reappropriate

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Importance of Being Earnest

Excerpt from Asian American Women: Why We Are Everywhere By Helen Zia, AAV Columnist Every now and then I am asked, Is there an Asian American women's movement? My answer is always the same: Yes, of course there is. I can answer confidently, not because there is a single, monolithic women's movement - there is none, Asian American or otherwise. Rather, my certainty comes in knowing of the countless dedicated Asian American women who are working to improve the lives of women and girls. The question reminds me of the days I worked at Ms. Magazine, when Gloria Steinem would say that "the women's movement is simply women moving." At Ms. we referred to women's movements, not "The Women's Movement." This latter term is so often equated with an exclusionary "white women's club" that many Asian American sisters decline to call themselves "feminist" even if they espouse a feminist agenda.
Do I have the right to call myself "feminist"? I adopted this identity late in my politically aware life -- for a long time I was hesitant to suggest I might be a "feminist". The popular perception of feminism is that of radical, extremist, bra-burning feminists, one as much grounded in fact as the belief that all Muslims are terrorists. When this blog "came out of the closet" as a feminist blog, all of my friends were surprised -- none of them could reconcile their perception of me with their image of feminism. Nonetheless, I worried about my own feminist credentials: as a teen, I was a hopeless romantic who enjoyed the benefits of chivalry and believed there were some differences between the genders that had to be recognized. Even after I became an APIA activist, I hesitated -- feminism had always had the face of a white woman. Could I, a woman of colour, share that identity? Helen Zia highlights just how much at odds her experience with feminism has been with her Asian American identity:
I know many of the ugly stories by heart: how Irene Natividad, a Filipina who was elected president of the powerful National Women's Political Caucus in 1985, didn't get the support of "liberal" caucuses because she represented the "wrong image" for the group. How Asian American leaders and other women of color were rarely asked to attend strategy sessions for national rallies and marches, yet would be conveniently remembered at show time. Even when intentions are noble, race gets in the way. It did in 1989 when Dong Lu Chen won a sentence of probation after killing his wife by pounding her head with a claw hammer; his attorney argued that this was culturally acceptable behavior in China. White feminists joined in our outrage, but then called for an end to cultural defense arguments-something Asian American women could not support. I have my share of stories. At Ms. we debated whether the South Asian feminist mother and daughter presented the "right image" for the cover. This would never have been a question had they been white; at least the cover stayed. Or the time Jimmy Breslin attacked a Korean American reporter, calling her a "little yellow dog" and a "slant-eyed cunt" when she criticized his columns as sexist. I was disappointed that few of my Ms. sisters or other feminists condemned his obscene sexist and racist remarks. One of my coworkers, an African American, merely shrugged and said, "It's not my ox that getting gored."
It was only after I began to understand community-building and activism that I realized that there is no feminist credential, no course that must be taken, no book that must be read. Being part of a political community is about beliefs, not about how much you know. I am a leftist because I lean further to the Left than I do to the Right: I believe in larger government control but only so long as those controls are used to protect civil liberties and progress us towards a more equal society. I support affirmative action, welfare, governmental grants funnelled into the arts and sciences, and increased taxes for the wealthy to pay for programs to improve the lots of the poor. My beliefs are leftist in nature, but I'm not one to mislead; I am not a registered Democrat. I still need to check a website to keep the Constitution and the Amendments straight. I don't regularly read essays on policy and politics. I couldn't really tell you what John Adams said, nor can I even place all 50 states on a blank map of America. I have never voted in a national election (neither in the States nor in Canada) in my entire life. As an APIA activist, I might be a little more well-versed in the book-smarts. I try to keep abreast of the woefully inadequate selection of APIA literature and consider myself a minor scholar of APIA history. I know a little something about Wu, Zia, Korematsu, and Said. My copy of The "Four Prisons" by Glenn Omatsu is sitting next to my computer as I type this. But, I don't think any of that makes me an activist -- my activism comes from my beliefs and my actions. I believe passionately in the equal rights of Asian Americans, and when I see injustice against my people, I just can't sit idly by and let it pass. I feel the need to do my part. No amount of reading would ever have given me that gut feeling. As a feminist, I know that my understanding of feminist theory is meager at best. I know little about the history of the movement, less about the major players. And yet, I think of myself as a feminist, not because I may or may not embrace the words of Andrea Dworkin, but because I believe that women deserve equality in all its forms. I believe my feminism comes from the passion in my gut, not the workings of my head. Hooligan and I were recently discussing the role of theory in community-building. He relayed to me a discussion he was having the other day with a friend of his about the need for more theory and literature in the APIA movement. This friend even went so far as to suggest that one could not build an APIA activist community without more theory. This person maintained that one could not call themselves a true activist of the Asian American community until one had read Said cover-to-cover, and otherwise, one didn't truly understand the movement. The role of theory has cropped up in the feminist movement, as well. A weakness of the early feminist movement was its inaccessibility to working women and working women of colour in particular. Feminism rose out of all-women book clubs, and that tinge of intellectualism remains within the movement, in my opinion, to its detriment. Political movements can only effect change when its members are passionate about what they believe in, when they can make their membership not only swell in number but unilaterally march behind a single rallying cry. Social change has only ever happened when a significant minority of people, of all walks of life, felt so strongly about an issue that they were willing to sacrifice their jobs, their comforts, even their freedoms to take to the streets and protest. As the Democrats found out this past election, intellectual snobbery has never been able to cultivate that kind of powerful emotional response. For that reason, I believe it's crucial to discover your beliefs on your own, through the power of your own mind, before trying to place a label upon yourself. But if you find a label you embrace, it becomes almost like a religious experience -- you simply know you belong to that community and your beliefs alone are proof of your membership. A month or two ago, kaede approached me with concerns about writing her own political blog and I told her what I continue to believe now: there's no need to knock the power of your own analysis. Just because you may not have read up on every single thing ever written on a subject doesn't make your opinions on an issue or current event any more or less valid. Just develop your own perspective and write it in your own voice. People like Steinem, Zia, and Okihiro aren't smarter or more correct than you, they've simply had more time to think about it. Obviously, theory has its own role in a community. I've always maintained that we need more thinkers within the field of APIA studies, willing to postulate models about our community and how we might strengthen it. But I would never suggest that the everyday activist must read or even care about such things -- if they are truly passionate about APIA activism, they will be as valuable a member of the community as any thinker, and only with that passion will they take it upon themselves to read the books. Reading a book is valuable, certainly, but only as a way to understand your own views -- I believe too much in the sanctity of one's own opinions to suggest one should read a book to find out how to think. Hooligan's friend argued that one had to read Said to be an APIA activist. I would argue that you have to be an APIA activist before truly being able to understand or care about Said. Rather than place so much emphasis on book-smarts, and guarding membership into activist communities so jealously, Democrats, feminists, race activists all need to find a way to stimulate and energize the working class so that the movement can progress out of the Ivory Tower and away from academia. They need to learn to become accessible to the less educated, those who are too busy to read obscure essays, those who want to understand the ramifications of social change on practical terms. Birth control, housewivery, and payscales may seem too boring and nitty gritty for those interested in the connection between pornography and rape, but these are issues the average woman can understand, and more importantly, care about. It's nothing to turn one's nose up over if a self-described feminist finds the most relevant issues about the feminist movement is Roe v. Wade. It's when we who march against those concrete issues that we make a difference.
I welcome the day that our Asian American brothers, fathers, husbands and sons will do the right thing and fight sex discrimination with energy equal to their fervor against racism. In the meantime, Asian American women aren't exactly waiting for Mu Lan. We've created organizations and movements tackling violence against women, "mail order brides," sweatshop labor, health care, the environment and every conceivable issue. We are in the forefront of global efforts against sex trafficking, sex tourism, forced migrant labor and other world concerns. Asian American feminists led the battle to protect battered immigrant women from deportation for leaving abusive relationships; they won a victory for all of us in the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Organizations of Asian American women continue to emerge--I learned of a new one just last week. All of this is why I say, without hesitation, Yes, of course there's an Asian American women's movement. We are everywhere, because we have to be.
I'm a long way from having called myself an "anti-feminist" during a teenaged conversation with Rain roughly eight years ago -- my belief now, and the way I reconciled the racial issues I had with the feminist movement, is the understanding that it is my own opinions that define me as a feminist, not the feminist movement that grants that label. I now believe that almost every woman is, to some degree or another, a closet feminist. The problem is that only a fraction of women are willing to call themselves so. Not because they don't believe, but are afraid that those beliefs aren't enough. That, above all else, has to change. (read the full text of Helen Zia's article here: Asian American Women: Why We Are Everywhere)

16 Comments:

Anonymous different anonymous said...

"Reading a book is valuable, certainly, but only as a way to understand your own views -- I believe too much in the sanctity of one's own opinions to suggest one should read a book to find out how to think."

Agreed. But that doesn't mean that books aren't a great way to inform your views. It's very true that one can be an activist of any stripe without book-learning, or without any knowledge whatsoever of a movement's past. In that sense, it can be a very personal, unique thing.

But to be ignorant of the history, and of all the facts of a movement means that one is likely to become an ignorant activist (read: blow-hard). If one truly cares about a movement, cause, or ideal, then it behooves one to learn more about it than the vague whisps one is likely to pick up through unfocused media.

Case in point: you seem fairly determined that it's up to the ignorant racial majority to inform themselves about the sensitivities, customs and issues related to minorities, without any help from the latter. If not for self-education through books (whose perspective is still just one point of view, and not likely to be terribly nuanced), what is left for these people to turn to?

7/22/2005 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

D.A., with all possible respect, who cares if the mainstream is uninformed about the "sensitivities, customs and issues related to minorities"?

I don't, because memorizing any kind of static race etiquette does nothing to attack the pervasive dehumanization of race prejudice.

Further, I read nothing in Jenn's post that asserts a preference for zero race theory; she's not promoting anti-intellectualism. Rather, I read the post as persuading activists to refrain from feeling inadequate if they aren't professor-level well-read in whatever cause they are fighting for. Activism should be about action first - let the academics use theory to explain and justify social movement action later.

Of course books are important, however, modern social movements are filled with people who believe they are the experts on sexism or racism just because they've bought and read every book bell hooks has ever written. That's just not helpful.

Personally, I'm tired of White leftists who feel like just because they read the Daniel Moynihan report that they know all about the Black family, or the pressures young Black men face in inner-cities. I'm sick of people who read The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Notes of a Native Son who then come to me to explain what Black people should do to achieve economic and political parity with Whites.

Frankly, to butt in and answer your question D.A., I don't think the so-called "ignorant racial majority" should inform themselves on anything. I expect all of my fellow citizens to examine how their individual prejudices harm a system that is supposed to provide equal civil responsibilities and benefits to all Americans. Racism, among other things, impedes that.

No one has to read a book to figure that out.

7/22/2005 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

uhm, DA, I never said that one shouldn't read a book or have no understanding of race theory. I said that having an understanding of race theory wasn't necessary to consider oneself part of a movement.

in other words... i, like, agree with you when you say: "But to be ignorant of the history, and of all the facts of a movement means that one is likely to become an ignorant activist (read: blow-hard). If one truly cares about a movement, cause, or ideal, then it behooves one to learn more about it than the vague whisps one is likely to pick up through unfocused media."

But I think that if you care about a movement, that's enough to make you part of the ranks of an activist community, and with that caring will be motivation to read up. I'm arguing against the idea that only be learning theory can you call yourself a part of the community.

And as far as the uneducated masses -- if they're going to be a part of a movement, they will do it because they have experienced something to make them identify and care with that community (obviously, we're not people born with an existing identity and thus reason to care, as with racial or gender minorities). That might come from interacting with that community, or from stumbling across a book, or even a blog. If they end up reading up on a community and therefore become interested and begin acting on behalf of that community, that's great -- but it's not a prerequisite like so many activists seem to think because it does very little to energize a grassroot movement.

Like I said in the post, it's about beliefs... being a feminist, a leftist, or a vegan even, is first and foremost about beliefs. Sure, knowing the history will help you defend those beliefs, but I won't call into question a person's authenticity if they don't have access to books and history. To ascribe too much importance to being well-read is to place too much intellectual elitism into an activist community. Not everyone has the education or idle time to be reading up -- woul you argue that they are therefore less of a member of a given community?

7/22/2005 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

Great article, Jenn. My introduction to feminist theories/writings has served to broaden and hone my views, but I've always thought of myself as a feminist. In my mind, the only pre-requisite to feminism (or, like you said, any movement) is a belief in what the movement stands for (in this case, gender equality).

I do have some concerns/questions about part of the article that you quoted (but didn't address specifically):
...his attorney argued that this was culturally acceptable behavior in China. White feminists joined in our outrage, but then called for an end to cultural defense arguments-something Asian American women could not support.

Unless I'm reading it wrong, Zia is saying that Asian American women cannot support ending cultural defence arguments. After saying this, though, she goes on in her article to critique Asian American males for not critiquing the situation. I'm not sure if she's saying that it's because it was the white feminists calling for it that they could not support it (ie. cultural critique needs to come from the inside, not the outside), or that cultural defence arguments should be a valid defence, or something else entirely. I guess I just don't understand something that Zia takes to be a given - why is ending the "cultural defense" something that Asian American women could not support?

7/22/2005 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Honestly, tekanji, I'm not too clear on both the case that Zia is referencing or her logic behind her stance on cultural defenses. I personally don't feel ending cultural defenses is a good idea, because I think it is something of a culturally imperialistic stance to take because it is usually applied unevenly across cultures, i.e. the cultural/religious beliefs that standard scientific medicine cannot be used to cure all diseases is frowned upon, but a culture of circumcision is not considered bizarre (so long as we're talking about male circumcision).

i think what zia is trying to argue is that, as asian american women with a unique cultural background different from american culture, that as asian americans we can not argue against the cultural defense, whereas in that particular case, as feminists, we could. and i think (or hope) that she's drawing attention to that problem in order to highlight how feminists of colour are at odds with white feminists.

but you're right, she's contradictory in saying that asian males could've or should've condemned the situation given the problem of the cultural defense. personally, i see no reason why the attitudes of asian men in that situation should've been any cause for disappointment. outrage, maybe, since it was yet another example of the sexism of many asian cultures, but why should our rationale for organization and protest be the apathy of asian men? i thought that was actually the weakest part of the article, so i didn't cite it.

7/22/2005 05:53:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

I personally don't feel ending cultural defenses is a good idea, because I think it is something of a culturally imperialistic stance to take because it is usually applied unevenly across cultures

But isn’t that sort of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I agree that it is often applied unevenly, but I think that instead of saying that we shouldn’t fight the cultural defence argument, we should instead begin the fight first and foremost with our own culture.

I hear you on your Western medicine and male circumcision examples. The good news, at least on the circumcision front, is that slowly the practice is being called into question – by those who had the procedure done to them only to grow up and wish it hadn’t been done, by those who either never had it done to them or had it (and are happy) but who feel that it’s not their choice to make for their son, by those who think that the risk that the procedure will go horrifically wrong (though small) is unacceptable for the perceived gain. The health myths that have helped keep the procedure in hospitals are being debunked. It is, so far, only the “tradition” that refuses to die.

7/23/2005 11:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

D.A., with all possible respect, who cares if the mainstream is uninformed about the "sensitivities, customs and issues related to minorities"?

James, aren't you rather contradicting yourself with this statement, given the fact that you've mentioned repeatedly your stance that you wish that more people would get off their high horse and actually find out about you and your culture? I believe that DA is right. How else are they gonna do it other than going to the source ie the people that they wanna know about? Who else are going to tell them the TRUTH about their culture rather than some twisted rubbish that is so common these days.

I am getting as sick as I am sure Jenn is about the stereotypical anime-geeks who think that being an anime fan makes them an automatic expert on all things Japanese. It's a part of Japanese culture, but not the be all and end all of Japan. Someone's gotta tell them but they're not going to listen to any white-face who has lived there for years, they're more likely to listen to an actual Japanese person. That is why I bore my friends with questions about their culture when I find something puzzling in a book or an anime or whatever that people seem to take as fact when it's nothing anywhere near.

It is my belief that the only one who can tell the truth about what you are is you. Not anyone else. That doesn't give anyone the right to get in your face. Far from it, but it does give you the right to tell them off when they're being prats and set them straight, in whatever words you choose. Choosing not to do so makes you just as much a part of the problem as they are and perpetuates the stereotype even more.

Jenn....hon, I really strongly disagree with not ending cutural defense. I believe that the sacredness of the person and their right to live without fear and their right to live period far outweighs any concerns about imperialistic behaviour. Not everything is so cut and dried, but most cultural defenses are so pathetic to begin with, and are usually not cultural but what we perceive as their cultural traditions, which is what they rely on.

How can it be culturally defensible to kill someone when you get pissed off? How can it be culturally defensible to mutilate someone? To me there is no excuse for it at all and that defense should be struck off all the legal books of any countries with rules of law. Cultural defense is slowly being disallowed here with laws that prevent the kidnapping of women (and men) to take back to the home countries and forcibly marry them off against their will. It's only a matter of time before they get around to the rest of it.

7/24/2005 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

kaede, i agree that cultural defense is a tricky issue, and probably one for a different post, but things certainly get tough when it comes to murder or rape. but what about situations in which tradition has dictated that parents arrange marriage for their children? what about situations in which religion dictates that certain medicines not be used? what about the jewish tradition of male circumcision?

i'm not saying that in every instance, it's okay to use the cultural defense, but i do believe that it is warranted in some instances. i think that's why zia makes the point to say that the asian american feminists denounced the murder but were careful not to denounce cultural defense -- because in other situations, cultural defense is important to immigrants and people of strong cultural traditions who find their practices at odds with the law. immigrating to a country shouldn't mean the complete erasure of cultural practices, and while no one is looking to defend murder through culture, a line must be drawn somewhere between destruction of culture and the law of the adopted country.

7/25/2005 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

(as an addendum to the above)

for example, muslim cultures ask that muslims pray 5 times a day. but existing labour laws might allow companies to prohibit taking that time. muslim cultures demand that women wear veils, but most companies demand that women be bare-headed.

according to the law, muslims have no defense to keep their cultural practices, and so may be justifiably fired. is that fair?

7/25/2005 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

I mean as in using the cultural defense in cases of law, not in other issues where it's not so imperative. Especially when those issues contain abuse of others in the facts.

One of the things people forget is that while it may be argued it's a religious thing for Muslim women to be veiled, it is not. It is cultural. Most employers are sensitive enough to that that they will usually come to some sort of arrangement. If not, of course they should be sued. Labour laws are becoming more and more enlightened to allow for this type of thing. For example, the RBS has taken into account the sensitivities of one of my husband's colleagues and has installed a spare room as a prayer room where he can go and pray as and when he needs. He is also allowed time off for religious holidays, the same as all the others, and is allowed to work when the Christian guys are off in lieu (or however that works). More and more forward thinking companies are doing this and it's becoming enshrined in law that they do so.

These aren't the issue though, the issue is that it needs to be seen that they can't just go off and allow everything because it might offend someone's culture where it is so obviously wrong as to be ridiculous. It may not be up to me as to decide that, but I would think it's a lot easier to take it on a case by case basis, rather than opting out of doing anything at all.

7/25/2005 01:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

I think that's a huge difference between Canada and the UK and the US. Canada and the UK both have strong laws that protect these sorts of things, whereas in the US, it seems like there are strong laws against it. People choose to live there, though, which is their right. They choose to vote (or not, whatever the case may be) and thus they get who the majority votes for. These people are responsible for making the laws, and if you want more culturally responsible law-making, get more culturally responsible politicians in there who you can trust. A tall order, to be sure, in the US, but I am sure if you have enough patience it can be done. I don't like the current attitude of a lot of people everywhere that their votes don't count - that is what gives people like Blair and Bush their power. It's simply disgusting....

7/25/2005 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

Laws, by nature, are tricky things. Even murder without cultural considerations is not as cut and dry as “x killed y”. In fact, in order to help alleviate the “grey area” problems there are many classifications: manslaughter, first degree, second degree, etc.

but what about situations in which tradition has dictated that parents arrange marriage for their children?

There’s nothing wrong with arranged marriage. However, I would contend that if one or both of the children disagreed with the marriage that they should legally have the right not to be forced into it. Their bodily autonomy should supersede the wishes of their parents.

what about situations in which religion dictates that certain medicines not be used?

Again, I think that it comes down to an issue of bodily autonomy. I think that an individual should (and, as far as I know, in this society often does) have the right to refuse any treatment that they find objectionable.

However, the cases that I’ve heard about (mostly with Christian Scientists, who don’t believe in doctors – Western or otherwise) involve children. Should a parent have the right to let their child die because of their beliefs? I’m not so sure about that.

what about the jewish tradition of male circumcision?

And, one more time: bodily autonomy. I believe that a grown man should be able to decide that he wants a circumcision. However, I don’t agree that it’s the parents’ right to inflict this on their children. In fact, I believe this sort of authority over a child’s body is very harmful and is more broad reaching than male circumcision, or ear piercing, or what have you, but is also part of why many intersexed children are forced into the female gender.

immigrating to a country shouldn't mean the complete erasure of cultural practices

I completely agree. However, I don’t think that advocating the end to “cultural defence arguments” necessitates that. There’s a difference between wanting the right to practice one’s culture and wanting to use one’s culture as an excuse to harm another person.

I don’t think that everyone who is up in arms about women’s treatment in Iraq, or the gender selective abortions in China, or those kinds of things sees the difference. There are people out there who think that their culture is the only valid culture. But we can’t let the bigots define the frame.

according to the law, muslims have no defense to keep their cultural practices, and so may be justifiably fired. is that fair?

Of course not. It’s not even constitutional – freedom of religion and all that. But, there’s a difference between being allowed to practice one’s religion/culture, which the people in your examples are being denied, and being forced into that religion/culture.

Forcibly making another person do what you want them to do, in my opinion, will always be wrong. I don’t care if it’s Muslims in some countries forcing their women to wear head coverings or schools forcing their Muslim students not to wear them: it’s wrong.

And, I guess, that’s why I don’t support the “cultural defence argument” as it is. I cannot support anything that takes away people’s right to choose what’s best for them.

7/25/2005 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

oh, i agree, we're not talking about situations in which anyone is forced into a culture or cultural practice (unless we're talking about children, in which case, again, it gets legally murky). as far as muslim veils and shawls at work, I think this was a real case -- and i can't remember, but i don't think the laws sided with the muslims...

7/25/2005 03:37:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

A post that's semi on-topic: FGM story on tonight's news

It's discussing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), aka. Female Genital Cutting (FGC), aka. female circumcision.

In this case, a woman is requesting a visa to stay in America (or I think it’s America) because if she is deported back to Africa she will be forced to undergo FGM. FGM is an accepted cultural practice in many African states. There have been cases where it's been outlawed and the women have cut themselves in protest.

Yet, here is one woman who does not want to be cut but who may be forced to if not allowed to stay in the country. Is the African culture she comes from above cultural critique because some women may arguably choose to undergo this procedure? Is it a valid argument to say that, since it is her native culture that this woman must undergo the procedure even if it is against her will?

That’s what the cultural defence argument does at its extreme. It is not about defending a person's right to practice their beliefs, but about defending a person/culture's right to force their beliefs on others. I don't accept it when Bush and his beloved Wingnuts do it, so why would I accept it when the only difference is that the culture trying to do it is not my own?

7/25/2005 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

tekanji, i agree with you about FGM, but what do we do if the person is fighting to be allowed to do something for herself if she wants to? in this case, this is a woman who is seeking refugee status, and I don't think anyone is using the cultural defense argument here. The legal arguments would be that FGM doesn't necessarily constitute threat to one's life as is required for refugee status.

"Is the African culture she comes from above cultural critique because some women may arguably choose to undergo this procedure? Is it a valid argument to say that, since it is her native culture that this woman must undergo the procedure even if it is against her will?"

I agree with you that FGM is not something that should be accepted, but as we join the protest against FGM, we have to be cognizant of the cultural issues -- even though FGM is a pretty cut-and-dry issue as far as what should and shouldn't be legally acceptable, our culture is still applying our cultural values onto another culture. In FGM, personal choice is pretty obvious -- if a woman doesn't want to undergo FGM, than the legal issues are pretty straightforward from our cultural point of view, but what if the woman is choosing to allow herself to be circumcized/mutilated? the same reasoning we are using here to intervene on behalf of the woman who doesn't want it to happen to her would require us to intervene on behalf of a woman who does, because we are protesting the practice itself, not its use against the unwilling.

while I wouldn't say that we should just leave the women out to dry in the FGM situation, I don't think it's right to completely disregard cultural defense in every situation either. I think there are many instances (that aren't life or death) in which the value of maintaining distinct cultural practices and traditions must be, at least, considered.

7/25/2005 04:14:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

what do we do if the person is fighting to be allowed to do something for herself if she wants to?

I believe in the right to bodily autonomy, even if that means doing something to yourself that is harmful. In many Western countries, people engage in all forms of body modifications. It can be as innocuous as earrings, but can also travel into the realm of splitting body parts such as the tongue and penis. Some people find any kind of non-traditional body mod a form of “mutilation”, others feel that they should have the right to change their body however they want to, even if it may be painful or risky. Then there’s plastic surgery – again, it can be as innocuous as fixing damage from an injury all the way down to women getting a dangerous surgery known as “labiaplasty” because their vaginas don’t look like the ones in the porn movies their husbands watch (100% serious on that one, google the procedure if you think I’m exaggerating).

My stance, again, is that a grown human being should have the right to do whatever they want to do to themselves. Even if it’s a practice that I, personally, don’t understand or like.

I think there are many instances (that aren't life or death) in which the value of maintaining distinct cultural practices and traditions must be, at least, considered.

I think that we’ve come to arguing semantics. I believe that since the “cultural defence argument” is most often publicly dragged out when it is a matter of forcing one’s belief on another (whether it be murder, imposed dress code in foreign countries, etc) that it overshadows the less publicized use of the term when fighting for cultural freedom. I also think that the “cultural defence argument” is seen as an outsider perspective and therefore never thought to be applied to our own culture. For me, those are two deathblows to the term because it will forever carry the negative connotations generated by those applications.

Instead, I think we should frame it as “freedom of choice”, “freedom to practice one’s culture”, “right to bodily autonomy”, etc. Words that can, and should, be applied in the context of our own culture before we apply it to cultures we are not a part of. If we see it as an “us” and a “them” discourse, we will never make the links between the culture we’re critiquing and the critiques that need to be made in our culture.

7/26/2005 01:24:00 PM  

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