August 4, 2009
By OKIYA OMTATAH OKOITI
The very cloudy rhetoric against the circumcision of women is darkened further by the usually suspicious and antagonistic relationship between modern and traditional lifestyles. The recurring use of the perversion mutilation seems to support the misguided Western paradigm that those who practice it are nefarious individuals or communities, the cut being the ultimate sign of their degenerate otherness.
If female circumcision is mutilation, so is any fashion that requires unnatural mechanical or surgical intrusion upon the body.
The coarse fabric of the debate is made up of many uneven strands, a good number carelessly twisted to fit a given very narrow thought line. Among these are arguments from self-styled traditionalists that glorify the bad practice, extolling its supposed virtues such as the unsubstantiated passing on of so-called age-old societal values during the healing in seclusion, arguing that changing it will mean for its adherents decomposition, disintegration, ultimately a separation from the very principle of life! Death! But they cannot show how the cut is necessary to group survival as it confers only obvious disadvantages on its recipients.
Then there are the superficial modernists who cash in, vilifying and opposing it as a backward practice that has outlived its use. Unable to understand its root causes and purpose, some of them end up perfuming and dancing themselves dizzy around the deplorable custom, addressing its diversionary justifications through their so-called alternative rites of passage.
The cold truth, however, is that the cut is just one of the burdensome customs, nay, inhuman cultural prisons that women throughout history have endured, and endure today, in the name of fashion or tradition to please men. The practice is neither backward nor has it outlived it use as a tool of oppression, it is simply wrong, morally repugnant.
The pursuit of male adoration is a strong stimulant in all societies. When the attainment of all important male favour means that the female body must be reconstructed to fit the prescribed fashion, history shows that regardless of potential health hazards, women pay the price.
Women are admired, not for their mind, personality, or inner beauty, but for their physical bodies. The ideal modern woman in today’s advertising has a shapely robotic figure, complete with breasts symbolically larger than her head.
Whether through cosmetics or a tattoo, all cultures seek to change the woman’s body to some arbitrary physical ideal, imbued with a sense of eroticism linked to bondage, embodying notions of fashion, conformity, and male constructed ideals of feminine beauty.
In the West today, just as it is with those who cut their women, constructed images of the ideal are used to keep women in inhuman cultural prisons of male power and control but whose keys have conveniently been turned over to female gatekeepers.
For example, scary walking chopsticks populate Western catwalks where well-fed motherly modelling agents force young models to diet. In fact, even in recent times, malnourished models have collapsed and died from starvation because of fasting to gain a desired weight.
Throughout history women have been socialised to endure gross abuse in the pursuit of acceptability and perceived beauty, in the name of fashion or tradition to please men. Tight corsets to produce a tiny waist, resulting in broken ribs and damaged internal organs, were common in the West in the recent past. Today’s barbaric practices include very tight clothes, poisonous skin lighteners, and elective plastic surgery. Pain and death remain constant companions of the women’s “remote controlled” search for male approval.
The ancient Chinese custom of foot binding that reflected Chinese ideas of the time about feminine beauty, virtue, and social status caused severe life-long disability and pain for millions of women. Women’s feet were made small using bandages to break and bend the toes under the sole, increasing the arch to an extreme so that the toes and heel were brought as close together as possible. The ideal foot was the three-inch golden lotus. Female relations crippled young girls, to make them more attractive to future husbands. The girls had to live the rest of their lives in pain simply to please men who decreed that a Chinese woman with “big feet” was ugly.
The modern fixation with physically delicate women, easy to dominate, is best played out in the equally punishing but fashionable high-heeled shoes. A woman tottering on pinpointed high-heels looks invitingly weak, just like the Chinese woman with bound feet did. It doesn’t matter if she is the head of a government; it is fashionable to restrict her.
Equally, cut women are an appropriate symbol of their restricted lives. They don’t have much control over their bodies or their destinies, and for the most part, depend on men for their well-being and happiness.
Eradicating female circumcision will involve more than screaming that it is a harmful practice; we have to change those societies’ deeply-ingrained sentiments regarding the woman. And it is the men, in whose pleasure these atrocities are usually carried out, who hold the key.
Though the cut is entirely a woman’s matter, performed on girls and young women by other females, it is a self-enforcing convention of the men’s subjugation of their women. That’s why it persists despite modernization, public education, and legal prohibition.
It may be worthwhile studying how foot binding in China was ended in a single generation. Scholars say it took much more than laws and protests. First, there was the end of imperial dynasties in 1911. Then in 1915 the new Chinese government outlawed the practice and sent inspectors to enforce the law through monetary fines to offenders. This was backed up by forming associations of parents who pledged not to foot-bind their daughters nor let their sons marry foot bound women.
Could a similar combination of progressive politics, social campaigns and enforced law help end the scourge of circumcising women?
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