Veiling and female circumcision are long-standing practices that predate all the Abrahamic religions but remain dominant throughout society today.
The former is a broad tradition practiced by women and girls across the world, that varies from the sartorial cloth over the hair as an extension of the dress or sari, to the more steadfast hijab, which neatly tucks away all hair, covering the ears and neck but revealing the face. Then there are variations that proceed towards the complete coverage of the body including fingers and ankles, where even the wearer’s eyes are hidden, confining their vision to a view mediated by a mesh screen.
The latter is a ritual with a specific intention to control female sexuality varying from removal of the clitoris to the entire genitalia, sewing the vaginal opening shut, leaving a hole just big enough for urine and menstrual blood to drip out. This ensures that a woman can be identified as a virgin before marriage and her husband is the one to execute the gallant act of deflowering. This is precisely why female circumcision for non-medical reasons is more aptly described as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Effects of FGM include infections, painful intercourse, infertility, difficulty in childbirth and other long-term consequences, which are still being discovered.
Regardless of how imposing the most extreme form of the veil can be, it is impermanent, unlike FGM which stings more destructively, so is it right to conjoin the two in the postmodern context of rethinking women’s agency? I was to find out that my brazen anti-FGM stance is ‘regurgitating the hideous colonial project that imposed itself on the rest of the world on a civilizing mission to rescue the women of the third world from its savage men’. The rationale I am told, is that even as a Nigerian born woman, I cannot speak for other less privileged Nigerian women, how much less, a white woman on behalf of ethnic minorities.
It was at Goldsmiths University that I came to witness this betrayal first hand, which ascribes brutality onto people from other places as part of culture but fashions itself so self-righteously. Like John the Baptist at the feet of Jesus crying; ‘Who am I to say that female circumcision is barbaric, lest I judge thee through my western colonial gaze?’
In the seminar that alerted me to the pervasiveness of this sinister trend, my lecturer failed to make a distinction between veiling and FGM, simply conflating the two as cultural modes of being that are parallel to western secular thought. The argument for veiling can certainly be made: Muslim women choosing modesty, piety and privatisation of their own bodies in order to maintain power – in what they deem a patriarchal world in which women’s bodies are objectified, sexualised and commodified.
As much as that would be true for them, it does not negate the fact that women are punished with lashes and acid for refusing to abide by the law where veiling is enforced. Sudan’s morality police routinely harass women for unveiling, while in northern Nigeria, the charge of indecent dressing can be levied on any woman found not to be complying – not to mention the aggressive policing of the veil in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The comparison to bikinis and mini skirts as equivalents to the veil do not hold, because no woman is ever flogged, burned or stoned for not showing enough skin.
Goldsmiths, very much like SOAS seems to be the hotbed of this double standard reinforced by some academics and propagated by a faction of student activists. In December 2015, the feminist and LGBT societies at Goldsmiths left even their own members baffled by their decision to extend ‘solidarity’ to the Islamic society, whose members disrupted human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie’s lecture. They had deemed Namazie a ‘notorious Islamophobe’, for referring to the veil as ‘bin bags’. During the lecture, Namazie backed up her statement and reinforced the importance of continued opposition against traditions such as FGM which are an affront to women’s rights.
When probed on the matter, a representative of the Goldsmiths LGBT society responded that “as a white person, I cannot condemn FGM because of my colonial past.” Is this putative desire to carry the burdens of the past squarely on one’s shoulders echoed among feminists? Germaine Greer once argued that attempts to outlaw FGM amounted to ‘an attack on cultural identity’, stating: “one man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.” Greer was widely condemned, almost unanimously. Nearly 20 years on, some fields of study in academia including critical race and gender theory are reawakening the same argument albeit from a postcolonial perspective – the difference now being that a generation of ethnic minority students have themselves, bought into this defeating narrative. The stance becomes reactionary, and any cause that contravenes the ugly history of colonialism becomes appealing, regardless of the implications.
This pattern of taking an apologetic stance is increasingly expressed on the far-reaching Left, reinforcing the idea that concerns of gender based violence become a separate issue to feminism if the perpetrator is brown or black. The issue is deemed as ‘their own problem’, inherent to their culture, which should be left to them.
While this response may at first be dismissed as the uninformed opinion of a fringe student minority, to what extent do they represent the politics within modern feminism? And how does this type of politics play out in the wider world? What is dangerous about this standpoint is how it fails minorities such as children, women and non-hetrosexuals within those minority communities.
FGM, like veiling is not a practice confined to far off lands. FGM continues to be practiced illegally on British born girls, with a case reported in the UK approximately every 2 hours. If FGM is carried out on a white child in Britain, it will be regarded as criminal – so why does this position shift when a Somali child is violated?
According to the neutral stance prescribed on my course, I am not to celebrate Nigeria officially banning FGM in 2015, because it is actually reverting to the colonial standard, which deemed the practice as barbaric. Nigeria also banned the veil for girls at public schools throughout Lagos state, with a judge ascribing the policy to “values of plurality and the respect for the rights of others who have subscribed to a non-faith based educational system.” This is an immense achievement, and a testament to the growing secular pushback throughout countries that have been so wedded to religion. To write this off as ‘an internalized racist form of colonialism that continues the western patriarchal imposition’ is a disservice to the progress being made in the advancement of women’s rights and freedoms on the continent.
It is possible that lecturers are finding it increasingly difficult to swim against the wave of regressive thought gaining ground in courses in social sciences and humanities, nevertheless students should be presented with the plural sides of the debate. There was no mention of African feminists who have dedicated their lives to banishing FGM, such as the [late] Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo, who worked tirelessly for 30 years and pioneered the global movement to end the practice, along with Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, a vocal abolitionist. In the diaspora, campaigners of African heritage include Waris Dirie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Amal Farah, Nahla Mahmoud, Bogaletch Gebre, Alishba Zarmeen, Jaha Dukureh, Hibo Wardere, Salimata Knight, Mona Walter, Sainab Abdi, Leyla Hussein, Nimko Ali and many others too numerous to list.
Unlike veiling, FGM is not a category to which we can apply surplus doses of cultural relativism or justification by brandishing theories of orientalism and notions of colonial resistance. If we truly stand for universal human rights, we must demand better from our institutions.