Debate Magazine

All the People Like Us Are We, and Everyone Else is They- Rudyard Kipling

Posted on the 08 February 2011 by Humanwriter @roseforman

What would you think if someone from a different country, culture even, came to your house and told you to stop what you're doing because they don't agree with it? It's not right. They don't do it there so why should you do it here? This situation is happening all the time and, sadly enough, it's usually us who are the ones saying what is right and wrong. How can we impose our views and culture on others or even eradicate and punish them for theirs? What gives us this right? And who decided we are right and they are wrong?
Feminist scholar Marilyn Frye [1] calls this the "arrogant perception."- The typical western, white, Christian, middle-class male who creates masculine perceptions on the world and believes only his culture and civilisation to be right. The arrogant perceiver believes only in himself ("I") and everything/one else is the "other". We all know and have met this person, someone who has this perception of life and that he knows what is right and wrong. And, if you think about it, this perception has tainted our (innately?) liberal view of the world. Take, for example, a subject particularly controversial and our instant standpoint will be shock and disgust that others would, or could, do this in their cultures. Take female genital surgery (or known as female genital mutilation).
Female genital surgery is the act of cutting or burning off the clitoris and other parts of the genitals of women, usually when they are young. It has been widely published that the practise causes all sorts of problems in health, particularly during sex and childbirth.
Instantly, we decide that this is unacceptable, uncivilised and universally wrong. But with a little less judgement and a little further investigation and analysis can we see if the practise of female genital surgery could ever be justified?*
Isabelle R. Gunning [2] studied and wrote extensively on the subject of female genital surgery. She developed a 3 pronged methodology for understanding culturally challenging practices in an "other's" culture. This is a brief overview:
  1. Understand our own historical context: In order to look at others we must first look at ourselves. Including our history, in England we tortured and killed women for being witches for centuries, now the idea seems preposterous, the same goes for punishment of homosexuals and the slavery and subsequent segregation of Africans. We have to understand and accept that what we think is right and wrong now is not necessarily what we used to think was right and wrong and not necessarily what we will think is right and wrong in the future either.
  2. How do others view our culture and practises: We are not as 'normal' as we think we are! There are many practises and cultural norms that if you think about objectively are very strange to the outside world. Take plastic surgery, women augment their breasts/ lips/ bums to ridiculous proportions, all in the name of vanity. Models starve themselves to unnatural size 0 in order to fit into the idea of the perfect figure, when in some African tribes the fattest women are considered to be the most beautiful because their weight is a display of wealth. Tattoos and piercings, even the aboriginals who wear bones through their noses are considered normal within their own society.
    But if we look from someone else's point of view the image is very different. Islamic culture doesn't approve of women showing bare skin, so the bikini and mini skirt-wearing western girl is offensive to them. Whereas, we might not understand or agree with wearing the fully covering veil- the Burqa. Other cultures might not understand our overt homosexual culture, just as we are unfamiliar with the Thai transgender community.
  3. See through the perspective of the other person: How is life in their world? We see it as though they are forced into female genital surgery, however consent and pressure is as prevalent in the western world as anywhere else. If the practise is religious it can be compared to Jewish circumcision, which is a important ritual in Jewish culture. Not only religion presents pressure, western society stresses the need for the perfect body, (anyone who denies that they are influenced by this idea- think about that when you're at the gym, wearing concealer makeup or buying low-fat, whole grain or sugar free food!). People often feel pressure to get plastic surgery, braces on their teeth or dye greying-hair in order to survive and succeed in the modern, western world. You may not consider this to be forceful, but it is just as dominating as any other culture's social ideology.
    When you think about the act of circumcision the practise of female genital surgery is not completely different, the act itself does not always have to be painful or brutal, it can be performed in hospitals. Maybe when we try to change other peoples cultures we should think about adapting it for the benefit of people, instead of telling them they're wrong and trying to eradicate all signs of their heritage. I am not necessarily saying that I think that the practise of female genital surgery is good, but then I think I have outlined that it is not my place to say what is right or wrong. On the other hand, if women are dying or being mutilated from this practise then there is of course a reason for the rich-western-activist to step forward, but, like a child, to tell someone not to do something only encourages them to defy you and do it more. The west has to accept that they are not the parent in this situation. We don't know the whole picture so we don't know what's best for the "other," and more often than not it is not the same as what's best for "us." We should use our means to educate others on safety and health, and on the benefits of giving women the right to choose their own destiny. But maybe we should take our own advice sometime?
*Note: I am not, in any way, suggesting that I am an authority on this subject, I am merely providing an overview based on the information I have read, and I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Please read Gunning's article to get a better understanding of this controversial topic, but I also suggest reading articles of other points of view such as:
Siobhan Mullally, 'Reforming laws on female genital mutilation in Ireland: responding to gaps in protection,' Dublin University Law Journal [Vol. 32: 2010. 243]
Kirsten Maclean, 'Female genital mutilation: a family practitioner's perspective,' Family Law [Vol. 40: 2010. 1106]
Susan Bufton, 'Child abuse: female genital mutilation acts of violence done to young girls for sexual control,' Criminal Law [Vol. 191: 2009. 5]
[1] Marilyn Frye, ‘In and Out of Harm’s Way,’ in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory 52-83 (1983) [2] Isabelle R. Gunning, ‘Arrogant Perception, World Travelling and Multicultural Feminism: The Case of Female Genital Surgeries,’ Columbia Human Rights Law Review [Vol. 23: 1991. 189]

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