When culture fails

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widespread phenomenon. In the popular imagination, it’s often associated with Islam, or Africa, even though they both Islam and Africa are varied and diverse. While it is true that FGM is practiced in 29 out of 54 African countries, it also takes place in Asia, the Middle East, and even in developed countries such as the US and the UK. While it’s sometimes justified using religion, no religion officially sanctions the practice.

In reality, FGM is a tradition that is born out of and justified by the basis of culture. The reasons for continuing the harmful vary- it makes women more beautiful, it makes a woman a more desirable partner, or it assuages women’s natural wild, animalistic urges. In one Senegalese village, an imam said that without FGM, “Women would be jumping on top of all the men.”

Unlike male circumcision, which actually has some benefits (although there are plenty of people who oppose this practice as well); there is absolutely no physical, medical, or moral advantage to female circumcision. In fact, risks include severe physical pain, infection, decreased sexual pleasure, urine retention, fistulas, infertility, and even death. It keeps happening solely because of social expectations, and even though it’s normally carried out by women, it is supported by an undercurrent of patriarchal values that place much less value on a woman’s life than on a man’s.

Tostan, a Senegal-born human rights NGO, takes a holistic approach to ending FGM: Instead of just telling women to stop doing it, it focuses on educating whole communities about the importance of respecting the rights of all people. And it works: Malicoumba Bambara, a village near Thies (the country’s third biggest city), officially ended the practice in 1997.

Social norms approaches are another way of educating communities to eradicate harmful practices. In a nutshell, people make assumptions about what other people are doing, and then model their behavior based on this perception. Social norms approaches change people’s ideas about what everyone else is doing. When enough individuals change their ideas, it leads to a group-wide change.

Too often, people justify sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other discriminatory practices with “It’s our culture.” There is a flaw in this theory, though: Culture is something that is created by people. You’re not giving yourself enough credit if you think that you have to do something solely because it’s your culture. People make culture. FGM is a cultural practice, but it’s not infallible. Like I’ve said before, when culture harms people, then it’s the responsibility of everyone to change it.

 

Seriously, where the fuck are our girls?

On April 14th, nearly 300 Nigerian girls went missing in Chibo, Nigeria. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnappings on May 5th. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said that they will sell the Christian girls and marry off the Muslim ones. While journalists in Nigeria were working tirelessly to get the word out, the international media remained largely silent. Why did the Nigerian military lie about having found the girls? Why did the parents have to go looking for the girls themselves? And why did it take so long for any kind of international intervention to take place, when merely weeks before thousands of dollars and hours of manpower had been spent trying to find a disappeared plane (full of non-African people)? Every part of this is appalling.

The world’s indifference to the kidnapped, or more accurately, enslaved girls resulted in protests, both within and outside Nigeria, as well as “hashtag activism”: in this case, the creation of #bringbackourgirls on Twitter. Some have criticized those participating of doing it simply to a) to make themselves feel better without actually causing any change, and b) helping to legitimize Western military intervention in Africa , and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s statement that it “will be considering not just the recent incidents but also longer-term counter-terrorism solutions to prevent such attacks in the future and defeat Boko Haram” certainly does nothing to assuage those fears.

It is, however, partly due to this type of social media activism that spurred the Nigerian government, as well as others, to action. The United States has sent experts to Nigeria to provide strategic advice in looking for the girls, and China, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel have also gotten involved. It’s disheartening that it took social media to get governments involved in looking for abducted children, but it shows that social media has the power to do more than allow people to pat themselves on the back.

It does say something that nearly three weeks after the original girls went missing, 11 more were kidnapped. It says something that a month after the girls have gone missing, they haven’t been found. It says that on an institutional level, the lives of girls in Nigeria are not valued. There are of course activists, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who care about the lives of the young girls in their lives, but the government’s complacency in looking for children is indicative not only of the government’s general incompetence to fulfill its obligation to its people, but that girls’ lives are simply not a priority.

Nigeria’s finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made the statement that she was tired of speaking about the Chibok girls. Realizing her faux pas, she backtracked, but to be honest, I’m tired of talking about these girls too. Because they should already have been rescued. And because this should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.