Reading Alice Walker on FGM — in China

Introducing Waging Empathy, international essays on Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Chinese scholar Fangfang Zhu, in “Religion, Ecofeminism and Female Genital Mutilation: Cracking the Code of Patriarchy in Possessing the Secret of Joy,” has contributed a stirring chapter to Waging Empathy, edited by Tobe Levin, a book project begun with the aid of a University of Maryland University College faculty research grant in 2011 and now nearing completion. Zhu’s chapter looks at the novel’s main theme, FGM, through the anticipated lens of footbinding, analogous in motive and method to child abuse in genital mutilation in that little girls are routinely crippled – the term appropriate because inflicting disability and pain is the aim of the procedure, even if only in the rarest of cases the intention of the parents. Zhu writes:

“According to ecofeminist Karen Warren, an oppressive conceptual framework to explain, justify and maintain the subordination of women by men is patriarchal (qtd. in Zimmerman 253). And the patriarchy that defends and upholds male control of women’s anatomy and sexuality is not merely present where FGM persists but can also be found in other cultural phenomena like foot binding which, for a thousand years in China, deformed women’s feet for the sake of ‘beauty and marriageability’ (Wilson 17). By actually breaking the arch, the practice replaced a foot with a stump and in that sense too resembled amputation. Nearly universal in the Middle Kingdom, it sacrificed women’s physical mobility to male ideals of the sexually desirable. Lisette in Possessing the Secret of Joy brings up the similarity between genital mutilation and foot binding (Walker 172), both acts of dispossession that strip women of their agency and power.”

ZHU FangfangBut Zhu reserves relatively little space in her chapter for this comparison, the similarities in these two practices notwithstanding, especially once we understand that footbinding affected the positioning of the vagina, the new posture pushing the organ forward and increasing its accessibility.

Rather, in Zhu’s hands, patriarchy is sought on an even grander scale and defined as oppressive power rationalized by religion and myth in a manner that crosses borders. Less interested in FGM’s root causes, difficult to tease out of existing history in any case, Zhu, like Walker, focuses on its justifications, why those who practice it say it’s right. Religious dogmas, including myth, play a major role in Possessing the Secret of Joy, and Zhu catalogues these.

For instance, looking for the “Patriarchal Logic behind FGM,” Zhu asks, with Walker, about an idea that migrates broadly among cultures — why female genitals should be shameful and dirty. Who benefits? Surely not the innocent. As Khady in Senegal notes: “At age seven, like all girls, I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, let alone the purpose it served. I had never noticed it before and now I never would.” But exciser M’Lissa takes for granted what patriarchy ‘knows’: retaining “unclean” parts makes a woman “loose,” that is, promiscuous, and promiscuity evades the control of paternity.

Paternal insurance is not the only mechanism that fuels woman’s victimization in Walker’s novel and beyond: men’s need to access sex with women does, too. With the option of self-pleasured bliss destroyed, women become mired in “shame,” choosing the cut for its promise of respect and thus conniving in their disempowerment.

Possessing the Secret of Joy explains this entrapment, Zhu writes, by referencing beliefs in the divine, specifically in myths of human origins that ‘explain’ the creation of gender. The androgynous character Pierre presents the research of Marcel Griaule on Ogotemmêli who in turn records the Ur-world of the Dogon, an ethnic group native to northern Mali that performs FGM. In the allegory of creation, a male god, Amma, fashions a female earth, but her erectile organ –a clitoris allegorized as a termite hill – rises to prevent possession of his handiwork. He obliterates it.

And the result? “A social structure based on dualities, in which superiority and submission, sexual inequality and segregation, are created and reinforced by a … fiction [extrapolated from biology], that humanity consists of two sexes only, male and female, the one dominant, the other compliant,” Zhu writes.

“The antedote is thus the woman warrior’s cry, ‘RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY!’”

In sum, a Chinese scholar reads the novel not as parochial but vast and applicable  to sociological realities women as a gendered caste face. Despite Walker’s early critics who eschew a ‘universal’ vision, patriarchy is a shared oppressive structure. Decoding how and why the wounding works can spring the latch.

Works Cited

Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. Print.

Wilson, Anne Marie. “How the Methods Used to Eliminate Foot Binding in China Can Be Employed to Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation.” Journal of Gender Studies. 22.1 (2013): 17-37. Print.

Zimmerman, Michael E. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1993. Print.


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