Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “cultural imperialism”

Whiteness revisited — Foreskin Man and Vulva Girl

I recently discovered a new academic discipline, or pseudo-discipline, called “Whiteness Studies”, through some friends who appear to take it seriously.

From what I’ve been able to see, it this discipline proposes to cure racism by encouraging racist thinking, which, it seems to me, is a bit like an alcoholic thinking that the cure for his craving is another drink.

If any of this interests you, I’ve written a series of four blog posts on it, here:

Comments welcome, there or here.

I thought I’d written enough on it, but someone posted something on Facebook that made me change my mind: Foreskin Man and Vulva Girl Team Up to Battle Circumcision in Africa:

Foreskin Man and Vulva Girl Team Up to Battle Circumcision in Africa

Male and female circumcision collide in Foreskin Man #3 when America’s most controversial superhero attempts a daring rescue in the jungles of Kenya.

That looks like a rather good candidate for #20 Being an expert on YOUR culture | Stuff White People Like, though with a somewhat different slant on it. That seems to be the essence of Whiteness, as defined by the American discipline of Whiteness Studies.

But I’m getting ahead of the story, which begins here, in a web article someone recommended to me, about Racism 2.0, which is the racism practised by white liberals in the USA Tim Wise | With Friends Like These, Who Needs Glenn Beck? Racism and White Privilege on the Liberal-Left. And, it seems to me, the comic book Foreskin Man and Vulva Girl Team Up to Battle Circumcision in Africa seems to be a good example of Racism 2.0 as practised by white liberals in America. The gallant white superhero, representing enlightened Western values, sets out to rescue the barbaric Africans from their darkness. The cover of the comic says it all.

One of the things that human beings seem to do a lot is modify their bodies. The way they do this varies with different cultures, and as time passes cultures change, and bodily modifications fall in and out of fashion. One such fashion in the USA has been male circumcision. Another, common in the Western world, has been female ear piercing, and in some sub-cultures in the West piercing other parts of the body and sticking safety pins and other objects in the holes. A southern African varient of earpearcing, about 70-80 years ago, involved putting wooden cotton reels in holes in one’s earlobes.

Other such practices are knocking out front teeth, tattooing, and lengthening necks and penises. In China there was the practice of foot-binding of girls, because small feet on women were fashionable.

Another thing about this is that bodily modifications that one culture regards as normal seem bizarre and barbaric to people from other cultures.

In the 19th and early 20th century Christian missionaries travelled from Western Europe and North America in large numbers to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people in other continents, and they came across many cultural practices that they found strange, and some that they found abhorrent. Among the ones they found abhorrent ones were foot-binding and female circumcision.

In China it was Christian missionaries who founded the Natural Foot Society, to discourage the practice of foot-binding. And in parts of Africa missionaries, who were associated with colonial governments, discouraged female circumcision. In Kenya, where, in the 1920s, all schools were controlled by various religious bodies, some missionaries, led by the Church of Scotland, insisted that all teachers in the schools should take an oath against female circumcision, which was practised by the Kikuyu (Agikuyu) people. This led to the formation of independent African-led educational associations, and eventually contributed to the establishment of the Orthodox Church in Kenya (see Orthodox mission in tropical Africa).

The policy of demanding oaths came back to bite the colonialist missionaries, however, when, about 20 years later, the Mau Mau movement began getting their members to take oaths to fight against the British colonial regime. Suddenly “oath-taking ceremonies” were made illegal, and suspicion that someone had participated in one became sufficient cause for detention without trial. All Kenyan Orthodox clergy were detained.

White Western secular liberals have often been quite vociferous in condemning the way in which Christian missionaries “destroy indigenous culture”, but are not averse to doing exactly the same thing when other people’s cultural values conflict with their own, and using neocolonial powers to put the squeeze on people who resist.

In a way, I can empathise with those who object to female circumcision. I can still recall the shock and revulsion I felt when I read about it as a teenage schoolboy in a book called Blanket boy’s moon by Peter Lanham and A.S. Mopeli-Paulus, which described the practice in Lesotho:

The first night of the (circumcision) school is known as the Marallo, the secret night. This night is spent outside the village in the dongas, where ritual dances are taught and new code names are given to the girls — so that they can afterwards challenge the claim of any woman who states that she is circumcised.

At Marallo, too, the Khokhobisa-tsoene, or “Hiding-of-the-monkey” is encompassed. The girls are cut with a blade in their outer sexual organs, and a flap of flesh is drawn down to cover that mischievous “monkey” which can be the source of much pleasure to uncircumcised girls. The performance of this rite tends to encourage chastity among the women, for a circumcised girl can know little of the joys and passions of physical love. During this ceremony when the blood flows from the wounded flesh, black magic medicine is rubbed in as a protection against bewitchment.

It can perhaps be said that the circumcision of women not only denies the girl great pleasure and joy in the sexual act, but must in consequence lessen the happiness and exaltation of the man, and thus shut out any upliftment of the spirit — lying with a woman, then, becomes a selfish rather than a mutual pleasure. Here in the very homeland, in this circumcision of women, lie the seeds of the physical love of man for man, which is brought to flower in the living conditions imposed on African mine workers by the white man.

As a schoolboy I found that more scary even than a description of a ritual murder elsewhere in the book.

But an interesting thing is that though the protest against the Protestant missionaries’ attempt to suppress female circumcision was one of the factors that helped the Orthodox Church to grow in Kenya, very few, if any, Orthodox Christians practise female circumcision today, not because of high-handed colonial or neocolonial suppression, but rather as a result of people seeing no need for it within a Christian worldview.

Western cultural imperialism hasn’t changed very much. Whether practised by Protestant missionaries or liberal secularists, it looks much the same. And I won’t say it doesn’t exist in South Africa. There are signs of it, for example when you get white suburbanites objecting to their black neighbours next door ritually sacrificing a goat, but generally I think white racism in South Africa takes different forms from that in North America. The North American version, with Foreskin Man going out to deal with the black savages in far-away places, is perhaps typical of the American version. And Foreskin Man doesn’t seem to be interested in rescuing the people his fellow-countrymen drop bombs on, in places like Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where they lose a great deal more than their foreskins.

Apart from anything else, to me Foreskin Man and Vulva Girl sound utterly kitsch. But that’s probably just my cultural prejudice speaking.

Evangelism, or cultural imperialism

Since the US invasion of Iraq, Western-style Protestant evangelical Christianity has begun to appear in that country. It is not, however, converting Muslims to the Christian faith, but proselytising among other Christians.

Evangelicals Building a Base in Iraq – washingtonpost.com:

The U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, who limited the establishment of new denominations, has altered the religious landscape of predominantly Muslim Iraq. A newly energized Christian evangelical activism here, supported by Western and other foreign evangelicals, is now challenging the dominance of Iraq’s long-established Christian denominations and drawing complaints from Muslim and Christian religious leaders about a threat to the status quo.

The evangelicals’ numbers are not large — perhaps a few thousand — in the context of Iraq’s estimated 800,000 Christians. But they are emerging at a time when the country’s traditional churches have lost their privileged Hussein-era status and have experienced massive depletions of their flocks because of decades-long emigration. Now, traditional church leaders see the new evangelical churches filling up, not so much with Muslim converts but with Christians like Tawfik seeking a new kind of worship experience.

There is much talk in Western Christian missiological circles about inculturation and contextualisation, and the need for Christianity, when it enters a society of a different culture, to become part of that culture.

But this seems, on the face of it, to be the opposite: taking already indigenous Christians, and converting them to an exotic culture.

On the other hand, globalisation is such that exotic cultures often seem attracive. Some traditional Christians in countries like Iraq achieve their desire to identify with exotic cultures by emigrating. Others, perhaps those who can’t afford to emigrate, do so by joining exotic churches, like Western Baptists, and enjoy the foreign cultural ambiance.

So is it evangelisation, proselytisation, or disinculturation (or could one say “exculturation”? Is that a word?)

HIV/AIDS Prevention and Sexed Bodies: Rethinking Abstinence in Light of the African AIDS Pandemic:| Theology and Sexuality

HIV/AIDS Prevention and Sexed Bodies: Rethinking Abstinence in Light of the African AIDS Pandemic: Theology and Sexuality:

As churches, non-profits, and governments look for solutions to end the African AIDS pandemic, abstinence has provided a seemingly quick and easy answer that is thought to carry moral weight. Yet abstinence, as it is preached and practiced, is often an immoral option because it does not first consider the full agency of women. In asking why abstinence has been so readily embraced as a response to the African pandemic, assumptions of black sexuality must be brought into question. The tendency to focus on sexual morality rather than on the economic, gender, and social inequalities that cause the spread of AIDS must also be questioned. Through employing a postcolonial critique of abstinence, I argue that when abstinence as morality and abstinence as prevention collapse into one another, there is no space for women to find agency in abstinence. Instead, abstinence must be defined as “space” rather than “prohibition” in order for it to contribute to human flourishing.

Hat-tip to Priestly Goth Blog: paper presentation on AIDS preventiong in Africa for the link.

Unfortunately, just as

so much communication about AIDS in Africa even that which attempts to offer treatment as well as programs of prevention follow colonial patterns of cultural imperialism and that even the language of AIDS is language imposed from others and not taken up from with in African cultural and linguistic matrices

so the pricing of the article follows colonial patterns of cultural imperialism and places it beyond the reach of any but the rich — the cost of a single article being higher than that of a very substantial hard-cover book, so that most people in Africa who probably ought to read it will be unable to afford it.

But Larry Kamphausen provides more information about the paper than can be read in the abstract, and also describes some of the discussion that follows the reading of it, so if you are interested in the topic of HIV/Aids prevention in Africa, his blog post at Priestly Goth Blog: paper presentation on AIDS preventiong in Africa is worth a read.

Women march for mutilation

clipped from www.thetimes.co.za

Some 800 women in the Sierra Leone town of Kailahun have paraded in favour of genital mutilation and told donors opposed to the practice to keep their money, demonstrators and witnesses said.

Women wearing colourful beads and adorned with seashells chanted songs in the local dialect that warned authorities and foreign organisations against “any attempt to take away our traditional ritual.”

The United Nations World Health Organisation says FGM – the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and related injury – is recorded in 28 African nations and opposes the practice on medical grounds.

blog it

This has some interesting missiological implications.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western missionaries to Africa and Asia were sometimes accused of attacking and destroying the cultures of people they came in contact with. Some of these cultures had customs of bodily mutilation, which the missionaries thought were cruel and inhumane.

In China Christian missionaries started the Natural Foot Society, to discourage the custom of binding the feet of young girls to make them grow up with smaller feet. In Kenya they discouraged the practice of female circumcision. There are various bodily mutilations where various parts of the body are altered. Bits are cut off genitals or fingers. Teeth are knocked out, ears or nostrils pierced, necks are lengthened, cheeks are cut, lips are made to protrude.

Nowadays it is no longer only the province of Christian missionaries to object to such things. Even secular Westerners do so, and this leads to the suspicion that there is a link between such interventions and cultural imperialism.

In Kenya Protestant schools, in particular, demanded that teachers take an oath against female circumcision. The Kikuyu people saw this as part of a general colonialist attack on their culture, closely linked with dispossessing them of their land. Some broke away from the Protestants and became Orthodox.

And even when it is secular groups and NGOs that object, there is a whiff of cultural imperialism. Africans must make their behaviour conform to Western norms, even when Western norms are changing, as can be seen in the continuing disintegration of the Anglican Communion. And whether the Western norms relate to female circumcision or structural adjustment programmes motivated by neoliberalism, the underlying assumption is that the West knows best.

Western values may change over time, but even when they change, Africans had better get in step. And in some of these issues it seems that the Western value, unstated but implied, is that the human right that takes precedence over all others is the inalienable right to an orgasm.

To some extent, I can sympathise. I remember the absolute horror I felt when I first learnt of female circumcision, and what it entailed. It was more than 50 years ago, when as a schoolboy I was reading the book Blanket boy’s moon. A friend had told me it was like Cry the beloved country, only it would make one feel even more revulsion against the system, and then I read this:

The first night of the (circumcision) school is known as the Marallo, the secret night. This night is spent outside the village in the dongas, where ritual dances are taught and new code names are given to the girls — so that they can afterwards challenge the claim of any woman who states that she is circumcised.

At Marallo, too, the Khokhobisa-tsoene, or “Hiding-of-the-monkey” is encompassed. The girls are cut with a blade in their outer sexual organs, and a flap of flesh is drawn down to cover that mischievous “monkey” which can be the source of much pleasure to uncircumcised girls. The performance of this rite tends to encourage chastity among the women, for a circumcised girl can know little of the joys and passions of physical love. During this ceremony when the blood flowes from the wounded flesh, black magic medicine is rubbed in as a protection against bewitchment.

It can perhaps be said that the circumcision of women not only denies the girl great pleasure and joy in the sexual act, buit must in consequence lessen the happiness and exaltation of the man, and thus shut out any upliftment of the spirit — lying with a woman, then, becomes a selfish rather than a mutual pleasure. Here in the very homeland, in this circumcision of women, lie the seeds of the physical love of man for man, which is brought to flower in the living conditions imposed on African mine workers by the white man.

As a schoolboy I was shocked and horrified at the thought that people could treat others like that. It seemed unbelievably cruel. Reading the book made me feel revulsion against capital punishment, but the revusion I felt against female circumcision was far stronger, perhaps because it was the first time I had heard of it.

But now I’ve thought about it a bit more, and I remember that the countries that protest most strongly against such practices hardly protest at all when children are mutilated by cluster bombs and landmines, and go on making more cluster bombs and land mines to rip children apart.

The countries that protest so vociferously against female circumcision very often kill hundreds of thousands of children in abortions, all in the name of a putative right of women to control their own bodies. Isn’t it ironic that women in Sierra Leone are protesting that very right, to control their own bodies, a right they want to exercise in female circumcision?

Post Navigation