Swans Commentary » swans.com July 27, 2009  



Counter-Discourses And Female Circumcision


by Michael Barker





"[F]emale genital surgeries clearly need to be examined as a problematic social practice within the reconstruction of patriarchies in the context of decolonization. Yet, in Western contexts there is very little discourse on genital surgeries that does not reproduce social relations inherited from European imperialism."
—Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, 2003. (1)
"Major international donors... have adopted unambiguous stances opposing FGC [Female Genital Cutting], as well as medicalization of the practice. This stance was publicized in particular by the United States Aid and International Development Agency (USAID), which sponsored a 2004 congressional hearing and conference to commemorate the first anniversary of Zero Tolerance on FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] Day on February 6."
—Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, 2007. (2)
"'Circumcision' is a symptom, not a cause of women's subordination."
—Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, former president of the Sudanese Women's Union. (3)


(Swans - July 27, 2009)   As a result of my privileged white upbringing and long-term exposure to a propaganda-laden mainstream media, when I first learnt about female circumcision -- particularly its most severe variants -- I decided that the practice embodied yet another application of unjust patriarchal violence that should be eradicated. Thus my own initial encounter with female circumcision highlights why appreciating the existence of a "counter-discourse about the meaning of female genital cutting is today for most Westerners utterly unthinkable." (4) However, upon reading the broader academic literature pertaining to the use of female circumcision, it became obvious that my initial gut response to this thorny topic had been severely constrained by my own limited experiences: and contrary to overly simplistic rendering of the issue, I discovered that various radically different counter-discourses existed, some of which I explored in my recent article "Female Circumcision and the Tahirih Justice Center." Within this earlier article my primary objective had been to elucidate the problematic manner in which both nongovernmental organizations and the mainstream media have portrayed female circumcision; thus my article did not include an explicit iteration of my personal views on the matter. However, that said, I made it quite clear that I was not in favour of patriarchal violence, by prefacing my article with a quote from the book Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses. The quote in question noted that:

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. (5)

Yet in spite of this statement, Keith Harmon Snow complained that my article dismissed the extent of the devastation caused by FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] (see letter to Swans). This was not my intention, as my article had simply attempted to unearth a radical counter-discourse that is rarely heard, in either the mainstream or alternative media, (6) to illustrate the cultural devastation wrought by the imperialist deployment of the discourse of human rights vis-à-vis female circumcision. Moreover, this counter-discourse was not entirely derived from the work of radical feminists. Indeed, one scholar whose scholarship contributed a significant, but not central, component of my exposition was Richard Shweder -- an establishment academic whose research has been well endowed by leading US liberal foundations. (7) So while Keith Harmon Snow raised concerns with my use of such elitist research, it is critical to point out that just because Shweder's research serves imperial interests, this does not negate its ability to be used to critique imperialism. Thus within my article I appropriated Shweder's work to problematize the liberal imperialist discourse constructed around female circumcision, despite disagreeing with his elitist (non)solution, that is, liberal pluralism. (8) Consequently, where Shweder was merely perturbed by the self-defeating arrogance of (limited aspects of) the broader discourse of liberal interventionism (while still being committed to ensuring the continuity of global capitalist hegemony), (9) on the contrary, my interest in this matter related to my desire to undermine the very capitalist structures that thrive on, and enable, the perpetuation of such injustices. So in this respect, it is critical to understand and openly discuss the problems associated with the dominant way in which the politics of female circumcision is discussed. Thus there is an urgent need to move beyond the false dichotomy -- that has masqueraded as a raging debate -- between cultural relativists (like Shweder) and cultural universalists, when it is evident that both positions are "firmly rooted in the Western neo/postcolonial tradition of the other." (10) As Chima Koreih writes:

The search for a way to successfully confront female circumcision and to move beyond the impasse of the confrontation between universalism and cultural relativism depends on finding a language and constructing an approach that is respectful of diverse cultural concerns. (11)

Once such dead-end political positions are rejected, revolutionary individuals can help others to reject the limited discourse of corporate multiculturalism -- promoted by individuals like Shweder (12) -- and instead help people embrace progressive alternatives like polycentric multiculturalism. Here to understand the distinct differences between liberal pluralism and polycentric multiculturalism it is worth quoting Ella Shohat and Robert Stam at length:

First, unlike a liberal-pluralist discourse of ethical universals -- freedom, tolerance, charity -- polycentric multiculturalism sees all cultural history in relation to social power. Polycentric multiculturalism is not about "touchy-feely" sensitivity toward other groups; it is about dispersing power, about empowering the disempowered, about transforming subordinating institutions and discourses. Polycentric multiculturalism demands changes not just in images but in power relations. Second, polycentric multiculturalism does not preach a pseudo-equality of viewpoints; its sympathies clearly go to the underrepresented, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Third, whereas pluralism is premised on an established hierarchical order of cultures and is grudgingly accretive -- it benevolently "allows" other voices to add themselves to the mainstream -- polycentric multiculturalism is celebratory. It thinks and imagines "from the margins," seeing pre-existing nucleus but rather as active, generative participants at the very core of a shared, conflictual history. Forth, polycentric multiculturalism grants an "epistemological advantage" to those prodded by historical circumstance into what W. B. DuBois has called "double consciousness," to those obliged to negotiate both "margins" and "center" (or even with many margins and many centers), and thus somewhat better placed to "deconstruct" dominant or narrowly national discourses. Fifth, polycentric multiculturalism rejects a unified, fixed, and essentialist concept of identities (or communities) as consolidated set of practices, meanings, and experiences. Rather, it sees identities as multiple, unstable, historically situated, the products of ongoing differentiation and polymorphous identifications. Sixth, polycentric multiculturalism goes beyond narrow definitions of identity politics, opening the way for informed affiliation on the basis of shared social desires and identifications. Seventh, polycentric multiculturalism is reciprocal, dialogical; it sees all acts of verbal or cultural exchange as taking place not between discrete bounded individuals or cultures but rather between permeable, changing individuals and communities. Within an ongoing struggle of hegemony and resistance, each act of cultural interlocution leaves both interlocutors changed. (13)

As Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes, "[d]iversity and difference are central values... [which need] to be acknowledged and respected, not erased in the building of alliances." (14) Progressive solutions are tenable, but much needs to change if society is going to successfully reject the imperialist discourses of the "other" and embrace alternatives like polycentric multiculturalism. Thankfully, encouraging moves are already afoot, and many concerned citizens are striving to replace redundant corporatized media with diverse communication systems -- systems that encourage participation and cooperation, not helplessness and imperialism. As a well-respected independent journalist Keith Harmon Snow is already working hard on the latter task, but by demanding that people should "correct" their views in line with his own preferences -- with regard to female circumcision at least -- he has sadly demonstrated that he is far from committed to such a polycentric multicultural future.




1.  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.264. Grewal and Kaplan's footnote to this comment notes that: "Important exceptions include Vicki Kirby, 'On the Cutting Edge: Feminism and Clitoridectomy,' Australian Feminist Studies 5 (Summer 1987), 35-55; Angela Davis, 'Women in Egypt: A Personal View,' in Women, Culture, and Politics (New York: Vintage, 1990), 116-154; Francoise Lionnet, 'Feminisms and Universalism: "Universal Rights" and the Legal Debate around the Practice of Female Excision in France,' Inscriptions 6 (1992), 98-115; and the work of Gunning."

With regard to the abuse of women within the US imperial heartland, Sondra Hale observes that: "Another problem is that people in the West, if we want to engage in some critical thinking about the issues, are starting from the wrong place. For example, feminists in the United States might want to begin to look at women and children here in the United States: the rape capital, the child abuse capital, arguably the domestic violence capital, and one of the body mutilation capitals of the world! We might want to look at our society, where more women are hurt and killed by the men in their lives than in any other way. In terms of children, we might want to look at the ominous spread of malnutrition, disease, and death brought on by young girls trying to fit the slim image that our society demands of them -- starvation for the sake of beauty. Mutilation (called 'cosmetic surgery') for the sake of dominant-culture beauty standards is now common among the very young.

"Again, with regard to starting with one's own society, feminists would be kept very busy just looking into the clitoridectomies performed in the United States into the 1950's to control female hysteria, masturbation, and the like. We could probably look into other unnecessary surgeries performed on women as well; for example, too-radical mastectomies and hysterectomies."

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: African Women in Imperialist Discourses (Praeger, 2005), p.213.  (back)

2.  Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, "Transcultural Positions: Negotiating Rights and Cultures," In Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan (eds.), Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context (Rutgers University Press, 2007), p.25.  (back)

3.  Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim cited in Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, "Revisiting Feminist Discourses on Infibulation: Responses from Sudanese Feminists," In Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund (eds.), Female "Circumcision" in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), p.158.  (back)

4.  Charles Piot, "Representing Africa in the Kasinga Asylum Case," In Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf (ed.), Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p.230.  (back)

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

6.  Other texts that question the dominant presentations of female circumcision include: Stanlie James and Claire Robertson (eds.), Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics (University of Illinois Press, 2005); Obioma Nnaemeka (ed.), Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses (Praeger, 2005); Oyeronke Oyewumi, African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood (Africa World Press, 2003); Linda Strong-Leek, Excising the Spirit: A Literary Analysis of Female Circumcision (Africa World Press, 2009). With regard to Strong-Leek's book: "One of the major theses of the text is that while Western feminists and others continue to argue for the abolition of female circumcision, they often do so at the expense of African women, who have been fighting, within their own societies, to end practices that are harmful to women and children. Ultimately, many of these feminists in the West utilize the issue of female circumcision to focus attention on the genitalia of African women, which has been one of the main foci of the Western gaze since the transatlantic slave trade began, and to legitimize the continued exploitation of Africa under the pretense of saving African women and children from 'barbaric' rituals."  (back)

7.  With regard to Keith Harmon Snow's critique of my work, he takes particular exception to my use of a quote by Richard Shweder, which noted that with regard to female circumcision "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." Here Shweder continues, "I conclude that in this literature and in the popular press 'First World' feminist issues and political correctness and activism have triumphed over the critical assessment of evidence." Shweder observes that he came to this conclusion from his reading of three review articles, two being "critical reviews of the medical and demographic evidence" that were published by Carla Obermeyer (in 1999 and 2003), and a third "large-scale study of the medical consequences of female genitals surgeries in Africa" undertaken by the Medical Research Council (see Linda Morison et al., 2001). Upon reading these three studies, while not agreeing with Shweder's elitist politics, I find myself in agreement with his conclusions.

Carla Obermeyer, "Female Genital Surgeries: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable," Medical Anthropology Quarterly (1999), 13, pp.79-106; Carla Obermeyer, "The Health Consequences of Female Circumcision: Science, Advocacy, and Standards of Evidence," Medical Anthropology Quarterly (2003), 17, pp.394-412; Linda Morison, Caroline Scherf, Gloria Ekpo, Katie Pain, Beryl West, Roseland Coleman, and Gijs Walraven, "The Long-Term Reproductive Health Consequences of Female Genital Cutting in Rural Gambia: A Community-Based Survey," Tropical Medicine and International Health (2001), 6, pp.643-653.  (back)

8.  Regarding liberal pluralism, Ian Barnard writes: "In order to re-enforce the paradigms of the liberal democratic status quo, liberal pluralism has to be a coercive and intolerant ideology. Pluralists allow 'any' approach as long as it isn't anti pluralist. Liberal pluralism only permits liberal pluralism, and only as this pluralism is defined and determined by specific relations of domination. ... In liberal society, context is nothing, and individuals are conceived of as independent of social and political conditions; thus the specific forces and values that have shaped women's socializations, identifications, and material existences have no place in constituting the liberal notion of rights."

Michael Parenti notes that pluralists assume that "the government is not controlled by corporate elites who get what they want on virtually every question." This belief, Parenti continues, is categorically false as: "In reality, power is structured along entrenched, well-organized, well-financed, politico-economic conglomerates. Wealth is the most crucial power resource. It creates a pervasive political advantage, and affords ready access to most other resources. Its distribution is neither 'plural' nor 'fluid.'" Parenti adds, such pluralists "have little to say about the pervasive role of political repression in U.S. society," "never seem to allude to the near-monopoly control of ideas and information that is the daily fare of the news and entertainment sectors of the mass media," nor are "much troubled by the rigged rules under which the two major political parties operate, or by an electoral system that treats vast sums of money as a prerequisite for office." He concludes that "pluralists make much of the fact that wealthy interests do not always operate with clear and deliberate purpose. To be sure, like everyone else, elites sometimes make mistakes and suffer confusions about tactics. But if they are not omniscient and infallible, neither are they habitual laggards and imbeciles. If they do not always calculate correctly in the pursuit of their class interests, they do so often and successfully enough."

Ian Barnard, "Civility and Liberal Pluralism," Symploke (2006), pp. 137-8; Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few (Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2002), pp.306-7.  (back)

9.  The book containing the Richard Shweder article ("When Cultures Collide: Which Rights? Whose Tradition of Values? A Critique of the Global Anti-FGM Campaign") that I refer to in my article "Female Circumcision and the Tahirih Justice Center" is Christopher Eisgruber and Andras Sajo's edited collection Global Justice and the Bulwarks of Localism: Human Rights in Context (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2005). Notably, the foreword to their book points out how many of the papers in the collection "grew out of a year-long project on Universalism and Local Knowledge in Human Rights at the Branco Weiss Laboratory for New Ideas of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary." It continues, observing how all papers in the book were then presented at a conference held at Princeton University (in October 2003), which obtained support from George Soros's Open Society Institute (p.ix). The support that Shweder indirectly obtained from one of the leading lights of the global imperial "humanitarian" community (the Open Society Institute) perhaps more than anything else indicates the limited nature of Shweder's attack on liberal imperialism.

Not coincidently, the reformist liberal pluralism promoted by scholars like Shweder is also a mainstay of George Soros's pet project, the Central European University (CEU), a university that Nicolas Guilhot described as follows:

"The CEU thus remains faithful to the philanthropic tradition of promoting policy-oriented approaches in the social sciences. By intervening in the issue areas where globalization is potentially challenged, it contributes to the development of alternative views of globalization, but it also shapes the strategies and models to which these learned critiques of globalization must conform in order to be heard. The CEU has indeed developed expertise in the main issue areas of globalization: ecology was represented at the outset in the environmental sciences department; human rights is a major focus of the law department; the CEU is also the only university in Eastern Europe with a department of gender studies. At the same time, these fields -- which tend to be NGO turf -- are modeled after the policy needs and the applicability criteria of international financial institutions. In the context of a proliferation of NGOs and civil initiatives, such efforts contribute not only to disciplining them, but also to bringing them closer to hegemonic institutions. They not only lead to the professionalization of dissent and reform, but also to the structuration of a seamless web of "global governance" where state agencies, international financial institutions and civil society organizations tend to share increasingly similar outlooks and to organize themselves according to a smooth and coherent division of labor."

Nicolas Guilhot, "Reforming the world: George Soros, Global Capitalism and the Philanthropic Management of the Social Sciences," Critical Sociology (2007), 33, pp.472-3.

Here it is interesting to note the significant power of liberal philanthropists to co-opt progressive academics. Thus Guilhot, who in the aforementioned article provides a powerful critique of the co-optive function of liberal philanthropy, presently serves as a research fellow and program officer at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in New York (for critical details about the SSRC's elitist history see "Progressive Social Change In The 'Ivory Tower'?"). Unsurprisingly, this brings us neatly back to Shweder, who is currently co-chairing a joint SSRC/Russell Sage Foundation working group on 'Ethnic Customs, Assimilation and American Law'.  (back)

10.  David Fraser, "The First Cut is (Not) the Deepest: Deconstructing 'Female Genital Mutilation' and the Criminalization of the Other," Dallhousie Law Journal (1995), 18 (7), p.319. Also see Carl Stychin, "Body Talk: Rethinking Autonomy, Commodification and the Embodied Legal Self," in Sally Sheldon and Michael Thomson (eds.), Feminist Perspectives on Health Care Law (Cavendish Publishing, 1998), pp.231-6.  (back)

11.  Chima Koreih, "'Other' Bodies: Western Feminism, Race, and Representation in Female Circumcision Discourse," In Obioma Nnaemeka (ed.), Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge (Praeger, 2005), p.126. Koreih argues that while "[v]arious motivations and agendas fuel the insurgency against female circumcision" his work "argues that Western feminists have increasingly appropriated African and Arab women's experiences for their own purposes, practicing what Chilla Bulbeck calls 'epistemological imperialism.'" (p.125)  (back)

12.  On this point Angela Davis eloquently notes how "multiculturalism can easily become a way to guarantee that these differences and diversities are retained superficially while becoming homogenized and harmonized politically, especially along axes of class, gender, and sexuality. Although this is not an inevitability, multiculturalism can become a polite and euphemistic way of affirming persisting, unequal power relationships by representing them as equal differences." Likewise Zillah Eisenstein writes: "The U.S. today is awash in diversity language, but in a non-progressive, non-egalitarian form. Multiculturalism has become a manipulated discourse to enable global capitalism and neoliberalism." Later she reiterates this point adding that: "Diversity, as a power-filled discourse, silences the problem of inequality and modernizes colonialist discourse."

Angela Davis, "Gender, Class, and Multiculturalism: Rethinking 'Race' Politics," in Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield (eds.), Mapping Multiculturalism (University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p.44; Zillah Eisenstein, Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West (Zed Books, 2004), p.96, p.98.  (back)

13.  Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge, 1994), pp.48-9. Here it is worth recalling that despite the radical nature of this book, Stam's research, like Shweder's, has been well supported by the liberal establishment -- for example, in the past he has been awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Fulbright Lectureship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.  (back)

14.  Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Duke University Press, 2003), p.7. Mohanty prefaces this quote by noting that she "define[s] solidarity in terms of mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interests as the basis for relationships among diverse communities. Rather than assuming an enforced commonality of oppression, the practice of solidarity foregrounds communities of people who have chosen to work and fight together."  (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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Published July 27, 2009