There are SO MANY GENERALIZATIONS here.
I'm not saying some of the issues cited aren't REAL issues. They absolutely are. But seriously, he is making some of the most sweeping generalizations I have ever read. I wrote my final paper for Gender on this issue and I would like to share some of it, but I am not sure how to.. I think I'll do it in parts? Today I will post the Introduction and Part I and if people are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post the second and third parts.
What are the consequences when one invokes culture as a fixed, unchanging thing? What are the implications for women, often seen and discussed as the supposed ‘victims of culture’? Finally, how should we modify our discourse about culture in order to remain tolerant of the extent to which other issues are framed in different contexts, yet aware of how these contexts are ever-changing and not isolated from the increasingly globalized world?
In this paper, I will argue that culture is a malleable concept. It is consistently being shaped and reshaped with time and with individual efforts. The tendency to justify practices with a cultural relativist argument is no better than the tendency to condemn ‘culture’ as the cause and perpetrator of practices in other countries. Both of these lines of argument are flawed. I will attempt to trouble both in the course of this paper. I will interrogate how women, often seen as ‘victims of culture’ can be harmed by this line of argument and, in fact, how their active fights within their own culture negates this perception of them. Finally, I will discuss how to approach culture and how to look at culture in the context of the world today, rather than isolated from progress. I will discuss the potential and, in fact, the need to interrogate and change cultural practices, but the dangers of arguing broadly against cultural practices without full awareness of the contexts and meanings of the practices.
II. Female Genital Operations
One domain which has been a highly sensationalized topic of discourse and debate for feminists is that of female genital operations, commonly referred to as female genital mutilation. Within this heated debate, the notion of ‘culture’ is often invoked, either in defending the practice through a cultural relativist point of view or in condemning both the practice and its assumed roots in ‘culture’. As Christine Walley points out, “both the relativist argument, which privileges cultural tolerance, and the blatantly ethnocentric argument, which assumes the ‘backwardness’ of African traditions and the inferiority of immigrants—carry male-dominated and colonial legacies based on hardened notions of tradition and culture” (1997, 427). They fail to recognize that culture is a changing entity, which never remains stagnant and depends fully on its context in the changing world. Culture can not exist in isolation. Culture is actively being shaped and reshaped by those who participate within it. “Rather than focusing on ‘culture’ as historically changeable and broadly encompassing beliefs and practices characteristic of a social group, the discourse on genital operations understands culture as ahistorical ‘customs’ or ‘traditions.’ Such ‘traditions’ are simultaneously depicted as the meaningless hangovers of a premodern era and as the defining characteristic of the Third World” (Walley, 1997, 420). Those who hold this point of view erroneously view tradition as something isolated from modernity, rather than something constantly in discourse with modernity. They believe that in order for a society to progress, tradition must be shed and new ideas adopted. They fail to realize how dependent traditions are on the changing ideas of modernity.
In the case of female genital operations, meanings and practices vary extremely throughout different regions of Africa. Thus, the assumption that female genital operations stem from one hardened ‘culture’ fails to account for the variability of the practice and its multiple purposes in different contexts. There can be no one, essentialized ‘culture’ from which female genital operations take root, because the practices, roots and traditions of female genital operations vary by location so extremely. Not only do they vary by location, but their meanings have changed in different locations throughout time. For example, for Kikuyu women in Kenya in the precolonial era, genital operations served as an important function in their age sets, which was a form of social organization which served the function of organizing women into collective work groups on a farm. However, as Kenya became increasingly stratified in the colonial and post-colonial era, women’s labor organization has transformed and with this transformation, the importance of genital operations has decreased (Walley, 1997, 416-417). The Western world views female genital operations as a cultural practice rooted in long-standing tradition, with no regard for examples like this one of how the practice has been altered and its commonality has changed as a direct result of changing times. Culture itself has changed and with it, cultural practices change.
The notion of pain is intrinsically linked in the idea of female genital operations and the outcry against the practice from many. When people imagine the practice, they take from it a picture of a ‘traditional’ ceremony, with which the usage of any medicine or technology to reduce or eliminate pain would be incompatible. Commonly, Westerners’ binary thinking, which places ‘science’ (which is seen as an intrinsic property of the West) directly opposite to ‘tradition’ (an intrinsic property of the Third World), does not allow for the two to come together. Many assume that pain simply must be present in these rituals. This is not the case in all contexts. In the female genital operations done in “Kikhome, pain is an intrinsic part of the ritual and is socially meaningful—although is it not for infibulation and sunna operations, for which sometimes an anesthetic is used or which are done in the hospital” (Walley, 1997, 422). By generalizing for all female genital operations, much gets lost in the argument as there is simply so much variability in the matter. If one is making the argument that the reason female genital operations should not be practiced is that they cause young women to undergo pain, then several types of female genital operations can not be included in this argument, as they simply do not involve or necessitate any pain. Beyond that point, again contextualization is necessary when one examines the meaning of pain. As Walley points out, the meanings of pain and ideas about how one should deal with pain “vary situationally as well as cross-culturally. Within the context of sub-Saharan African initiation rituals (or for that matter, U.S. military boot camps or Indian ascetic rites), pain may be viewed not simply as something to be avoided but as something to be endured that can result in the positive transformation of the individual” (Walley, 1997, 422). Pain obviously needs to be contextualized in order to acquire meaning and can not be used synonymously with torture. Thus, we see the importance of examining cultural practices as extremely context-dependent.
Finally, one must raise the question of why an outrage at ‘other’ cultures arises in the discussion of female genital operations, while practices that may be equally condemned take place in the Western world and do not cause such a condemnation of Western culture. Sally Engle Merry points out that “genital cutting became the prototype of a practice justified by custom and culture and redefined as an act of violence and a breach of women’s human rights. Yet in the United States, domestic violence, rape in wartime, and stalking are not labeled as harmful cultural practices nor are forms of violence against women’s bodies such as cosmetic surgery, dieting and the wearing of high heels” (2006, 27-8). Infant genital surgery, a practice which could be paralleled with female genital operations and is similarly wrought in ‘tradition’, does not cause anyone to indict the ‘backwardness’ of Western culture for performing these operations. Cultural standards play a huge role on what size of genitals are appropriate for each sex. There is no set standard for either sex, yet surgeries are frequently performed to force individuals to fit out cultural schema. Yet, the perception of what is acceptable is changing. “Today, [many] read from nature a story of diversity. Of course, nature has not changed since the 1950s. Rather, we have changed our scientific narratives to conform to our cultural transformations” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, 73). One must inquire: why is it easy for the Western world to accept that their own cultural standards will change as progress occurs, while ‘culture’ for ‘other’ countries must negate the very idea of change?