Monday, June 06, 2005

Another outrage overlooked

In a New York Times op-ed column published yesterday, Nicholas Kristof writes that the systematic gang rape by Arab militiamen terrorizing the black population of Darfur is exacerbated by the fact that these women have, by the time they reach puberty, undergone a form of ritual female genital mutilation (FGM) called “infibulation”:
[M]ost girls in Darfur undergo an extreme form of genital cutting called infibulation that often ends with a midwife stitching the vagina shut with a thread made of wild thorns. This stitching and the scar tissue make sexual assault a particularly violent act ...

Kristof is right to call attention to the victimization of Sudanese women by rapists, but why are we led so quickly away from the shocking fact that these women have already been victimized before the rapists catch them? Women in Darfur are systematically violated as children by their own parents, by their own backward societies, and by a world that looks on and does nothing. To his credit, Kristof has tried many times to call attention to such abuses of women, and he has drawn the ire of feminists like Katha Pollitt for not shutting up and letting them handle it their own way. Responding to accusations of inaction on the part of feminists, Jessica Neuwirth of the group Equality Now said: “I don't think [Kristof] appreciates how stretched women's organizations are." Right. Tell that to a woman trying to give birth through a scarred vaginal opening the diameter of a quarter. There’s nothing wrong with shouting about this, even if you happen to be a privileged white guy like Kristof (or me). The more outrage, the better. And the more people know about this, the more outrage there will be, if we have any sense of morality left.

What exactly is infibulation? It’s more complicated--and far more horrifying--than you’d know from Kristof’s recent piece. The fibula was a sort of safety pin used by the fashionable of ancient Rome to keep the folds of their togas pinned together.

A fibula

Those readers with more colorful imaginations can probably see where this is going. There’s a good deal of disagreement over the origins of this kind of body alteration, but for what it’s worth, it’s been practiced in varying forms in Africa and parts of Europe for millennia. Gynecologists in the west still encounter women who have had their labia pierced specifically for the attachment of chastity devices. In fact some members of the S&M community today object to Sudan’s ritual genital mutilation being confounded with infibulation as S&M aficionados practice it: a much more “civilized” procedure involving sterile piercing tools, training rings, a padlock, and--importantly--the consent of the woman. What is happening in Sudan today bears as much resemblance to this “alt-dot” kink as a mastectomy does to a nipple ring.

This is not consent.

[Update: In fairness, this is probably not FGM either. It looks more like a vaccination than a circumcision, now that I think about it. I'll keep searching for an image of an actual FGM that would be appropriate for this blog.]

Today in Sudan the practice has devolved from its dubious beginnings into an indefensible horror that humiliates, tortures, and kills girls who already suffer the misfortune of being born into an African nation in the grip of aggressive Islam. Sudanese female genital mutilation is not just a cutting away of parts that men consider extraneous. It is the total removal of the girl’s outer lips, inner lips, and clitoris, followed by the abrasion and stitching together (with a thorn) of what is left, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood to escape. This opening will become stiff with scar tissue, making sex excruciating painful (though allegedly great for the pig of a man who takes her by tearing her open--read the case histories at the end of the study here at this link). Obviously, the damage can also make childbirth a potentially fatal nightmare of agony and tearing flesh.

The surgical instrument

America’s mainstream media have done what they usually do when they encounter an indefensible horror. They’ve ignored it. Worse, some in the west have even given credence and airtime to those who defend it. Oddly, groups protesting the practice of male circumsicion have managed to undermine the efforts of those fighting to end FGM by trying to draw parallels between the two. (If there is a simpler example of how relativism can lead to inaction in the face of evil, I can’t think of it.) Outside of Africa and some European mosques, there are few who will defend infibulation--except for the standard cast of muddleheaded multiculturalists who tromp around the third world peering through the underbrush, ready to declare any barbarity they spy an intrinsically valuable cultural institution. These were the apologists for the Taliban. They think that films of Yanamamo Indians sitting around getting high while their teeth rot are a blast. Politically, they were the ones who told us that for the sake of stability, eastern Europeans needed the fist of Communism hovering above them. And you still catch them chirping occasionally that Arabs aren’t ready for democracy, though lately they’ve found it better to lay low on that front. It is generally the extreme right and the extreme left who choose to do and say nothing about infibulation. The right because they take a reprehensibly isolationist, let-the-savages-eat-themselves approach. The left because they have lost the ability to be outraged by any act they cannot pin on the Bush administration.

Ironically, on this issue the extreme right and left find themselves alone together beneath the sheets, without their usual menage a trois partner--supposedly moderate Muslims. Infibulation is a practice not widely condoned by the Islamic religious hierarchy, and it is in fact frequently condemned by clerics as haram for violating the Koran’s direction that men and women should not alter what Allah has made. This is the same philosophy that prohibits tattoos. I don’t agree with this line of reasoning, but I think we should make whatever alliances we can to try to slow and stop this barbarism in months and years rather than in decades or centuries. Muslim clerics elsewhere in the world must hold some sway over their African counterparts, and they should find it in their best interests to exercise what influence they have. (And not just on the issue of FGM. Imams in the Nigerian state of Kano have managed with their primitivism to resurrect the scourge of polio and export it to Asia, all in just over a year.)

It seems to me that the left in the U.S., with its vaunted legacy of bringing change for the better (ending child labor, fighting for racial equality in the American south, championing the rights of the disabled) has turned impotent, ineffectual when confronted by injustice. What happened? How did the left become so fearful of moral certainty that it stands paralyzed in the face of such outrages? Why does it scramble eagerly toward irrelevance, going into paroxysms over the mishandling of a book, while real, living girls and women suffer and bleed? There are groups fighting against infibulation, issuing press releases and holding conferences. Aren’t they more deserving of America’s attention than Michael Jackson’s tribulations, or Jacques Chirac’s? Or even the offense to a prisoner’s sensibilities at the sight of a Koran on a toilet? What is wrong with us?

For a clear summary of the details of different forms of FGM and the mistreatment of women in Africa, read Jessica Kurtzer’s “Blood of Africa,” a carefully researched review of two books by women who have suffered the practice.

Since archived New York Times op-ed pieces are accessible only by subscription, the best way to find Kristof's piece on rape in Darfur is to Google "Kristof infibulation" and cross your fingers.


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