Saturday, March 8, 2008

Because female genital mutilation is funny

I have always been on the fence about Jezebel, the female-focused entry into the Gawker Media family of Web sites, described as:
...celebrity, fashion, and sex without the airbrushing. The witty, informative tone draws a readership that is intelligent and sophisticated, but still willing to get down and dirty. Jezebel does what those women’s monthlies only wish they could. SOURCE

The site makes grrrl power, big tent noises, but always seems more invested in bringing the outre, hipster snark.

A recent Jezebel recap of America's Next Top Model that recounted an argument involving Fatima, a Somali-born contestant who is a victim of female genital mutilation, struck me as beyond the pale. Fatima's opponent made the utterly ridiculous statement, "You take it in the back, because you're black." (I know. I know.) Jezebel agreed that the statement was racist and stupid, but added:
(Especially because Fatima probably takes it in the back because the front is sewn up. Awww snap! Sorry, that was mean.)

Really? This is "what those women's monthlies only wish they could do." Equally disturbing is that most commenters let the crack slip by. One even added to it, referring to the wanna-be model as "the girl who had her clit cut off."

This, by the way, is what is so funny:
In a study of infibulation in the Horn of Africa, Pieters observed that the procedure involves extensive tissue removal of the external genitalia, including all of the labia minora and the inside of the labia majora. The labia majora are then held together using thorns or stitching. In some cases the girl's legs have been tied together for two to six weeks, to prevent her from moving and to allow the healing of the two sides of the vulva. Nothing remains but the walls of flesh from the pubis down to the anus, with the exception of an opening at the inferior portion of the vulva to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass through, see Diagram 1D. Generally, a practitioner deemed to have the necessary skill carries out this procedure, and a local anesthetic is used. However, when carried out "in the bush," infibulation is often performed by an elderly matron or midwife of the village, with no anesthesia used.[21] SOURCE

I know GenXers like me started the whole sardonic, no-sacred-cows thing, but God I wish sometimes we could take it all back. It is evidence of privilege that we can carelessly toss off bon mots about the mutilation of women in "third world" countries. Sure, that stuff happening to women "over there" is bad, but...

Hey, I laugh at snark. That is why I visit Jezebel from time to time in the first place. But I have never bought into the belief that all is fair in comedy. Laughing at some things just makes us all seem less humane.

Check out Gina's post about Jezebel's Black History Month celebration that encouraged black women to send in their best and worst hairstyles over the years, including "fuzzy fros," "crooked cornrows" and "Jheri curls? Please???" More at What About Our Daughters. A head scratcher, this one.

25 comments:

Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Tami,

They laugh because it's only happening to Black women. If White women were suffering through genital mutilation it would be the least funny thing in the world.

I don't read blogs/ sites geared toward White women. What's the point?

Dr. Willie B. Feelgoode said...

I doubt if it is racial. Some people are sick enough to laugh at ANYTHING. It would not matter the race of the woman so violated.

That said, humor is important. It can let reduce tension, and let's face it, some people need to get over themselves.

But to laugh at such a vile mutilation is just pure sick insanity. And yet, there are some who claim that us westerners have no right to criticize a non-western culture, regardless of how inhuman it may be.

Cruella said...

I have never been very impressed with Jezebel. I criticised their site once in a blog post and they responded with an article about how (a) had a stupid name (b) couldn't get laid, etc. You know you've won the argument when they descend to that level.

Tami said...

MDC and Dr. Willie,

I don't think it is necessarily racial, either. I shake my head at a lot of tacky stuff on Jezebel. BUT, I think it is even easier to snark on things related to women who in your mind are labeled "other." If young, well-to-do, college educated white women in Michigan were having their genitals mutilated, I don't think it would be so amusing.

Cruella

I read your review of Jezebel and you were dead on, no matter what they say.

I read that you are a comedian. Whatdo you think--are some things off limits when ti comes to humor? I've heard some comedians say "no."

Regina said...

Some things should be definitely off limits and some things are definitely in poor taste.

ottermatic said...

They lost me with the "grapy rape" bs, and this and the "bad hair" contest just reinforces my decision to quit reading that stupid site.

ExpatJane said...

I don't read it often, but I got to click around it when everyone was talking about that nitwit editor over at Glamour who made the crack about black women water their hair in its natural texture. On that issue, Jezebel came out swinging, but on the right side: Repost: 'Glamour' Editor To Lady Lawyers: Being Black Is Kinda A Corporate "Don't".

I have to agree that it's an issue of both race and class. Both of these issues intersect - where you have racism you have economic oppression and one impacts the other. You can see it in how they handled the Glamour editor who was talking to attorneys. If she were moneyed and educated, I think no matter where she was from this wouldn't be happening to her and the snark would have been turned on the other model who verbally attacked her.

Anonymous said...

So where's your expression of outrage over male circumcision? Are you wandering through popular culture, looking for jokes that denigrate foreskin, or make light of male genital mutilation.

Of course you're not. So why should I take a hypocrite seriously again?

Zeynab said...

Tami--this is a great post.
Would you mind if we featured this--with all credits due--on Muslimah Media Watch next week?

Tami said...

expatjane,

I gave Jezebel props for going after the Glamour editor until one of the bloggers met her and decided that "Squee! She isn't a racist after all. She's really cool!"

Zeynab,

Glad you liked it! Feel free to cross-post.

more cowbell said...

That's horrible. Just awful. Particularly coming from women.

I am all about some good comedy, but I absolutely think some things are off-limits. This is one, and that wasn't funny.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Anonymous: Male circumcision doesn't lead to the near-impossibility of normal sexual pleasure. It doesn't have any noticeable effect in terms of disease (it does increase the risk for one thing but reduces the risk for something else, I can't remember what for either, but it pretty much balances out risk-wise). It's simply not comparable. Someone can easily be outraged by female genital mutilation while not upset at all about what doesn't remotely count as male genital mutilation.

FeministGal said...

great post, and good for you for saying something. I think it's essential that we as feminists keep each other in check because growth only comes about if we're willing to accept and identify our own faults as well as pointing out the faults of others. Kick-ass post, you're right on.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, white women in the US are routinely cut. Breast augmentation mutilates and desensitizes an erogenous zone in the name of beauty. Episiotomy -- in which the vaginal canal is cut during childbirth -- can result in permanent loss of sexual sensation. FGM is terrible wherever it takes place, but we shouldn't be blind to it in our own culture.

Joshua R said...

Anonymous: Male circumcision doesn't lead to the near-impossibility of normal sexual pleasure. It doesn't have any noticeable effect in terms of disease (it does increase the risk for one thing but reduces the risk for something else, I can't remember what for either, but it pretty much balances out risk-wise). It's simply not comparable. Someone can easily be outraged by female genital mutilation while not upset at all about what doesn't remotely count as male genital mutilation.

That's if you only count one version as FGM and are only looking it as a question of deformity of the body--as opposed to what is called Type I FGM and if you are also considering the question of choice/autonomy and such procedures. (Do not take this to mean that I am some rabid anti-male circumcision protester who must do everything possible to bring it into the limelight of our public disgust. I will not, should I ever have one, circumcise my son, for a couple of reasons and believe the practice is wrong. But, you are correct that is does pale in comparison to Type II/III FGM.)

Jeremy Pierce said...

Joshua, both of those are chosen surgeries, and one of them is usually (as currently practices) a medically-driven procedure, sometimes even life-saving for a child.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Sorry, Joshua, that was directed at the anonymous comment directly before yours.

a.b. said...

Anonymous...

Although I do think there are problems regarding male circumcision in this country (I think that men should be able to choose for themselves, as young adults, whether or not to be circumcised)...there are major differences between male circumcision and female genital mutilation.

1) Circumcised men retain the ability to have pleasurable sex. (Whether it is AS pleasurable or not is open to discussion, but there is no arguing that it is pleasurable.) Women who have had their labia sown shut must endure tremendous pain in order to have sex, and open up wounds that can become infected, bleed excessively, etc.

2) Male circumcision is not a form of opression. Men are not circumcised in order to control their sexuality.

3) Male circumcision is generally performed in a hospital, by doctors, in a sterile environment. Female genital mutilation is often done without anesthesia, with equipment that has not been sterilized, and without the use of antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection. Women can *die* due to complications of FGM.

So, although I agree that we must not overlook the problems surrounding circumcision and bodily autonomy here, I do not think that it is appropriate to equate mainstream (male) circumcision with FGM.

Anonymous said...

Female genital cutting and male circumcision, at least type one FGM and male circumcision is comparable.- Not all FGC is used as a tool to control a woman's sexuality- it can be used as a right of passage from a girl to a woman- even the "bush" version with no anesthesia use certain plant material to make the incision that have anesthetic qualities. Not that many girls/women die from the procedure. They still can have sexual pleasure during intercourse- not that all cultures put much value on sexual pleasure. Some boys in the US have died from circumcision from blood loss or the contraction of meningitis.

Basically, my point is that unnecessary and sometimes harmful practices that put out healthy tissue or done in many cultures- including our own. That FGC is a harmful cultural practice and if those in the culture want to end it themselves then great- but the global community is a little out of place in judgment since many cultures around the world have harmful practices.

stella said...

female genital mutilation/circumcision is not funny, you're right. and neither is male circumcision, as anonymous pointed out. but i think we are overlooking the fact that we perform genital mutilation on almost every child born with "ambiguous genitalia", most commonly at birth or before cognitive devlopment and oftentimes without the parents understanding the full extent of the procedure and "problems" at hand. These people, many of whom will never feel whole again, lost the ability to choose for themselves which gender they identify as, and the ability to feel pleasure during sex (not in every case).
Whether it is done in a sterile hospital by "trained" professionals (many of whom would hate to see this practice banned in america because of the rarity and interesting challenge of the surgery) or in the middle of the desert in sub-saharan africa, these people's lives are being altered without their consent.

so go ahead and snoop around for trivial sites like Jezebel to make a slip-up and try to get a few laughs (unsuccessfully but still). Or you could actually put your words into to practice and fight for transgender and intersex rights in this country. Because until America has stopped butchering their own children, they will not step in to stop the butchering of others.

stella said...

female genital mutilation/circumcision is not funny, you're right. and neither is male circumcision, as anonymous pointed out. but i think we are overlooking the fact that we perform genital mutilation on almost every child born with "ambiguous genitalia", most commonly at birth or before cognitive devlopment and oftentimes without the parents understanding the full extent of the procedure and "problems" at hand. These people, many of whom will never feel whole again, lost the ability to choose for themselves which gender they identify as, and the ability to feel pleasure during sex (not in every case).
Whether it is done in a sterile hospital by "trained" professionals (many of whom would hate to see this practice banned in america because of the rarity and interesting challenge of the surgery) or in the middle of the desert in sub-saharan africa, these people's lives are being altered without their consent.

so go ahead and snoop around for trivial sites like Jezebel to make a slip-up and try to get a few laughs (unsuccessfully but still). Or you could actually put your words into to practice and fight for transgender and intersex rights in this country. Because until America has stopped butchering their own children, they will not step in to stop the butchering of others.

Jeremy Pierce said...

We do lots of things to kids without their consent. Some kids are born with intestinal blockages, and we operate or choose not to without their consent. Often when there's some other problem present (e.g. mental retardation), parents choose not to operate. Sometimes they choose to operate. Either way, the child has no consent and no choice to determine whether they live or die.

I happen to think there's a right choice in such circumstances, and parents who choose not to operate are failing in their moral responsibilities to their children, but I know people disagree on that. The same is true with genital modification for ambiguous-sex kids. I think there's a right choice in such cases, and it's not to operate, and some people disagree.

But my point isn't which choice is correct. It's that sometimes parents make choices in the best interest of their children, and sometimes that's the right thing to do (and sometimes not). If they choose not to operate, that's a choice, and it's made without the child's consent. I'm happy to criticize a particular choice, but I'm not going to do it on the grounds that parents shouldn't make decisions in the best interest of their children, because parents are forced to. Whichever choice they make, they have made a choice.

Jeannie Babb Taylor said...

Jeremy, there is a huge difference between repairing an intestinal blockage and performing surgery that attempts to alter or determine a child's gender.

As for episiotomy, it is still routine in many practices -- even though it is only medically necessary in very rare circumstances. I would agree with the poster who asserted that episiotomy is an accepted form of FGM in our country. Sure, women are told it is for their own good or for their baby's health. Don't you think those African girls are told the same thing?

Jeremy Pierce said...

My doctor says they rarely do episiotomies anymore. I think my doctor counts as an expert.

I wasn't arguing that FGM is ever ok. I was pointing out that male circumcision, which has medical arguments for and against such that my doctor didn't like to do them but had no opinion whether they were worth it, is not in the same category as female genital alteration.

When genital alteration due to ambiguous sexuality came up, I pointed out that some such cases are for the purposes of health, even if many of them are not. The issue isn't whether someone can claim that it's for health. Of course anyone can claim something like that. My point is that with male circumcision there's actually an argument for that claim, and with some cases of genital alteration there also is (although I don't happen to approve of such surgeries in the vast majority of cases).

I'm not sure how that amounts to treating genital surgery as in every way the same as intestinal blockages.

Anonymous said...

actually, episiotomy rates are very high in majority of hospitals in the US. look it up if you want to verify. in 2002, the Mayo Clinic episiotomy rate was about 61%. episiotomies should be as low as less than 5% including all justifiable causes. most laboring women in america don't have the freedom to move around, get into comfortable positions for labor etc, and epidurals, though presented as safe, necessitate further interventions like episiotomies/forceps etc.

so yes, i'd say episiotomies are FGM, but we americans tend to think it's "medical." in fact, much of modern obstetrics in practice is not evidence based medicine.

it's the same with forced surgery in intersex babies. almost always it is done for "cosmetic" reasons, not because the baby needs surgery for urination or anything else. the Intersex Society recommends all genital surgeries be out off until intersex individuals are at least teens.

and while it is important to criticize sexist practices, we should examine our critiques for racist/sexist biases. as other people in this blog have pointed out, there are many different types of FGM, the minority of which removes all of the clitoris/labia. and they aren't always done to control women's sexuality. if you read anthropological research on this, sometimes girls do it as a rite of passage. you could argue that they aren't really "choosing" the procedure, but that can be said of many things in america too. and if lack of anesthesia or "bushes as locations" is out problem, would FGM be okay if they were done in hospitals, like many rich parents do them?

i think instead of saying that FGM is worse than male circumsicion we should criticize ALL forms of genital mutilations no matter what their extent.

but back to the original point, none of these things are funny.

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