Comment on The Twilight of Cutting

The Twilight of Cutting treads new ground and newer problematics by examining how, in Ghana, it is not the eradication but the end of “cutting” that is woven into new forms of governance and sovereignty. Saida Hodžić’s important work looks at how ambivalently Ghanaians view or “disidentify” (borrowing the concept from José Muñoz) with the “success” of eradication of the practice and the new carceral imaginaries that accompany it. Such “disidentifications” create counterpublics who work against, explain and understand NGO campaigns in their own contextual Ghanaian ways. Hodžić shows that responses to ending cutting reveal how governance and culture are intertwined and how Ghanaians have become subjects of these eradication campaigns that designated cutting as a harmful cultural practice or as, in the terms of many NGOs, as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Ghanaians do not resist western NGOs or global governance, Hodžić contends, are not outside it, but do not conform fully to its demands either. In addition to “white saviors,” there are Ghanaian saviors as well, and many who accept the eradication but not its carceral outcomes. Yet they are subjects and agents of such governance as well.

I find the approach and argument to be important and innovative, but I want to explore the question raised through the book about where and how feminism, feminist methods, and feminist theories are to be understood. Though this question of feminism is not the book’s main concern, it is one that seems implicit throughout as Hodžić works through, relies upon, and contends with feminist theory, feminist critique, postcolonial feminism, global feminism, and carceral feminism. Even as the book’s critiques of feminism are trenchant and clear, the book opens up questions regarding how feminism (or feminisms) may be understood, and how feminist anthropology might be practiced.

The history of the making of cutting as FGM or “harmful cultural practice” before its supposed eradication is not the focus of the book, but is cited as a way that global governance, in the shape of feminist demands, came to Ghana. Some of us call this a practice of global feminism, though the book finds fault with the postcolonial critique of this kind of feminism. Hodžić rejects what she calls the “fallback” feminist position that suggests that any outside intervention can only hurt, by pointing out that these western ideas have long been incorporated into Ghanaian modernities due to the history of colonialism; the inside and outside of the nation are not as clearly demarcated. A second “relativist” position in which we understand cutting by comparison with plastic surgery is also understood as a problematic commensurability of a particular practice rather than an understanding of the social. A third feminist position of which the book is critical is that of the anti-FGM carceral approach, which Hodžić finds is not uniformly accepted as fair or appropriate in a country where incarceration does not reach the levels it does in the US, for instance. This carceral feminism, as Elizabeth Bernstein (2007) has termed it in relation to trafficking debates, sees feminism as the handmaiden of law and the state.

Rejecting these approaches, the book suggests that it is ethnography “without closure” as a method of research and practice that can better contend with these anti-cutting practices of Ghanaian sovereignty in late capitalism. What emerges in the book are critiques of feminisms as political projects of governance that must be described and critiqued. What remains for us as feminist scholars is to explore feminism as political and ethnographic practice (and these cannot be separated), since one cannot assume that either NGOs (even the ones focused on FGM or “trafficking”) are able to change patriarchal states and patriarchal international regimes. The question then is not posing patriarchal global South cultures against a non-patriarchal western modernity, but rather a global capitalism system in which politics and democracies are controlled by powerful interests that all happen to be heavily patriarchal and masculinist, or even oligarchic. Patriarchy and the hierarchies and inequalities of gender continue to produce new forms of masculinities and femininities, and much else. The book’s important intervention does break down the difference between the west and non-west in the older postcolonial theory terms, but how to come to terms with transnational gender orders that are not friendly to women, to many men and genders, or to feminisms?

In light of these questions, it might be useful to revisit the book’s engagement with the critiques of feminism in their “fallback,” “relativist,” and “carceral” projects. The importance of pointing out that it is not only white saviors who are the agents of anti-cutting campaigns, and that international outsiders and national insiders cannot be easily demarcated on the basis of approaches to governance, cannot be underscored enough. Yet it is important also to remember the importance of postcolonial and transnational feminist critique that countered the western colonial representational practices that came to identify cutting as “harmful cultural practice” or Ghanaian culture as patriarchal in comparison with the “west.” It was postcolonial feminisms that came to condemn how non-western “cultures” became an obsession with the anti-FGM groups, and that this focus on pathological cultures of non-western countries as patriarchal was a colonial and neo-colonial formation.

One might also argue that those arguing from the “relativist” position did not simply compare the practice of cutting and plastic surgery. Rather, relativists tried to understand how alterations and modifications of the body were to be seen as practices that made gender in different societies, and suggested that the work of constructing gender in particular ways in many places in the world was altered by colonialism that designated some of these as pathological symptoms of culture. In the case of cutting, the point was to show that plastic surgery was, in so many western accounts, rendered less harmful than what was called ”FGM” because it relied on biomedicine, while seldom questioning the lack of health care that was enabled by the colonial histories and continuing inequalities of globalization. For example, in a textbook that I edited with Caren Kaplan (1994), our point was to show FGM within a history of biomedicine, and in particular, of gynecology and surgery as based on racialized experimentation on African American women in the US and colonial control of African women’s bodies. This kind of transnational analysis hoped to critique global feminism’s anti-FGM campaigns that relied on colonial categories and representations, but also tried to think about biomedicine’s long history.

Finally, the critique of carceral feminism is particularly important, and the book shows that in Ghana, with its low rates of incarceration, NGO workers and anti-cutting activists balk at punitive, carceral responses to the practice. Yet this does not mean that all feminisms everywhere–even global ones—are carceral, nor can one assume that everywhere in the world we must assume the same politics–that would be another version of global feminism. Yet there are places where patriarchal and male-centered law has little consequence for mitigating violence against female and other gendered bodies. Those consequences do not just have to be incarceration, though there are places where the liberal law emerges as one tool among others, and incarceration has a political economy that may not always be aligned with feminist demands. Furthermore, feminism has long had a debate about its relation with the law; many feminists have been uneasy about alliances with the state and the law. That tension was expressed by the differentiation of liberal from radical feminism in the 1970s and 1980s in the context of the US in particular, but also by feminists from other regions who had to contend with the history of law as it was derived from English common law or French law. In short, feminisms are contentious and have ongoing debates within and across various iterations.

If one takes into account these histories of feminism, then how might a feminism be expressed in the current moment taking into account the critiques that Hodžić poses? Is there any feminism left standing either as politics or as the site of enunciation? These are key questions for feminist ethnography that hopes to dispute the enclosures of power.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2007. “The Sexual Politics of ‘New Abolitionism.’” differences, 18(3): 128-151.

Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan. 1994. Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Inderpal Grewal is a Professor in the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. She is also Professor in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies Program, the South Asian Studies Council, and affiliate faculty in the American Studies Program. She is the author of Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire and the Cultures of Travel, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, and Saving the Security State: Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-First Century America. With Victoria Bernal, she has edited Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminism and Neoliberalism. Her ongoing projects include essays on gender, violence and counterinsurgency in India, and a book project on masculinity and bureaucracy in postcolonial India.

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