(Note: By no means is this piece exhaustive. As the title says, it only intends to be a brief musing on the question.)
On April 17, 2012, Swedish Minister of Culture Adelsohn Liljeroth has been shown smiling/laughing while cutting open a cake modeled after a caricature of an African woman. The performance artist who made and performed the cake, Makode Aj Linde, framed it as a statement about ‘female genital mutilation’ in Africa. Yes, a generalized “Africa.” Never mind the symbolic violence of cutting into a cake fashioned after a caricature of an African woman’s body, in order to induce a visceral (even compulsory?) outrage at a practice easily deemed “outlandish” in the West (after all, this is one of those issues where dissent or nuance is seen as support for violence against women™). Symbolic violences to raise awareness of what is understood, through a universalist lens, as a violence exacted upon female bodies in the Global South. There are several layers here- discursive violences- erasure, silencing, displacement of the subject in the name of performance art- and the framing of African female bodies (not persons or individuals) as consumable objects. It is the most insidious sort of objectification, in my opinion.
Why is this Framing Problematic?
What’s termed “female genital mutilation” is practiced with wide variations in method in the “Middle East”** as well, not just “Africa.” And generally, the history of the crusade against “female genital mutilation” in Africa is colonialist and racist. Churches and missionary societies worked to consolidate the political influence/coercion of the colonial state(s) over Africans through their crusade against FGM. A notable example is Scottish Presbyterian missionaries’ role in Kenya among the Kikuyu from 1929 to 1932. The colonialist, ethnocentric, even racist narratives on “female genital mutilation” in “Africa” ignores coerced genital cutting elsewhere- notably in the West. It also serves as a convenient vehicle for the interested use of the Global South Woman™ as object. In the advent of human rights on a global scale, one measure of a “good” society is whether women are treated with respect or accorded certain ‘inalienable’ or ‘universal’ rights.
This does tie to the Swedish Minister of Culture’s apparent mirth at mimicking “FGM” on a cake modeled after a Black/African women. There is a long history of the interested use of Black and Brown women’s bodies as spectacle. In more academic speak, discourse tends to facilitate an uneven gaze upon the bodies of women of the Global South. To gaze is to transgress, but there is an undercurrent of “well, they’re not like us anyway” that affords a level of comfort (even, pleasure) in the voyeurism. Think of how, after her death, French scientists cut off Sara (Saartjie is a diminutive name) Baartman’s genitals, and put them on display after her death. The ‘need’ to prove her difference as representative of all African women belies a Western self that is insecure without the Other in binary opposition.
Is performance art ever true advocacy? How does the artist truly de-center self?
It astounds me that Makode Aj Linde, someone claiming to be an anti-racist advocate thought blackface, coupled with framing Black, female bodies as consumable was a form of activism or awareness-raising. These gaps between intention and result raised several questions. Is performance art ever true advocacy? Is it possible for a male performance artist (even one of African descent) to “give voice” to African women and girls who go through this initiation rite?
On the other hand, it is important to understand that in cultures where it is practiced, what is termed “female genital mutilation” is a rite of initiation. There is a strong possibility that girls’ participation is coerced through social pressures, and the incentives of new stature and access to land. But we cannot play Savior and declare unilaterally that Western mores are universal, even if applied selectively at home. Also, the term “female genital mutilation” has rightly come under a great deal of scrutiny and critique from African feminists such as Dr. Wairimu Ngaruiya Njambi (see: Dualisms and Female Bodies in Representations of African Female Circumcisions: A Feminist Critique (PDF)) and Dr. L. Amede Obiora (see: Bridges and Barricades: Rethinking Polemics and Intransigence in the Campaign Against Female Circumcision). This tendency to apply Western rationality in the form of declarations, sanctions and laws to culturally-specific practices is a continual shortcoming of Western feminisms- so often they are bounded by national borders, yet make universalistic, transnational claims to “right.” In this process, the “Third World Woman” and her body are again subject to scrutiny and control.
The erasure of transgender and intersex people from the discussion of “female genital mutilation” is another thing to consider. In the case of intersex children in the West, parents have the legal right to consent to what could be the “mutilation” of their children. The ability to consent to surgical procedures that determine the physiological gender of one’s child is, perhaps, based on the notion of parental guardianship and authority as self-legitimating. This is especially telling in the context of the heteronormative household as a re/productive unit of the nation-state.
Other possibly interesting works on the framing of “FGM”:
- “When Cultures Collide: Which Rights? Whose Tradition of Values?: A Critique of the Global Anti-FGM Campaign,” by Richard A Shweder in University of Chicago’s Human Development department (link to PDF download)
- “Genital Cutting and Western Discourses on Sexuality,” by Kristen Bell at Macquarie University (link to PDF download)
- **”s and ™s denote skepticism on my part- or simply that I did not take time to deconstruct or scrutinize the assumptions held within the phrases, rather, I employed them for their denotations.
- Also, forgive my abuse of parenthetical statements!