Mansplaining: the act of a man explaining something to a woman in a degrading manner. Is Western feminism “mansplaining” how equality functions to non-Western countries? Is the act of forcing our cultural norms onto others indeed not an act of colonization? Have we not induced enough pain onto the people of non-western countries: forcing them to take up our religions, forcing our ideals down their throats and now taking those same ideals and trying to pull them out of their culture again?
Now, I was raised in a “Western cultured” European country, perhaps not the first one that comes to mind, and most definitely not the one that induced most of the pain Africans lived through during the colonization period; nevertheless, I feel guilty for my generations colonization. The colonization of culture. The term Cultural Appropriation is being thrown around a lot these days; a term that tackles these matters. Through globalization, it tends to be Western culture that is praised whilst every other culture is degraded. Despite degrading other cultures there seems to be an, not often spoken of, appreciation for some elements within these same cultures. These elements often get claimed as our own, often as a fashion statement: cornrows, Native American head dresses, the Indian third eye, etc.
I sense these cultural challenges in my own home, Iceland. Our language is under siege, English slang is making its way into the language, making us lose some of the culture we have held on too so strongly for hundreds of years. The fashion is changing, family values, and the younger generations do not care to get to know their own culture and country as much as my parents did and their parents before them. Rather, my generation is hooked on the Kardashians and snapchat superstars. These things, our involvement in the Western bubble of thinking that we are the greatest, makes me want to take a part in this conversation. As important home and my culture is for me, for this essay, I choose to venture further. I choose to do this as Iceland is still considered a part of the Western world and a country that is leading the world in its quest for full equality; being the most equal country in the world (Nowakowski). Hence, one of those Western countries “equalitysplaining”. Also, if my own country and culture is getting lost, not through globalization, but rather westernization, how can I claim that “equalitysplaining” other cultures just because I disagree with them is alright?
I am going to be mainly focusing on Sub-Sharan Africa and Sudan. These are the places/countries/regions where a controversial “surgical” procedure is in many cases practiced on young females and the West’s perhaps negative impact. These surgeries are what we in the West have come to know as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM. FGC, you might have heard the term before, but what is it? According to anthropologist Dr. Ellen Gruenbaum there are three different forms of genital cutting: sunna, pharaonic and infibulation (Gruenbaum). These three forms differ in result and invasiveness: Sunna, the least drastic of the three includes only the hood of the clitoris being removed, infibulation involves cutting the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora off and then sewing them shut together leaving only a small hole for both menstruation and urine to go through, and pharaonic places somewhere in between the two.
The Western world main exposure to these practices have been through media: TV-shows, interviews, news-articles and so on. This means that the media has a strong influence on how we think of FGC. When media chooses to refer to FGC as Female Circumcision (FC) rather than FGM, sunna might be what people think of. This is the procedure that is the most relatable to the word circumcision in the Western world; circumcision on males is for example widely practiced, culturally and religiously throughout the United States. While if the media speaks of FGM, forms such as infibulation will rather come into people’s minds. This automatically gives an idea of a more “savage” lifestyle than the generally accepted way of living in the Western world. This leads to Western feminists – feminists who are ignorant of the cultural significance that FGM has in these societies – feel as if they need to step in and stop this “barbaric” behavior. This on the other hand might have more of a backlash to the fight for equality and to stop the procedures than they might expect. This in my opinion is what could be called a form of cultural colonization; even though the land is no longer being taken away from African Natives, their culture is still being questioned without any thought given to try and understand it.
Through Western media we are taught that these practices are wrong. I have never seen anything written on FGM that did not only focus on the women’s lack of choice and the pain that the procedures puts them through. This is very apparent from the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) informative website on the matter. Under their “key facts”, they state how the surgeries have only negative impacts on a girl’s health. A statement that cannot be undermined, but they choose to ignore the cultural impact that not going through with the surgeries might have. How the girls might be exiled form their own communities if they choose to not go through with the procedure. This is by no means to state that the surgeries should continue; but perhaps, as Dr. Gruenbaum mentions, this is not the most pressing issue that is on the Sub-Saharan-African-feminist’s minds (Gruenbaum), and who can blame them? This exact argument is seen within various other scholar’s works, such as sociologist Dr. Lisa Wade who sates
…for many women who are part of communities where cutting occurs, FGCs are far from their most challenging problem. Some resent Westerners who focus on sex while ignoring widespread poverty and disease (often a direct result of contemporary and historical Western exploitation). (Wade)
This is further supported by Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya – a Kenyan woman who was circumcised as a teenager – who spoke of her experiences with FGM with the Marc Fennel, an interviewer for The Feed SBS Viceland. She tells him of how deciding to adhere to her cultural norms gave her a platform to make a contract with her father. This led to her receiving an education – becoming the first Maasai woman to receive a PhD – and later return and establish a school for girls in her village (Ntaiya). Through this, along with Dr. Gruenbaum and Dr. Wade’s arguments, we might assume that education might be more important to these women at this point in history than stopping FGC.
Looking through the timeline (Wade) of Western feminist scholar’s work and their mentions of FGC we can see how thoughts have developed on the issue here in the West. 1976 is when the term FGM was coined by sociologist Frank Hosken (Wade), as he believed it described the procedure better than Female Circumcision, a term used up till then. She also believed that all women should join together and form a global sisterhood (where my thoughts on cultural colonization come to mind). Firm beliefs about how African women were not able to protect themselves from FGC, and that Western influence was needed to support them started coming up between some sociologist scholars. Meanwhile anthropologists believed that an alliance between Western and non-Western women needed to be established to support the women and educate them on their choices rather than telling them that their culture was barbaric and wrong (Wade). These thoughts have developed further today, and we can find both views in scholarly articles. Nevertheless, only one discussed in the media today, the one that teaches us that the practice is barbaric and unnecessary.
Even though popular media chooses to only focus on the health risks that the procedure has on the young girls, anthropologist scholars work give different ideas. If you choose to dig deeper you will be able to see more culturally sensitive descriptions of the reasoning behind the surgeries. Through books such as the Female Genital Circumcision Controversy by Dr. Ellen Gruenbaum one can reach a different understanding of the procedures. Not only do works such as Dr. Gruenbaum’s focus on the health implications; they also try and consider the cultural significance that the procedure has. Dr. Gruenbaum, who focused most of her research in Sudan reaches deep into the community of the tribes she lives amongst during her ethnographic research. Reading through her material, one can see that these women – who are often portrayed as weak and not able to fend for themselves – are fighting the system from within, on their own terms. Why are these not the stories we see in the popular media? If we are to support these women, would this not be the stories we should see? Stories such as the one told by Dr. Ntaiya? Stories of women making changes within their own communities because they believe these changes should happen not because someone else comes and tells them how they should lead their lives. I believe that we do not see these stories because we, as Western self-proclaimed heroes cannot place ourselves in the “heroic shoes” of going on trips to Africa – notice how I use the continent as a whole, not individual countries – on mission trips to save these “poor” girls. Because of the Western believe that our culture is superior we feel a need to go out and “integrate” other cultures through “globalization”; those are the words we choose to use, but perhaps words such as “destroy” and “appropriation” would be more fitting, as globalization is on Western terms. In a modern society, at least the one we live in today, there are few ways we can prevent this. One of the best ways would be to educate ourselves, to understand where people different from ourselves are coming from and how we might support them in their own fights and how they might support us in ours. Rather than believing that only we can help them and that they have nothing to offer us.
Despite our thoughts on the procedures being harmful and barbaric – my own thoughts included – is it really our place to comment? Communities where these practices are common the procedures are seen as a rite of passage, a preparation for a girl to become a woman and to prepare her for marriage. These procedures are, not surprisingly, most common in patriarchal communities and the procedure is seen as a way of controlling a woman’s sexual activity later in life; it is an encouragement to not cheat on your husband as sex will not be pleasurable for you as a woman. This is extremely unfair. Why is a woman’s sexuality something that should be under the control of first her mother or father that choose to allow the procedure to be done and then later her husband? (Gruenbaum) Well, believe it or not, it is not only here in the West that these thoughts come up, many African women – women that have gone through these procedures and understand the cultural significance they have – are constantly working to abolish these traditions and have been doing so for longer than you might think. Different groups around Sub-Saharan-Africa have been finding ways to battle FGC, both politically and also through education, such as the organization Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, where education and new traditions are taught and offered by local women.
You might think – like me – what can I do? According to most of the research I have seen unfortunately there is not much we can do except leaving culture to reshape itself or offer financial support to organizations such as Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. Western scholars have been trying to analyze why Western efforts to end such practices are often unsuccessful and both Dr. Frances A. Althaus and Dr. Gruenbaum come up with the same argument: cultural imperialism, or as I have been referring to it, cultural colonization.
Efforts to eliminate female circumcision have often been unsuccessful because opponents of the practice ignored its social and economic context. In some cases, external intervention has strengthened the resolve of communities to continue their genital cutting rituals as a way of resisting what they perceive as cultural imperialism. (Althaus)
If you are not satisfied by this answer, then maybe, just maybe, it is time for you to look at your own action. Are you guilty of some form of cultural appropriation or believes of your culture being superior? Neither which is horrible, I am guilty of both myself. Perhaps you might just want to change how you express these things: do not get a Native American headdress tattooed on your forearm without understanding the significance, do not claim to know more about someone’s culture than they do, do explore other cultures, do appreciate them and celebrate them, but do so in as respectful manner as you can. Let us try and do the same with serious matters such as FGC. Let us not try and educate someone on the best way for them to change their culture, let us not claim to understand it if we have not researched it or lived with it, let us educate ourselves before we speak. And hopefully by educating ourselves, we might become a force for change, we might be the one publishing a new article, conducting an interview, doing ethnographic research. As we say in Icelandic, “batnandi manni er best að lifa” or “a man who chooses to better themselves leads a better life”.
Althaus, Frances A. “Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights?” International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (1997): 130. Online Article.
Grey, Sam. “Decolonising Feminism: Aboriginal Women and the Global ‘Sisterhood’.” Enweyin: The Way We Speak Vol. III (2004). online document.
Gruenbaum, Ellen. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Print.
Nowakowski, Kelsey. “Where in the World are Women and Men Most – and Least – Equal?” National Geographic January 2017: 28-29. Article.
Ntaiya, Kakenya. The Feed SBS Viceland; genital circumcision Marc Fennell. 9 MArch 2017. Video Interview.
Wade, Lisa. “The Evolution of Feminst Thought About Female Genital Cutting.” 2009. socwomen.org. Fact Sheet. 10 April 2017.
World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation. February 2017. Fact Sheet. 10 April 2017.
 Here I am referring to countries where homosexuality was once allowed if not embraced, but during the colonization period, Christian gospel that was spread taught that it was wrong and punished people for it, making it socially harmful to act out on your homosexuality. Today many of these countries, flex. Uganda have a strong anti-gay agenda; proofing my argument that this force of colonization has changed their culture. The same people that sparked these changes are now telling them that these believes – believes that they were taught to embrace – are wrong.
 “Festival wear,” look up Coachella if you want to see examples of this.
 Globalization on Western terms.
 I will try to use the more neutral term Female Genital Cutting or FGC despite my own biases and tendency to want to use Female Genital Cutting.
 These are the definitions given by one woman, not all tribes will use these nor are they fully agreed upon by all, Gruenbaum herself not being able to expand on her definitions being used for the same procedures between 2 or more tribes.
 if she went through the surgery her father was going to allow her to continue her schooling.