An Intellectual Defense of Female Genital Mutilation?

When people like the David Horowitz get huffy about the state of higher education, this is the sort of thing they are talking about. I'm no fan of Horowitz, but in some capacity his claim that a left orthodoxy dominates … Read More

By / December 10, 2007

When people like the David Horowitz get huffy about the state of higher education, this is the sort of thing they are talking about. I'm no fan of Horowitz, but in some capacity his claim that a left orthodoxy dominates certain realms of academia is entirely true. Now, if an intellectual defense of FGM was going to come from any department of the academy, you knew it would come from anthropology. I once asked an anthropologist a pointed question about her experience in the field as an ethnographer and teacher. "Is it possible," I wanted to know, "to practice the scientific study of humanity if you do not subscribe to cultural relativism?" Appearing not to really want to say so, she eventually and reluctantly answered in the negative. I went on to ask her if it would be possible to be taken seriously within the discipline as an academic who understood but did not necessarily subscribe to the philosophy of Michel Foucault. Again, she seemed troubled. It would be difficult, she said, but she supposed it could be done. I remember being almost frightened of the amount of imagination she seemed to have to muster in order to picture the serious 21st century anti-Foucauldian anthropologist. So let's be clear from the start–the discipline informing the arguments against anti-FGM campaigns on the basis that anti-FGM advocates are imposing their values on indigenous peoples is itself almost wholeheartedly committed not only to cultural relativism (which is in no way not a value-free stance)–it is also deeply informed by one late 20th century thinker whose ideas were sometimes interesting, often tendentious, and at worst outright politicized apology for pederasty and Khomeinism. So why shouldn't we discourage the practice of female circumcision? According to Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist who has undergone her own genital cutting (as she euphemistically describes it)

…women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to — they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers.

Upon reading some of her work, I discovered that Ahmadu doesn't think very highly of Susan Moller-Okin's excellent essay Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women? I think I know why.Moller-Okin's basic insight is that when defenders of this amorphous abstraction 'culture' utter the word, it is almost always too unspecific. Can it be said that every girl who is to experience FGM is looking forward to it, eager to experience this particular kind of "feminine empowerment?" Of course not. So what of their particular 'culture'–the culture of the girls who don't want to get cut? How is it that the admitted "authority" of the mothers and grandmothers is afforded preference? Obviously Ahmadu has some value for self-determination if she wants us to respect that of one or another culture. But the case can be made that she is arguing for the respect of one over another–the elder females over the younger females who, if they want to experience this supposed ecstasy, probably only think of it as ecstasy because they've been taught that's what it is. If culture and indoctrination can make millions of people think of an image of a crucified man is a symbol of peace and hope, then let's be frank–it can make anybody think anything awful is lovely. This issue is only one among many that exemplify this basic disagreement within the intelligentsia. And we can't be so quick to say that what ivory tower intellectuals say to one another is of little relevance to the world outside the tower. One need only look at Michel Foucault's attitude toward the Islamist element of the Iranian Revolution and subsequent attitudes to Islamism in the wider culture to understand that these ideas trickle down into the wider world. Horowitz's conservative campaign against liberals in education isn't what's needed. What is needed is the reinstatement of the search for knowledge and the eschewing of relativistic Foucauldian indoctrination into a discipline that's supposed to be telling us about ourselves presumably so we can make the best ethical and value judgments based on the best information. When all we hear is that such judgments must be suspended or understood as imperialistic, one must wonder what fruits anthropologists hope their work will bear.

Tagged with: