I read this article by Katha Pollitt earlier this year and it has yet to leave me. In Whose Culture? Pollitt responds to an essay by Susan Okin and agrees that multiculturalism and feminism are, if not in tension, often opposed to one another. Pollitt doesn’t understand how this can be considered controversial, but I find it awfully provocative.
How can this be? I wondered. Academic feminism and academic multiculturalism seem to be two branches off the same tree. Further, Pollitt frames feminism as a superior philosophical mode in a way that makes me rather uncomfortable. I want gender equality, but I don’t want to erase the cultural traditions that only I deem deserving of respect.
But in some sense, Pollitt is right. Look at sati, the French banning of headscarves, the global wish for daughters to marry rich over acquiring education.
My mentor, Dr. B, recently wrote on the practice of female genital mutilation/female circumcision:
It’s not even that I think that this would be a moment of epiphany, but I think that it would/could work better than the “you are all stupid savages” approach. People are people and rebellious by nature. If you tell people that they can not do something that they see are being a cultural or religious right they will automatically tune you out and move forward with renewed vigor (or maybe that’s just me). I think that the story about hospitals practicing FGM/FC is proof of just that.
Teacherly moments are the times in which a facilitator attempts to resolve a tension by exposing and revealing the incongruities between two lines of thought, a method employed by Lindon Barrett in his book comparing African-American pedagogy with traditional “white” pedagogy. This moment of juxtaposition between those who willingly inflict FC on themselves (and those who inflict it on others) with the Western ideal of free female sexuality is one in which it becomes far too easy to demonize and name-call the Other. In other words, it’s a perfect teacherly moment.
FC and phenomenon like it are problems in themselves, but more widely, are symptomatic of the larger propensity for an androcentric, patriarchal worldview in which women are othered and mystified, and that imagined female otherness and mystery must be contained.
For me, the education against FC and other symptoms of patriarchy is not so simple. It comes to this: the line between “education” and Western indoctrination is very narrow once it crosses the border. In addition, the difference between rightly educating a community and operating from a xenophobic, racist space is also a strong concern. We must educate ourselves to avoid the mischaracterization of the communities we attempt to reach, and as Dr. B says, “learn the other folks’ rules.”
From over here, snug in my windowless office in Collegetown, USA, it is easy to forget that in any area where oppression occurs, there is usually a counter-movement already in place working from within to change the minds and experiences of the oppressors and the oppressed. Rather than swooping down and inflicting their movement with my urgency, I lend my economic and emotional support from afar.