Did you know that today, 17 November 2016, is World Philosophy Day? At least the UN calls it that and, not coincidentally, 16 November 2016 commemorated the International Day for Tolerance. Both were intended to “inspire a public debate between intellectuals and civil society on the challenges confronting” our world [http://www.un.org/en/events/philosophyday/].
Among these is surely the difficulty in ending female genital mutilation about which academics, activists, and the general public have debated for decades. In many people’s minds, excision is a custom so horrible that a first encounter with it can indeed provoke intolerance, especially in the absence of inquiry into its complexity. But to dismiss FGM as wrong – which of course it is – and not attempt to see its anchoring in fear, social pressure, conceptions of female beauty and gender identity won’t accelerate its disappearance.
To illuminate the power this gruesome tradition exerts on practicing communities, I’ve introduced a metaphor in my speeches. I ask all females in the audience to consider the case of Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s hero who awakens one morning to discover a dramatic change: he has become a bug. Now, if you’re a woman, suppose something similar happens, namely on opening your eyes, the mirror reveals you’ve grown a beard, an accessory certain not to delight but to terrify you, and the first thing you’d do is shave. Why? Despite the elegance of Conchita Wurst’s delicate duvet, ‘real’ women don’t have beards.
In Kafka’s masterpiece, Samsa can do nothing to alter his novel condition, but, even if tragic for himself, accepting it gradually confers real benefits on his entourage. Because he is no longer able to serve them, they confront the challenge of his absence with their own initiative, and the new configuration holds out hope. With women’s hirsute chins, however, the status quo instantly resumes. The foliage is erased. In other words, to BE a woman you must APPEAR to be one, and where FGM prevails, clitoral ablation is the script. Although some few societies accept androgyny and transgender, in most places binaries remain, and if the line is crossed, transgressors face, in Orlando Patterson’s words, ‘social death’.
Thus gender boundary policing is largely responsible for shearing, or as Simone de Beauvoir points out, women are made, not born. A female’s facial fur, like the clitoris in a society that cuts, is extraneous; it violates norms and challenges aesthetic judgments. Can a bearded woman be a beauty? Can clitoris-carriers be good wives if, by definition, they are not ‘normal’ women?
On 7 March 2015, at the University of Oxford, a symposium about “Contestations around FGM” examined the role ‘normality’ plays in the tenacious hold ritual wounding of girls maintains on immigrant populations globally. Viewing FGM through the lens of various disciplines, our sessions included personal testimony (memoir), law, medicine, the arts (painting, film, fiction) and activism itself. After all, as Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General notes, “Philosophy is more than an academic subject; it is a daily practice that helps people — [that is, also girls] –to live in a better, more humane way.” [http://www.un.org/en/events/philosophyday/].
To read the 56 page symposium report with color photos, available for €6,00 plus postage from UnCUT/VOICES Press, please contact Dr. Tobe Levin, email@example.com.
Gratitude to artist Okoro Oghale Nathan for The Verge of Virility. Oil on Canvas. 2007.