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FGM and Slavery: An eerie similarity

24 October 2016 at 23:11 | 3161 views


By Dr. Hassan Sisay, Emeritus professor (History), California state university, Chico, California.

Defenders of female genital mutilation (FGM) are currently using arguments which are reminiscent of slave holders in the ante-bellum Southern United States. Despite documented atrocities meted out to the slaves, pro-slavery advocates continued to employ deceitful language to protect, prolong and stifle any attempts at reforming the institution.

Often, they utilized religion to justify human bondage and were openly adamant in their disingenuous repeated assertions that slaves were well fed and properly taken care off. Besides, in an all-out effort to deprive the slaves of any semblance of humanity and self-respect, pro-slavery supporters spewed obnoxious and patently false assertions about slavery such as: that society needed a lower class for the upper class to rest upon, that slaves benefitted from enslavement because they were not suitable for other work, that slaves were property, not human beings. More importantly however, American slave owners also used cultural relativism and tradition as primary arguments to maintain slavery which they said “had existed throughout history and was the natural state of mankind.”

Consequently, “Tradition and Culture” were effectively employed to perpetuate a discredited, inhumane and horrible social institution which wreaked havoc and certain death on millions of innocent people. From the outset, pro-slavery advocates insisted that Africans were inferior to whites, and therefore slavery would be beneficial to them. The above erroneous and self-serving sentiment provided an implied and convenient justification for the enslavement of Africans. This approach is often referred to as “justifying the situation,” and it happens all the time.

Simply put, human beings are capable of justifying any actions no matter how absurd they may be. As a young boy, I had a similar experience with a sadistic uncle and serial abuser of children, who seemed to derive much pleasure from inflicting pain on others. This guy had zero compunctions about others and was always full of denials and completely incapable of admitting to wrong deeds. On one occasion, he landed a sudden slap on my face for no good reason. With tears flowing down my face, I asked him why he did that. He responded unemotionally: When you saw my hand approaching, why didn’t you move your face?”

To reiterate, people are capable of justifying anything, anytime, anywhere. But that does not make their actions right. As the highly acclaimed Russian writer and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stated in the Gulag Archipelago, “It is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions." For example, a prominent American Politician Senator John C. Calhoun of North Carolina, who also served as Secretary of state and Vice president of the United States, described slavery as a “positive good,” because it had uplifted black folks to attain “a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” Despite widespread information to the contrary, Calhoun and Southern pro-slavery supporters steadfastly clung to their despicable and made up facts about the alleged inferiority of Africans and how enslavement would benefit them. Eventually escalating differences between pro and anti-slavery groups were major contributive factors in the outbreak of the American civil war culminating in the deaths of over 600,000 people.

Similarly, FGM advocates have formulated a variety of arguments based on “culture and traditions,” disturbingly similar to slavery supporters, which they frequently use to deflect domestic and international criticisms. While most people would readily admit that cutting off female genitals of children or anyone else is patently gross, unacceptable, and must be stopped, yet FGM apologists, like slave owners, continue to provide irrational assertions to explain away a cultural practice that has received widespread international condemnation and which by now deserves to be in the dustbin of history.

Recently, Nowa Omoigui, member of the Nigerian National Assembly and an avid FGM supporter, claimed in a speech before fellow legislators that FGM was not painful, adding that only a “small piece” of female genitals is removed. This assertion is clearly inaccurate, nonsensical, and intended to camouflage the horrors of FGM which vary in scope from partial and total removal of female genitals. Further, her words provide little comfort to the millions of children who are forced to undergo this cruel and monstrous tradition.

In Sierra Leone, a pro FGM faction with headquarters in the United States, which had earlier advocated complete imposition of the “cutting practice” on all girls regardless of age, recently changed course, most probably due to domestic and widespread international condemnation of the custom. Lately, it modified its original position and morphed into a new and equally dangerous group which now supports FGM on so-called female “ADULTS.” But how does one determine who is an adult especially in locations where credible birth records are rare and often non-existent? Who will monitor compliance of the new “ONLY ADULTS” FGM policy? Besides, who will protect young girls from being forcibly “cut” or circumcised by parents who are hell-bent to administer this traditional requirement? As President Obama correctly put it, “just because this is a tradition in some places does not make it right.” He called FGM “a harmful practice, and therefore wrong wherever it occurs.”

Earlier, during a visit to Kenya, President Obama said “FGM has no place in the 21st “Century,” and warned that the U.S. had “criminalized the transport of girls to undergo FGM.” While acknowledging that old ideas and beliefs are difficult to abandon, President Obama reiterated the harmful effects of FGM and called for its total abolition. In a direct appeal to African leaders at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 2015, President Obama passionately pleaded on behalf of African women: “Let’s lift up the next generation of women leaders who can help fight injustice and forge peace and start businesses and create jobs – and probably hire some men, too.” Adding, “we’ll be better off when women have better futures.” And yet, despite these uplifting remarks from the leader of the free world, FGM advocates insist on muzzling down our “young girls” in an aimless effort to maintain an archaic anti-female tradition they claim is harmless and beneficial to its victims. YOU BE THE JUDGE!!!

Below are statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) on Female Genital Mutilation updated since February 2016. Decide if the practices described below merit being defended on cultural and traditional grounds:
- Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
- The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
- Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
- More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated.
- FGM is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.
- FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
- severe pain
- excessive bleeding (hemorrhage)
- genital tissue swelling
- fever
- infections e.g., tetanus
- urinary problems
- wound healing problems
- injury to surrounding genital tissue
- shock
- death.

Peddlers of FGM torture must realize that there may be potential legal consequences to American Citizens or Green Card Holders who participate or promote torture outside of the United States. A 1994 U.S law permits the Federal government to “prosecute anyone suspected of carrying out torture outside of the United States “as long as the suspect is a US citizen, legal resident or is present in this country, regardless of nationality.” The “Extraterritorial Torture statute was used to arrest, try and sentence Emmanuel Taylor, son of ex Liberian president Charles Taylor to 97 years for his torture activities in Liberia.

As I indicated in an earlier article I wrote in this medium entitled “A Tale of “Two Taylors”: Like Father, like Son, “What you do, see and ignore, or allow others to do on your behalf, may come back to haunt you.” The more I think about this odious, needless and absurd FGM cultural practice, the more upset I get.