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20.2.08

I'll call it "Female Genital Thing"

David Schraub is not entirely convinced that he should give up the term "Female Genital Mutilation" in favor of a more neutral one like "Female Genital Excision." He notes Plain(s)feminist's point that the women who undergo what I call (as a gesture of frustration at the naming debate) "Female Genital Thing" often don't see it as mutilation. Nevertheless, he thinks the views of the alleged victims are not dispositive:

(despite what conservative politicians would have you believe) nobody likes to cast themselves in the role of the victim, so people are always going to be resistant to language that fully expresses the degree of violation foisted upon them. So this "name your own oppression" thing, while tempting, may not ultimately be the way to go.


Schraub is right about the fact that oppressed people often deny their oppression, either as a psychological defense mechanism or because of enculturation into the dominant discourse. That does not, however, mean that pushing a loaded term for the oppression is an appropriate response. This is particularly so in a case like Western people pushing "FGM" in which the term-pushers are in a position of power relative to the term-dislikers. To be clear, I agree with Schraub that FGT (both the actual Thing as well as the cultural complex of expectations, pressures, and stereotypes that surround and support it) is a bad thing and it would be beneficial for the women involved if it were to be ended. So the debate is really one of strategy -- how do we, being Westerners, address FGT in a way that produces a net gain with respect to the values of autonomy and equality on the basis of which we find FGT condemnable.

By not just condemning FGT, but putting the condemnation in the name of the practice, Schraub is making a very strong claim. Use of the term "FGM" when many of the women involved don't agree that it's "M" is more severe than calling it by a neutral name then explaining why you think it's bad. It implies that the practice is objectively bad, and makes it so you can't discuss it without constantly pushing the condemnation. This is a damaging thing to do if the people you are confronting with your condemnation inlcude not just the perpetrators (who may need to be strongarmed and shamed into changing their ways) but also the alleged victims that you're trying to win over. The situation is made worse because insisting that non-Western women don't have the right name for the practice they undergo evokes a long history of Westerners claiming objective knowledge of non-Westerners and arrogating to themselves the right to speak for and about non-Westerners. If the problem with FGT is that it limits the equality and autonomy of women who undergo it (or are punished for refusing), then it seems odd to use that same tactic to save them from it.

The further layer of complication here is that FGT has an important role in Western cultures. While Western women may not have Thing done to their genitals, the ritual condemnation of FGT is an important cultural practice through which Westerners affirm their commitment to universal values such as gender equality (and in many cases, affirm a simplistic and ethnocentric form of universalism against a more contextualist variety that is seen as too similar to relativism). This is not necessarily bad -- every culture needs rituals to affirm its values, and I endorse universal values of equality (albeit of a more contextualist strain). Nevertheless, putting condemnation in the name satisfies Westerners' needs with respect to the practice, while potentially shortchanging the needs of women who actually undergo it -- and that may violate our value of universal equality.

The trick, though, is that there are some women who have undergone or escaped the procedure that do think of it as "mutilation." Just like the outside observers with strong moral feelings, they may want their condemnation of it enshrined in the name. It would be easy to say "call it what the particular women you're talking to call it," but it's difficult to limit your audience in that way. So you have to weigh the demands against each other. In general, I think an honest desire to have condemnation taken out of the name trumps an honest desire to have condemnation put into the name, because the former opens up debate while the latter closes it down. And in the case of FGT, the loaded term closes down debate in a way that reinforces another longstanding form of oppression against some of those whose position is being closed out and who the debate-closers are trying to help. (Though I would also say that that same value of autonomy and its implied right to self-expression in turn entails that women who do want to claim the term "mutilation" for what has happened to their own bodies have a right to use that term.)

(The ideas in this post can, I think, be applied mutatis mutandis to Eugene Volokh's resistance to disability activists' preference for the term "disabled" over "handicapped.")

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