How can we talk about FGM in a culturally sensitive and progressive way?

16 December 2013

Diya MukarjiGuest blog by Diya Mukarji.

As a Gender student, a self-identified postcolonial feminist with a commitment to women and the principle of human rights I found myself asking ‘How we can address issues affecting women in diaspora communities affected by issues like FGM, forced marriage and ‘honour killings’?’ Now before we go any further- I do not have any answers to this, although I presume you already know that. What I do have is a lot of time spent thinking about this as I pondered the implications of talking about issues like FGM within a ‘cultural’ framework. My worry is that policy makers, with the best intentions, discuss and address issues like FGM in a way that highlight, exaggerate and problematise culture and in particular cultural difference. In a multicultural society we cannot avoid the recognition and in fact celebration of culture and cultural difference, however drawing links between particular problematic practices and a community or ‘culture’ isn’t necessarily conducive to community cohesion and tolerance and can affect women and their communities negatively. After all FGM is violence against women and violence against women is not restricted to particular cultures it just manifests itself differently across communities and society.

My interest has been in how these conceptualisations of culture within multicultural societies shape the debate and the policies that target the ‘cultural practices’ of minority communities.  Historical constructions of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultural other’ have produced a binary between the ‘West’ and the ‘Other’. Oppositional and unequal conceptualisations of culture have continued to be [re]produced in contemporary multicultural societies and contribute to the development of policies that serve to reproduce geopolitical inequalities at a national level. Cultural difference is an important part of any multicultural society and becomes increasingly important in a transnational world. The way in which cultural difference is conceptualised has a significant impact on policies that target particular communities and the perceived ‘culturally’ specific issues that they face.

Questions of multiculturalism, self-determination, cultural relativity, and essentialism mean that there is no simple way to address issues disproportionately affecting minority women within a liberal multicultural society. These diverse societies have raised issues of gender equality and how multiculturalism may be bad for women. This debate raises questions about how we retain a commitment to gender equality whist still respecting cultural difference and practices. Here the issue isn’t identifying and addressing a practice that undermines and in fact violates girls and young women- as no doubt the practice of FGM does, but doing so in a way that reduces this violation to ‘culture’. A narrative that leads to a discourse that equates human rights abuse and the violation of women to some ‘cultures’ and cultural differences, in extreme cases this becomes: ‘your culture and its practices oppress women and our culture and its practices liberate women’- a stand that only perpetuates racialised hierarchies. In that moment, the discourse that Spivak refers to is being reproduced: “white men [and women] saving brown women from brown men [and women]”. This is Spivak’s interpretation of the ongoing relationship between the ‘West’ and the postcolonial world. If we do not problematise and challenge the way that culture has been conceptualised in relation to FGM and the policies developed to address this, we inevitably reinforce systems of geopolitical oppression and create new forms of racism and oppression rather than empowerment.

How do we reframe discourses of gender equality without fuelling discourses of cultural and racial superiority? How can public policy agendas intervene against practices that are detrimental to women and girls without demonising particular communities and cultures and reproducing geopolitical systems of inequality? Nussbaum claims that there are universal obligations to protect human functioning and dignity; if that involves an assault on tradition, then so be it. Although this position seems appropriate and necessary, policy makers who seem to take a strong position on ‘cultural practices’ that undermine the human rights of women and girls, do not challenge the geopolitical power relations that keep the majority in poverty and inhumane living conditions, through global capitalism, international trade, exploitative working conditions, and the impeding impacts of climate change. Can we learn to use a more egalitarian language, abandoning the discourse of salvation and liberation and thinking about challenging power structures? Can we separate the feminist agenda from liberation politics and progressive ideals and accept that there is no universal ideal of empowerment or in fact womanhood? In order to challenge the abuses of women and children that are linked to cultures, we must first understand the way in which culture is evoked and abused in problematic ways by policy makers. Policy responses need to challenge hegemonic, problematic conceptualisations of culture and inequality as well as address the unequal gender relations within cultural groups.

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Narayan, Uma (1997), Dislocating cultures: identities, traditions and Third world feminism (New York London: Routledge) 226p.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven (1998), Sex and social justice (New York: Oxford University Press).

Okin, Susan Moller, et al. (1999), Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1994), 'Can the Subaltern Speak?', in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory: a reader (New York: Columbia University Press).

Volpp, Leti (2001), 'Feminism versus Multiculturalism', Columbia Law Review, 101 (5), 1181-218.