As we look around the world today we become aware of just how many states are actively involved in the suppression of others. Many a nation seeks to persecute those it fears, whilst others formulate laws designed to disadvantage those not of the same ethnic make-up, religion or clan. Whilst the world occasionally takes an interest in state sponsored violence, when it comes to physical or psychological abuse that has been shaped by “culture” there is a marked reluctance to speak out and act in a robust and co-ordinated manner. Leaders who in other areas of human endeavour normally have a voice fall silent and are supine either out of fear, resignation or possibly because they too have yet to appreciate that injustice or oppression done to one, is in point of fact done to all. Cultural sensitivities, taboos and the charge of cultural imperialism help silence many who might otherwise raise their voice. As a consequence human wrongs are perpetrated, especially against women and girls and is excused as culture.
To the anthropologist and historian there appears to be a common theme in various cultural acts which would generally be deemed to be wrong, and this is that historically the lion’s share of these have been perpetrated against women and girls. Some in the so-called Liberal West look aghast at much of what still goes on, yet it must be remembered that it is only in relatively recent times that women in Europe ceased to be viewed in legal terms as men’s chattels. Women and girls are still routinely disadvantaged, viewed through a sexual prism and frustrated in their path towards empowerment and the occupying of positions of responsibility.
Many cultures are shaped by a patriarchal outlook that silences the voice of women and frames laws which are to any neutral observer at best ill-conceived and at worst blatantly misogynistic. Those that study such actions and the practices that are protected or hushed up are often told not to interfere as the said practices are deemed part of local culture.
History is replete with cultural practices many of which were aimed at women, either as a control mechanism or to reinforce the dominance of men. To confront, challenge or go against such practices was to go outside the bounds of “accepted norms” and thus to risk censure, social stigma, ostracism and possible retribution and death. Repeatedly it is women and girls that bear the brunt of such ire. Some say that it is not for others to interfere when it comes to culture, well it is only with a degree of interference that change, enlightenment and liberation take place. Going along with the status quo perpetuates the injustice and suffering. Yet change can and does take place.
Once Suttee existed. Suttee was the Hindu funeral custom whereby a wife immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Though never widely practiced in India, suttee was finally outlawed by the British in 1829. In the 70 years since India gained independence no one has contemplated repealing the law. Thankfully suttee had been consigned to history.
In China, for centuries well-born girls endured foot-binding in order to create tiny feet that restricted movement, and were deemed delicate supposedly alluring to men. As early as 1664 the Kangxi Emperor endeavoured to end this hateful practice, but without success. In the early Twentieth Century the Chinese Nationalists sought to suppress this practice, with it finally being outlawed by the Communists in 1949. Foot-binding is now seen as a relic of a decadent past. Sadly, isms of various hues have a habit of polarising opinion, and yet if we are truly objective about it, here is example of Chinese Communism finally putting a stop to a custom that deformed bodies and blighted lives.
It is laws that have brought about change and overtime cultural norms have adapted accordingly. Equally laws, invariably drafted and approved by men, can be responsible for perpetuating misogyny. In the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan ‘vani’ (sometimes known as ‘swara’) is a tribal custom in which blood feuds are settled with forced marriages. This un-Islamic practice sees young girls handed over for a life of misery and unremitting humiliation and abuse in order to pay for the crime of her male relatives. Whilst vani has been illegal since 2005 the local police and much of the judiciary is utterly indifferent to such wrong doing. In 1979 General Zia-ul-Haq promulgated the notorious Hudood Ordinances, with clauses relating to adultery and rape that in effect made the violation of women easier. Those that were the champions and architects of the Hudood Ordinances were religious leaders – men whose perverted interpretation of religious scriptures and teaching appear to delight in repression and violation and harm to those imbued with the capacity to bring forth life.
Men are often indifferent to the plight of women or excuse their inaction by abdicating their responsibility to reduce unnecessary suffering by claiming it is a women’s matter or that women wish to perpetuate the acts concerned. In this regard the most striking example is that of Female Cutting otherwise known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The taboo that often surrounds this subject ensures that men are largely ignorant of it or choose to stay silent. There are rare incidents of men actually recording their thoughts and observations and one of the most powerful written descriptions is by Tom Driberg MP and featured in The Best of Both Worlds (1953). In this passage written whilst Driberg was in The Sudan in 1952 he describes the situation of Sudanese women:
“They are, in fact, mere breeding-machines – but deprived artificially even of much of the pleasure of married love; for the hideous rite of Pharaonic female circumcision, tho’ it is illegal and has been condemned by leading Moslem authorities, is still practiced almost universally. This operation is performed when a girl is six or eight years old: external genital organs are removed, usually by an untrained midwife with an unsterilized razor. The girl’s legs are then strapped together for forty days, to allow the wound to heal, a small hole in the consequent scar tissue being kept open with a straw or match. When she is married a slit is made with a razor to allow intercourse. At the birth of each child, again the scar tissue is slit with a razor for the delivery, and again sewn up.
Sudanese women admit that they do not enjoy this disagreeable procedure – ‘but there it is …it’s the custom.’ The grandmothers are most to blame for its perpetuation: it is they who naggingly insist that the daughters of their daughters (and daughters-in-law) must be circumcised.
One man was married recently and found that his bride had not been circumcised, divorced her at once and sent her home in disgrace, which – as things are – will be lifelong.”
Plenty of men, especially those who shape policy, are squeamish and prefer to turn a blind eye to such activity. They criticise and threaten those who have the temerity to raise and discuss such seemingly delicate and sensitive subjects. Those who speak openly and honestly about such issues as FGM can expect to be denounced and vilified. Genitoglio prevails (genitoglio – noun – embarrassment or verbal awkwardness surrounding topics such as FGM or discussion of issues related to female genitalia) and enables ignorance or misinformation to persist, thus resulting in further suffering.
It should be obligatory for those that choose to wallow in ignorance to watch the film Moolaadé (2004) by the Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène. Here it is not a Western female NGO-wallah or some strident misandrist railing ceaselessly against the Patriarchy, it is an African male playing his part in highlighting human wrongs. In a similar vein the Maasai Cricket Warriors are tireless campaigners against FGM and gender inequality (I recommend the 2015 documentary film about them entitled: Warriors). Thankfully there are other inspirational campaigners such as the redoubtable Edna Adan Ismail who dedicate their lives to tackling genitoglio and working to bring an end to FGM and the suffering that follows in its wake.
When it comes to the well-being and the safety of others, we all have a duty of care. There is much talk about human rights, but before we can deal with rights we must endeavour to end the wrongs. A culture built on wrongs is not a culture at all; it is barbarism masquerading as culture. Let us resolve to end manmade misery and suffering, for by so doing we leave the world a better place than when we first came into it. Courage, my friends, courage.
Mark T. Jones