Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “female genital mutilation”

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.

Unfavourable opinions of religions

In my previous post I commented on a survey that asked whether people had a favourable or unfavourable opinion of a religion (in this case Wicca), and said I would be among those who was neutral or had no opinion.

But the question was raised if the people who practised the religion did things one disapproved of, what then?

I disapprove of some practices of some adherents of some religions, but one can’t blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers.

Where a practice is something I believe to be wrong or immoral and intimately bound up with the practice of the religion, that is something else, and probably deserves a separate discussion, and is not something that can easily be determined by a survey questionnaire.

Let me give an example of practices that I believe to be wrong or immoral, but which are closely bound up with the practice of a religion.

When Protestant missionaries evangelised the Kikuyu (Gikuyu) people of central Kenya, they strongly disapproved of some features of Kikuyu culture, such as polygamy and female circumcision, and urged the British authorities (Kenya was at that time a British colony) to assist them in suppressing them. They demanded that all teachers in church schools (and all schools for Africans in Kenya were church schools) take an oath against female circumcision. As a result two independent school associations were formed, the Kikuyu Karing’a Educational Association and the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association. The former became affiliated with the Orthodox Church, and the latter with the African Independent Pentecostal Church (for more details, see my article on Orthodox mission in tropical Africa).

Female circumcision (female genital mutilation) was an integral part of Kikuyu religion and culture, but Christianity generally opposes bodily mutilation (Protestant missionaries in China, for example, started the Natural Foot Society to counter the Chinese practice of binding the feet of female children to keep them small). So the Protestant approach was to suppress practices that they regarded as immoral, and to seek the aid of the government in doing so, thus linking mission and colonialism.

The Orthodox Church, however, did not begin with moral denunciations of practices it thought immoral. Polygamists could be baptised, but after baptism further marriages were discouraged. Now, after 70 years, polygamy and female circumcision are not practised by Kikuyu people who are Orthodox Christians, but this was not achieved by a direct frontal attack on Kikuyu culture. The Orthodox approach was that people need first to know Christ, to worship the Triune God, and and then gradually be transformed into the image of God, not by human laws and prohibitions and sanctions and punishments, but by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Female circumcision is still practised in some parts of Africa, and some Westerners still make an issue of it, and those who do are not always puritanical Protestant missionaries, but are often quite secular. They regard African cultures that do such things as barbarous, and, like the puritanical Protestant missionaries, campaign for laws to be passed against them, yet their own cultures practise wholesale abortion, which seems equally barbarous to many Africans (and to many Christians outside Africa). What lies behind it, in the case of both the Protestant missionaries and the secular social reformers, is Western cultural imperialism.

So there are two things here.

One is the behaviour of some adherents of a religion. Is that adequate cause for indicating disapproval of a religion?

Some people cite the Inquisition and the Crusades as examples to show that Christianity is an evil religion that one should disapprove of. But I think it is silly to blame a religion for the behaviour of some of its followers. The Crusades and the Inquisition were products of certain periods of human history, and show that Christians, like other people, sometimes succumb to social forces and sometimes even mistakenly identify these with mandates of their religions. One can say the same of suicide bombings and pogroms and various other things.

In the case of Wicca, it is clear that some Wiccans have created a myth of “the Burning Times”, which they have quite deliberately and consciously used to fan the flames of hatred against Christians. Should I therefore disapprove of Wicca? No, because not all Wiccans do this, and some have spoken quite strongly against it. One cannot blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers, unless that behaviour is an integral part of following the religion.

And that brings us back to the second thing. Female circumcision was an integral part of Kikuyu traditional religion and culture, which is why the attack on it by Protestant missionaries was seen as a direct attack on Kikuyu culture and part of a scheme by the colonial government to deprive the Kikuyu people of their land. The Protestant missionaries demanded oaths against female circumcision, and, almost as a counter to that, the Mau Mau movement began demanding oaths to recover the land, and suddenly the Kenya colonial government began denouncing “oath-taking” as the greatest evil of all, and to punish people for doing that, and detaining them if they were even suspected of it.

And this is a point at which I follow the Orthodox missionary tradition, which is not to denounce the religions and cultures of others. All human religion and all human culture is fallen, including my own, and needs to be transformed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in the missionary instructions of St Innocent of Alaska

On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.

Even if one disagrees with their culture and customs, one can show respect for people. One can disagree with their theology, and can say why one does. as St John of Damascus did in pointing out where Islamic theology differed from Orthodox theology (he regarded Islam as a Christian heresy). But it should be done in an atmosphere of respect. It is fashionable nowadays in some Western to belittle the notion of respect, and to despise it as mere “political correctness”, and that is something I think worthy of disapproval!

St Innocent of Alaska also disapproved of the linking of mission and colonialism, when he said,

2. On arriving in some settlement of savages, thou shall on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear disguise of poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow-men, who has come for a single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity and, as far as possible, guiding them to their quest

and

12. Ancient customs, so long as they are not contrary to Christianity, need not to be too abruptly broken up; but it should be explained to converts that they are merely tolerated.

So tolerance is an Orthodox missionary principle. Some things cannot be tolerated, as contrary to Christianity, such as human sacrifice. In this, I think Fr Thomas Hopko’s account of tolerance is worth repeating:

Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God’s creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.

So generally my attitude towards religions other than my own is one of tolerance. I neither approve nor disapprove of them. I may approve of some of their beliefs or practices, and disapprove of others, but recognise that if these are integral parts of the religion that they cannot be abruptly separated without destroying the whole, therefore I cannot either approve or disapprove of the whole, unless the whole thing is evil or based on evil, and such religions are rare.

I disapprove of the Hindu caste system and sutti, I don’t disapprove of Hinduism. I disapprove of Jewish support for Zionism, but don’t disapprove of Judaism, and recognise that Zionism is a secular movement, and is no more necessarily tied to Judaism than crusades and crusading and pogroms are tied to Christianity.

There are also some aspects of these and other religions that I might approve of, though that does not necessarily mean that I approve of the religion per se, nor that it would be right for me as an Orthodox Christian to believe and practise them. I used to think, and to some extent still do, that Jack Kerouac’s Zen Catholicism was quite cool, but Orthodox Christianity has different, and I believe better, ways of achieving similar ends.

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