Growing up in the 1970s, I didnt have the most politically correct upbringing. A gollywog adorned the jam jar I stared blankly at as I woke up over my morning toast, in school we read “Little Black Sambo” – complete with illustrations, for pleasure I read about how evil Gollywogs were, courtesy of Enid Blyton, and watched the Black and White Minstrel show in the evening. I am familiar with the “blackface”, it was the only depiction I had of Black people until I was around ten years old, when a new depiction of emaciated Ethiopians became their main representation. Those days are thankfully long gone, we thought, with Blackface relegated to the mists of history, but a Swedish artist has staged a revival.
He created an installation of a cake made in the form of a “blackface” naked woman, and invited various worthies to slice off sections of the genital area while he crouched under the table it lay on, poking his head through into the hollow section of the head and “screaming” as it was cut, purportedly as a means of highlighting the dangers of genital cutting. The whole thing was so repulsively racist that I and many others could only watch slack jawed as the Swedish minister for culture and other wealthy powerful white women took great delight in plunging the knife into the area designed to represent the genitals scooping out the dark pink flesh laughing as they cannibalised the body, while listening to screams emanating from its mouth. As Jondera Smith points out tho on the Crunk Collective, perhaps it does function as a work of art – just not the one the artist intended. As installation art it is one of the most reactionary things I have seen in a long time; as performance art it is exemplary. Watching white western women callously use the black body as a canvas with which to display their progressive credentials, performing as saviours and liberators ignorant to their role as the agents of the black woman’s marginalisation and destruction.
Western opposition to ritual genital cutting has a history rooted in colonialism. Victorian physicians in England justifying the practice for women with learning difficulties, as a means to end anti-marital sexual activity and masturbation at the same time as Christian missionaries in Africa campaigned against the practice. The reasons for its continuance today are complex. In societies where women are valued for their reproductive abilities, can command a “bride-price” and paternal lineage is held in high regard, the practice is valued as upholding tribal values, and uncut women can be ostracised by both their age mates and potential suitors, condemning them to a life of poverty in societies where the primary means of female sustenance is through marriage. Many Western charities and campaigners have highlighted the damaging nature of these procedures, particularly in countries where health and midwifery care are minimal or non-existant, yet still the practice continues, and will continue to do so as long as women are valued for their ability to bear the children of men.
Genital cutting is not only practised in Africa. Although illegal in the Scotland there are a number of clinics offering cosmetic surgery which falls foul of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act. As someone who has electively undergone a procedure which is also illegal under that law (classified as Type IV FGM by the WHO), my feelings on it’s wide ranging scope are mixed. I have no regrets about my choice, it was not coerced and had no external pressure to undergo it, a situation which does not hold true for many women, particularly the young women and girls who are the subject of much of the most dangerous implementations of such surgery. These frequently involve the removal of the prepuce, clitoris, labia and on occasions the sealing of the vaginal opening, leading to a loss of sensation, infection and pain on both intercourse and childbirth.
While the above law gives a strong message that that Scotland will not condone such surgery, it is less supportive to its survivors and potential victims. Last year the UK government implemented an opt-out for an EU directive which recognises that women may seek asylum on the grounds of gender based persecution, one form that persecution takes is genital cutting against the wishes of the young woman, girl or her mother. Women, seeing the damage that it has done to older women flee their communities to avoid the same fate happening to them or their daughters, seeking a country in which women’s bodily autonomy is respected. While the UK protects its own citizens in this respect, its compassion to the refugees it creates is limited. Babies at risk of severe mutilation have been sent back with their parents to an uncertain future.
The liberation of Black women must come from Black women. Black women who recognise both the racialised and gendered nature of the provision of resources and committed to ending the power structure which support it. White women laughing as they consume a Black female body controlled by a Black man does nothing except demonstrate that we have a long way to go.
First published on The Multicultural Politic on 23rd April 2012