Sunday, July 8, 2007

UPDATE to post on Egyptian Ban of Female Genital Surgeries: Ban Intended to Salve Westerners, Not to Prevent FGS

I wanted to include this information in the other day's post on Female Genital Surgeries, but my googling failed to provide the source. Enormous thanks to Ampersand for turning it up, based on my vague description.


Recently, I wrote about the many ways in which western intervention on the topic of female genital surgeries has backfired. Circumcision has been practiced on younger and younger girls. It has been forced into ever more covert circumstances, increasing the risk of fatal bleeding and HIV infection. Female genital surgeries have become, in some places, a badge of African pride, a defining part of African identity -- and this is clearly traceable to ham-fisted Western efforts to eradicate it. Groups which never practiced female circumcision have taken it up, putting thousands more girls and women at risk.

On the surface, the Egyptian ban looks different. After all, the ban isn't being imposed by colonial forces. It's been internally generated.

Sort of.

First off, the ban is not what it has been advertised as. It is not a ban on "female genital mutilation." It is not illegal for parents to seek their daughters' circumcision. What has been made illegal is for FGS to be practed by doctors, in public or private hospitals.

The original form of this ban was conceived in 1996, after an incident two years earlier in which CNN showed footage of a thirteen-year-old screaming as her clitoris was cut out by a barber. Egypt was embarrassed by the footage, which outraged westerners, who in turn threatened to withdraw foreign aid.

In its original form, the ban would have forced physicians to educate any family that came to them with a request for female genital surgeries. Doctors were to apprise families of the health risks that make such procedures an enormously bad idea. If families insisted on carrying out the procedure, they would be taken to a hospital where the girls would be given proper anasthetic and surgical care, managing the enormous pain of having one's external genitals removed and also helping to prevent the high rates of infection and death that result from amateur surgeons wielding non-sterile equipment.

American groups such as Equality Now rebelled against what they called the "medicalization" of clitoridecomy, and said they would give no foreign aid to hosptials where hte procedure was performed.

This led to a reconception of the ban, which prohibited clitorodectomy in public hosptials, although it was still permitted in private ones. Eventually, the ban was extended to include all licensed medical practitioners, although it left an out for "extreme circumstances." This ban enabled Egyptian hospitals to retain foreign aid, at the expense of Egyptian girls' health. Remember: this is a country in which 97% of women are cut. Even among the educated upper and middle classes where the incidence of FGS is reduced, the men who authored the ban almost certainly have modified daughters, wives, and sisters; the women were likely to have been cut themselves. They were aware that demand for the procedure was unlikely to lessen, a fact which they had attempted to address by building in educational and safety measures into the original form of the ban.

In 1997, this ban was challenged in a religious court which landed it back in the news. (All the scholars I've read agree that FGS is not required by Islam. However, there remain interpretations that suggest that FGS is part of a decent, observant Islamic lifestyle.) The ban managed to stand.

The newest form of the ban, the report of which on Pandagon and Feministe is what triggered this conversation, came recently in response to the death of a 12-year-old girl whose death (according to the Yahoo article) may have been linked to misuse of anasthetic. The new ban eliminates the "extreme circumstances" provision that remained in the previous ban. I do not have enough information to say whether that specific change will put more girls at risk.

This ban is not an internal attempt by Egyptians to try to change their own culture. It does not appear to be a response to a changing sentiment in which feelings about female genital surgeries have changed. Instead, it appears to be a ban made in the mold of the earlier colonial bans, in which westerners attempt to impose their feelings about female genital surgeries on a population over which they have (economic) power, without first examining the consequences of that ban.

Egytptians themselves first tried to implement a solution which is closer to the solutions that the activists who are involved in actually trying to change conditions on African soil have discovered to have a real, measurable effect on the practice. However, westerners prevented them from enacting legislation that would have ameliorated real world conditions, in favor of demanding an impressive, symbollic ban.

In demanding an immediate and complete solution, instead of acknowledging the reality that will involve years of hard work and moral ambiguity, westerners have unwittingly played into the hands of those who wish to continue female genital surgeries. The current iteration of the ban was never intended to actually eliminate female genital surgeries. It does not ban the common procedures wherein barbers wield razor blades on girls who lie prone, without anasthetic -- even though it was a barber who conducted the mutilation that shocked the west when it was caught on video in 1994.

No, the current ban is intended to appease westerners, and is remarkably effective at doing so. A ban sounds like it's accomplishing something. It sounds good when it is on the headline of a newspaper, or coming from the lips of a TV news reporter. It sounds decisive and impressive. It makes a good blog link. It creates a feeling of progress. We can say FGM is banned, and we can feel hope about the situation in Egypt. Enthusiastically, westerners continue to provide foreign aid because we feel that our activism has accomplished something.

Meanwhile, 97 out of 100 Egyptian girls will have their clitorises cut out. Most of these procedures will happen in unsanitary conditions, without anasthesia, with equipment wielded by unpracticed hands. The imposition of this ban, instead of the earlier form favored by the Egyptian government, ensures that those surgeries will be brutal and dangerous.

On this side of the ocean, one of the most pernicious side effects of this ban is that it creates a sense of accomplishment in armchair western activists, because it gives off the air of a job well done. FGS is banned in Egypt -- keep giving them money. Don't look at the ways in which this ban fails to stop any female genital surgeries, and in facts makes the actual surgeries worse. Only look at the big, symbollic law.

This ban gets in the way of effective activism, because it appears to be doing something while doing nothing. It offers us a black and white solution, while conveniently hiding away the shades of grey that we we would have been required to face if the initial Egyptian proposals had been enacted. Westerners -- perhaps all people -- have a great liking for black and white thinking. We enjoy symbols. This is the kind of thinking that makes us think we can pound terrorists into submission with bombs. Drop bombs on them and they won't dare to resist us! But of course we know that's not the way things work. When you pound people with bombs, even the ones who were sympathetic to you become terrorists. You make the situation worse. This is true even when the goal is more feminist -- you don't get people to stop using burkhas by dropping bombs on them either. Instead, you end up with a lot of women who are wearing burkhas and terrified for their lives and their families. And you also end up with women who are veiling to show their solidarity to the women who are being bombed, just as you end up with women who practice female genital surgeries to show that they defy colonialist power. Via colonialism, the western world has treated Africa really shittily. They are understandably wary when we tell them something is "for their own good." Why should they believe us if we're willing to threaten to defund their hospitals and treat them like moral infants, instead of treating them like rational actors who we need to convince?

As liberals, we are supposed to be better trained in detecting these fallacies. After all, there have been studies showing that liberals are better able to conceive of ambiguities. We know enough about our culture to pick them up when they're happening in our society. What makes us look at a foreign culture and suddenly see in two dimensions? It's a bad habit, supported by racism and colonialism.

Using the threat of withdrawing foreign moneys can be an effective tool, as famously exemplified in divestment from South Africa. I'm not sure that it's as reasonable to threaten to withdraw charity money as it is to withdraw business investments, but leaving that aside for the moment -- probably there is a way to deal with our financial involvement in Egypt ethically, and to try to pressure their government to do something about female genital surgeries.

But we have to be smart about it, not act like big stupid bullies. Demanding that they do things exactly our way, instead of listening to their more knowledgeable ideas about how to change their culture -- that's stupid. Demanding that they change everything immediately and accepting no intermediate steps, thus putting them in a situation where it's impossible to actually make productive change -- that's stupid. Dictating an end point instead of convincing people of your point of view -- that's stupid, too. And all of these things just complicate the post-colonial relationship between America and Egypt, and make it less likely that our word is going to count for anything. "STOP PERFORMING FGM!" means less than a statistic that shows clitoridectomy kills 15% more mothers and infants than intact childbirth. If we really want to accomplish our goals of worldwide health and prosperity for women, rather than just congratulate ourselves on meaningless and shiny symbols, then we're going to have to stow away our arrogance for a while and actually look for practical, efficacious measures.


Anonymous said...

Here is a link to a story i heard on NPR last Friday. The numbers here are much lower than the 97% cited in the post. I suspect the actualy number is probably somewhere inbetween.

Rachel Swirsky said...

There are some people who attempt to adjust down for the high reported numbers, assuming some women who are not cut will report being cut because it is the modest answer.

I'm distrustful of the stats in that article bceause of the agenda of the person presenting them. That doesn't mean that they're necessarily wrong, but I wouldn't take them as being necessarily reliable.