesty International's work a good starting point is Paul de Rooij's "Amnesty International: A False Beacon? Double Standards and Curious Silences," Counterpunch, October 13, 2004.  (back)

20.  The Global Fund for Women was founded in 1987 and describes itself as an "international network of women and men committed to a world of equality and social justice." The president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women is Kavita Ramdas, who was formerly a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation. The Fund's 2005-06 Annual Report notes that in their last year of operations they distributed just under $8 million of grants to women's groups all over the world. This annual report also lists all the individual donors to the Global Fund for Women (which amount to hundreds of people), their corporate sponsors, and a massive number of foundations (which include the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute). Not surprisingly, the Fund's board of directors includes numerous democracy-manipulating elites, and it is quite fitting that in 2007 they (along with 42 other NGOs) were awarded Fast Company Magazine's Social Capitalist Award for their excellence in "using the tools of business to solve the world's most pressing social problems."  (back)

21.  The Advocacy Center at ISC was formed in October 2006 when the Advocacy Institute merged with the Institute for Sustainable Communities, and their Web site notes that they offer "training to emerging leaders and established nonprofits around the world and in the United States." Although there are few details available online about this newly formed group, much can be learned about their work by examining the two organizations that gave rise to its existence.

The elder of the two merged groups, the Advocacy Institute, was founded in 1985, and its stated mission was to "make social justice leadership strategic, effective, and sustainable in pursuit of a just world." According to their 2003 Annual Report, they received funding from institutions like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute, while they counted the core NED grantee the Center for International Private Enterprise among their colleagues. Furthermore, in 2003, the Advocacy Institute's board of directors was also home to Peter Kovler, who is currently a board member of the National Democratic Institute, and also serves on the advisory council for the Nixon Center.

The other group that merged with the Advocacy Center in 2006 was the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), which was created by Madeleine Kunin in 1991, and describes itself as a "nonprofit organization that helps communities in existing and emerging democracies solve problems while building a better future for themselves and the world." The ISC's Web site notes that they received funding from an assortment of "democratic" groups that includes the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, ABT Associates, and USAID. ISC also counts among its partner organizations the Eurasia Foundation, Foundation Open Society Institute Macedonia, Freedom House, the Institute of International Education, and World Learning.

Although there is no specific page identifying the current board of directors of the Advocacy Center at ISC, it appears that the directors listed on ISC's Web site actually correspond to those at the Advocacy Center at ISC. This is because in January 2007 the ISC's online list of directors was updated to show the replacement of Kevin F. F. Quigley (who is a former vice-chair of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid) with Stephen Ramsey (who is a former vice president of corporate environmental programs at General Electric). From this it can then be said that "democratic" board members at the Advocacy Center at ISC include Harry G. Barnes, Jr. (who is a member of the strategy committee of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition, a senior advisor to the Asia Society, and a member of Human Rights Watch's Asia Advisory Committee), Janet Ballantyne (who is a former counselor and acting deputy administrator at USAID, and was USAID mission director in Nicaragua from 1990 to 1994), and Aaron Williams (who is a former senior manager at USAID).  (back)

22.  In 2002, the late Michael Maggio, who until his death in December 2008 was a member of the elitist Human Rights Watch's Americas Advisory Committee, received the Tahirih Justice Center's Pushing the Envelope award "for his pioneering legal work and generous support of immigrants." However, Maggio's receipt of this award should not come as a surprise, as when he received it he was already a member of Tahirih's advisory board. Two years later (in 2004), Maggio was then honoured by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee "for his courageous and visionary work in defending immigrant rights and, in so doing, strengthening the Constitutional rights of all US residents and citizens." And, like the Tahirih Justice Center itself the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee can be linked to various democracy-manipulating elites via their board of directors.

Michael Maggio himself is the former chairman of the immigration law firm, Maggio and Kattar, and board member of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Although WOLA has historically been known for its progressive work, its current board of directors suggests that something may have gone awry. For a start, one board member, Ben Davis, was head of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center's operations in the Caribbean and Latin America during the February 2004 coup in Haiti. Furthermore, a second board member, Cynthia McClintock (based at George Washington University), published a book with the imperial US Institute of Peace titled Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador's FMLN and Peru's Shining Path (1998), and was chair of the American Political Science Association's Comparative Democratization Section from 2003 to 2005. To add to these "democratic" credentials in 2004 WOLA issued a press release noting that: "WOLA applauds the mission to Haiti by the United States, France, Canada and the Caribbean Community to press for a political solution to the current unrest there." This is strange because for years the US mission in Haiti has been wrought with controversy, as it is a classic example of a NED-backed foreign intervention.

Further links between WOLA and elite democracy-manipulators emerged in March 2006, when Jeremy Bigwood reported that "[s]omething smells funny about the recent denunciation of maverick Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala for alleged human rights violations." Indeed, it turned out that the NGO's pressing these charges most strongly have been funded by USAID and the NED "on and off for more than a decade." Bigwood added that the NED-funded umbrella organization of 50 NGOs "that led the charge against Humala" -- the leader of the "nationalist and anti-neoliberal coalition" in Peru -- is the National Coordinator for Human Rights (CNDDHH). Interestingly, Bigwood observes that the WOLA wrote the CNDDHH's official history but he neglected to mention this group's reliance on USAID and NED funding. This appears to be a bit of a slip-up for an organization that professes to aim to monitor "the impact of US foreign policy on human rights, democracy and equitable development in Latin America."  (back)

23.  Worldspace was founded in 1990 by Noah Samara and they aim to "provide digital satellite audio, data and multimedia services primarily to the emerging markets of Africa and Asia." Samara is also the chair of the Africa Society; a group that grew out of the Ford Foundation sponsored National Summit on Africa, and was launched in 2002 and headed by the former head of the African Development Foundation, the late Leonard Robinson, Jr. Worldspace's board of directors includes William Schneider, Jr., who is "currently Chairman of the Defense Science Board of the Department of Defense as well as a member of the Defense Trade Advisory Group of the Department of State." In addition, Worldspace is a corporate sponsor of the one-world-government promoting venue, the State of the World Forum.

A particularly notable member of the Africa Society's executive committee is Judith McHale, the former CEO of Discovery Communications, who was recently appointed US under secretary for Public Diplomacy by President Obama. McHale is also a board member of Vital Voices, and a former board member of both the National Democratic Institute (which is a core grantee of the NED) and of the NED-funded Africare.  (back)

24.  In 2004, Vital Voices received a grant (for $40,500) from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to "conduct a leadership training-of-trainers seminar in Washington, D.C. for five emerging women leaders" to help "improve the political, economic and social status of Iranian women." In addition, the Vital Voices' Venezuelan chapter, Voces Vitales Venezuela, which was established following the Vital Voices of the Americas Conference in 1998, recently worked with the NED (in 2007/08) to undertake community leadership and institutional strengthening workshops in Venezuela.

Melanne Verveer, the co-founder and chairman of the board of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, is also a former member of the President's Interagency Council on Women and presently acts as a board member of the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking.  (back)

25.  In the same year, Hauwa Ibrahim was awarded the Sakharov Prize along with the notorious democracy-manipulating group Reporters Without Borders, and a Cuban "pro-democracy" group called Ladies in White.  (back)

26.  Ann Russo, "The Intersections of Feminism and Imperialism in the United States," (pdf) International Feminist Journal of Politics, 8 (4), December 2006, p.557.

Russo writes that the Orientalist logic of FMF's campaign "eras[es] the history and politics of Afghanistan and by projecting a cultural barbarity in need of a civilizing mission. Western women and feminism become the embodiment of Afghanis' hope for democracy. The assumption of superiority and benevolence is possible because the FMF evades its own implication in the politics of the region and condones the terms of imperialism -- the right to control, the right to invade and the right to occupy under the guise of 'liberating' women and creating a 'gender equality' resonant with so-called Western standards. The campaign is mostly silent with respect to a history of US global geopolitical involvement in and contributions to the rise of the Taliban and fundamentalism in Afghanistan. Even in its current critique of the US military's failure to provide adequate security forces and lack of follow through in supporting women's rights in Afghanistan, the FMF never questions the underlying premises of the US invasion and the right to control the future of Afghanistan." (p.559)  (back)

27.  Especially notable Tahirih advisory board members include Lynda Clarizio (who is the executive vice president of AOL, and is the treasurer of Human Rights First), Karen Hofmeister (whose husband, John Hofmeister, served as a member of the executive committee of the American Petroleum Institute from 2005 until 2006), Theresa Loar (see earlier), Lorraine Riffle Hawley (who is an international affairs analyst for Chevron government affairs), Judge Dorothy Nelson (who is on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and is member of the National Spiritual Assembly for the Baha'i of the United States), Anita Ioas Chapman (who has worked as a writer/broadcaster on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe), and Puran Stevens (who is the director of the Baha'i Refugee Office).  (back)

28.  Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty, "Introduction: Genealogies, Legacies, Movements." Alexander, M. Jacqui and Chandra Tolpade Mohanty (eds.) Feminist Geneaologies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (Routledge. 1997).  (back)

29.  Ann Russo, "The Intersections of Feminism and Imperialism in the United States," (pdf) International Feminist Journal of Politics, 8 (4), December 2006, p.576, 577.  (back)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 13, 2009