Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Female genital mutilation at the October Gallery

Film "The Cutting Tradition" directed by Nancy Durrell McKenna, narrated by Meryl Streep. Shown at the October Gallery on 22nd February, with introduction and post-screening Q&A with Nancy McKenna of the campaigning and educational organisation, Safe Hands for Mothers.

The sheer magnitude of this horror take one's breath away. How can one begin to hold in one's mind this vast tranche of gratuitous and crippling cruelty? In the world at the moment there are 140 million women whose genitals have been deliberately mutilated as a traditional practice, and each year in Africa another 3 million girls are damaged in this way. (Statistics from the Orchid Project.) So, on average, every hour of every day almost 350 African girls have their clitoris slashed off on the authority of their parents.

Wikipedia coldly classifies the mutilations as follows: "Type I, removal of the clitoral hood, almost invariably accompanied by removal of the clitoris itself; Type II, removal of the clitoris and inner labia; and Type III (infibulation), removal of all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, and the fusion of the wound, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood — the fused wound is cut open again for intercourse and childbirth. Around 85 percent of women who undergo FGM experience Types I and II, and 15 percent Type III, though Type III is the most common procedure in several countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti."

Given the imponderable horror that she has filmed, and which she describing to us at the October Gallery, Ms McKenna is remarkably down-to-earth and sensible about it and undaunted by the sheer scale of combating this social evil. Many people might become embittered and hardened by running up against cruelty so deeply ingrained in these societies. But, with calm composure, the charming and beautiful Ms McKenna relates the ugliest of child abuse, and the stupidest and most mean-spirited of male impositions on womankind.

As I said to Chili Hawes on the way in to the auditorium, such things are often classified as "women's issues". In fact, they are "men's issues" because men are the cause. Although female genital mutilation is pepetrated and perpetuated by women -- by mothers who take their daughters to be be slashed -- the driving force comes from men who will marry only women whose sexual organs have been destroyed. In a society where most women are economically dependent on a husband, there is a pervasive belief that a woman needs to undergo genital mutilation as their passport to economic survival.

The film helps to guide us into the thoughts and feelings of the folks who are directly involved in the appalling scandal of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation): the women who have been cut; the mothers who had their daughters cut; the practitioners who do the butchery; the men who want their women unsexed; and their rare opposites - mothers who refused to let their daughters be mutilated; and men who desire women to be complete, as Allah created them. Remarkably candid interviews with these individuals reveal the rationalisations for a practice that is done simply because it is a tradition of male power. The primary rationalisation is that a married woman will commit adultery if she is capable of enjoying sex. So, the mutilation is a method of social imprisonment: a way for men to possess and control women, just as they possess and control livestock. McKenna's film does not address the wider issue of women's right to autonomy. It is an intense, narrow-focus examinatin of the specific barbarity of genital mutilation. This is undoubtedly the right strategy: a range of people of 'traditional' views are willing to lend support to the ending of FGM but would baulk at any prospect of equality between the sexes.

Ms McKenna has shot some astounding footage. She followed one young girl through the process: her mother leads her, whimpering, to the home of an elderly practitioner. The girl is held down by the womenfolk and her legs parted. The butcheress takes a fresh razor from the pack. There is no anaesthetic. One woman puts her hand over the girl's mouth to stifle the screams. There is no ceremony: they go down to business as if going about a regular domestic chore. The young girl yelps and twists as the old woman cuts out her clitoris. Afterwards, the cutting-woman holds up the razor in her blood-soaked hand. They tie the sobbing girl's legs with rope, and she hobbles home. It is a hard scene to watch, and the gasps from the audience echoed the shared despair of everyone in the room. But, in her film, Ms McKenna spares us the most horrific scenes. Another ancient practitioner demonstrates the method of infibulation -- but does so by performing the operation on a blanket, not on a little girl. This involves cutting out the clitoris, and then slicing off the inner and outer labia, and sewing up the vagina. She demonstrates on her blanket how she uses thorns to pierce the remaining skin and bind the wound up. Ms McKenna leaves to our own powers of imagination what it is like to witness this operation, which is the commonest form in the Sudan. God knows how she can stand and watch them them do this, without screaming at them to stop. But Ms McKenna knows that if she is going to change anything in Africa, she has to work with the grain of the culture, not against it.

The other procedure that is shown in the film is the reverse: the opening up of an infibulated vagina. A married woman is unable to have sexual intercourse because the tiny hole that is all that is left of her vulva is barely enough for urine and menstrual blood to escape, and certainly cannot allow the entry of a penis. We watch as the surgeon cuts along the scar of the sewn-up vulva until the hole is big enough to allow two fingers to penetrate. Then he sews back the flaps of cut flesh to keep the enlarged hole open. That's it. Now she can be penetrated by her husband, which is all that matters within the traditional thinking.

Meryl Streep is a good choice of narrator for the film. Hers is a kind, compassionate voice, but with a steely backbone. This is not a melodramatic or sensationalistic film. Its carefully measure tone is one of deep care and compassion for the victims of this widespread child abuse, tempered by the understanding that making any positive changes will involve a staggering programme of education and gentle persuasion. But at least there is some notional support from the authorities: FGM is illegal in civil law, and McKenna interviews islamic scholars who make it clear that FGM has no basis in the Quran. But the sheer weight of tradition that can be traced back for generations, coupled with the complicity of women, and the crippling effect of political and economic disenfranchisement of women -- all these things together make up a formidable obstacle to any positive moves by the civil or religious powers .

There was surprisingly little mention of cultural imperialism. One aged villager objected that Western women could use expensive perfumes to hide body odours, but this was not available to poor rural Africans. The extraordinary notion that girls had to have their genitals mutilated in order to stop them smelling was mentioned a few items, along with the more ludicrous notion that it was intrinsically wrong for a woman to have elongated clitoris or labia. But these rationalisations did not seem to be taken seriously by anyone. The conversation would always wend back to the rhetorical question: what man would ever marry an uncut woman? The fact that about three billion men on the planet are perfectly happy to marry and have sexual intercourse with uncut women did not seem to occur to them to be an obvious counter-argument.

The central objection to genital mutilation -- namely, that it denies a woman her fundamental right of sexual enjoyment -- does not get us very far, because the immediate purpose of the mutilation is precisely to prevent women from enjoying sex. And the reason for that is to prevent women 'straying'. Needless to say, the converse operation for men has never been practised or even seriously proposed. No society has a tradition of slicing off the glans of every young boy's penis to prevent him from enjoying sexual intercourse; or more radically trimming his entire penis down to mere hole for urine to exit. And yet it is a universally known condition of humanity that men have a greater genetically imposed drive to have multiple sexual partners than women have. (Generally speaking, obviously.) Any attempt to rationalise FGM in terms of preventing adultery, if taken seriously, very quickly runs into this conundrum: glansectomy of men would be a more efficient way of taking the pleasure out of sex than cliteridectomy of women. The fact that it is always the girls who are savaged, not the boys, surely leads us to the realisation that, in reality, this has nothing to do with the prevention of adultery, feminine smells, or unaesthetic elongated labia. It is about one thing only: male hegemony. Which in turn leads to a snag when combatting female genital mutilation in an effective manner: how can you tackle this problem without also tackling head-on the problem of male power and the abuse of that power?

Ms McKenna, however, is an accomplisehd pragmatist. The film shows a clip from an educational video in which women say that fidelity to their marriages should be premised on respect and honour within their traditions of behaviour, and not achieved by brutal enforcement. This deftly sidesteps the issues of women's dependence on men in societal relations of power and economy. It is a limited and specific aim to eradicate this particularly evil manifestation of male power -- which is already a massive job -- without getting bogged down in the infinitely bigger ideal of sexual equality.

As I mentioend abovem the law is technically already on the side of reform, but the criminalisation of female genital mutilation is practically diffiicult to police, and almost impossible to punish: as one legislator said in the film, there are simply not enough prison cells to jail all the perpetrators of FGM. In the Q&A, I asked Ms McKenna whether there was any role at all for legislation. Very little, it seems, other than legitimatising the big education programme that is underway.

The complex web of societal relations that must be navigated is emhasised in a report by Frances Althaus on the Guttmacher Institute. As Althause notes, Western imperialism is often seen as the motivation behind our interventions in Third World countries, and McKenna emphasised that she never presents herself as the enlightened reformer from a more advanced civilisation, but rather operates as a facilitator who encourages and enables African women to bring about change.

This is where the moral high ground turns out to be as boggy as the moral low ground. If we adopt a univocal ethical stance and maintain that female genital mutilation is an unacceptable violation that must be eradicated as soon as possible, the resistance to enforced change will be considerable, and the attempt to push it through is likely to achieve nothing or even be counter-productive. On the other hand, adopting the ethically lax position of relativism makes us complicit in the continuation of an evil practice. McKenna is attempting to steer a middle course between ethical imperialism and ethical relativism: to enable a radical change to African society to happen while at the same time respecting the integrity and autonomy of the Afrcan communities. It's quite a job.

After the Q&A, I asked Ms McKenna privately a question that hovers even more on the grey borderline between complicity and pragmatism. Referring to the work of Deborah Sundahl (one of whose hands-on workshops I attended last year), I asked whether there was a role for women who have had their clitoris cut off to be trained in the massage of the G-spot as an alternative route to reclaiming a capacity for orgasm. Ms McKenna was doubtful that this would get very far partly because Islamic African culture does not make it easy to talk about sexuality; and partly because the damaged vagina is often so painful that any attempt at achieving pleasure is a forlorn hope. (In addition, there is a risk that this could be seen as complicit, as it seeks to ameliorate the effect of genital mutilation rather than focusing exclusively on eradication.)

The October Gallery is renowned for its advocacy of world art and for giving space to the ethnic viewpoint as opposed to the suprematist tendencies of Western cultural imperialism. It is therefore especially good to see it supporting a campaign that seeks to improve the lot of women while avoiding the mistake of telling the local folks what to do.


No comments:

Post a Comment