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Another Meaning for “Difference”

At a recent Modern Language Association (MLA) panel on “Disability and Human Rights,” assistant Professor Rebecca Wanzo argued for a new gynecological justice and equated unequal access to “family planning” resources with the controversial practice of female genital mutilation.

She told the audience that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “linking of welfare, [female genital circumcision] FGC and state concern, however problematic, illustrate the endless play of sign and signification in relationship to these issues.”

“What if we replaced FGC with the issue of restricted funding for reproductive healthcare?” she argued. “U.S. restrictions on such funding can disable women and in the case of supporting abstinence-only education, regions that experience high rates of HIV put women at risk of death.”

“The kind of critiques of culture’s disabling that Ali brings to Islam and non-western countries would then be appropriate for the U.S. as well,” the Ohio State University professor added.

Some studies, however “also show a higher vulnerability to HIV/AIDS among girls who have been subjected to FGM/C, meaning that the practice hampers efforts to halt and reverse the spread of AIDS,” according to a 2006 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) publication.
According to Professor Wanzo, “FGC should be interpreted in relationship to a history of gynecological violence around the world, committed not only by lay people but by medical practitioners.” She added,

“From the treatment of the [female genitals] to poorly-tested birth control, to restricting access to family planning services, women of color are often disabled by experimental or controlling medical practices, practices of disabling that ironically are often viewed as serving the nation-state through controlling women’s bodies.”

In May 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO), which strongly condemns FGM, estimated that this practice affects 100 to 140 million women worldwide; an additional 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of undergoing the procedure each year, they write.

FGM “includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” according to WHO.

The United Nations agency describes long-term complications of the procedure as including:

• “recurrent bladder and urinary tract
• cysts;
• infertility;
• the need for later surgeries…[and],
an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.”

In Faduma Korn’s case, this procedure caused her to develop an infection and the resulting “Rheumatism transformed her previously healthy body reshaping her [lower] joints into painful knots. Her knees and ankles swelled to the size of grapefruits and she was taunted by girls who said that no one would marry a cripple,” said Wanzo, describing the events in Korn’s memoir, Born in the Big Rains.

FGM is a culturally-reinforced practice “most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe,” according to WHO.

Proponents argue that the procedure makes a woman clean, gives her sexual purity, or in some cases natives falsely believe that an uncircumcised women endangers her own life and that of her family.

“Faduma Korn insists that Islam does not name FGC and she does not wholly reject her culture. In contrast, Ayaan Hirsi Ali famously rejects all of Islam,” said Wanzo, who teaches both in the Women’s Studies Department and the Department of African-American and African Studies (AAAS) at OSU.

. Somalian-born Ali, a former member of the Dutch parliament who helped produce Submission with Theo Van Gogh prior to his assassination, is a vocal opponent of both female and male circumcision.

An excerpt from Ali’s autobiography, Infidel, shows that she distinguishes between Islam and FGM. In describing her own experience with the practice, Ali wrote that “Female genital mutilation predates Islam. No all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic.” She continued,

“But in Somalia, where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam. Uncircumcised girls will be possessed by devils, fall into vice and perdition, and become whores. Imams never discourage the practice: it keeps girls pure.”

“Like Korn, Ali’s narrative blends the issues of disability, FGC, and state control but in Ali’s calculus of state oppression, the principal evil is Islam’s particular brand of difference, which she sees as crippling all practitioners and the nations that give them refuge through the welfare state,” argued Professor Wanzo. She then insinuated that conservatives and Ali are opposed to cultural “difference” signified by FGM.

She continued, “Ali’s formulation of the welfare state as crippling or disabling is common to conservative rhetoric. Non-white western culture is the crippling disease and many non-culture formulations further cripple or are the signs of the underlying damage done by difference. For Ali, violence against women and children is the principle sign of disabling difference.”

Ali underwent FGM when she was five years old, without her permission or that of her parents.

Writing for the Washington Post this December, Amit R. Paley described how some FGM-practicing Kurdish mothers recently lured their pre-pubescent daughters to the exciser with false promises of a “party.”

“Sheelan Anwar Omer, a shy 7-year-old Kurdish girl, bounded into her neighbor’s house with an ear-to-ear smile, looking for the party her mother had promised,” Paley wrote. “There was no celebration. Instead, a local woman quickly locked a rusty red door behind Sheelan, who looked bewildered when her mother ordered the girl to remove her underpants.”

Photographs of Sheelan’s circumcision experience are also available (warning: graphic content).

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.