Saturday, February 20, 2010

Maternity, abuse, and genital mutilation

In preparation for an upcoming event in Fes next month (Forum on Marginalised Women and Social Integration 11-13 March), I was exploring Prof. Fatima Sadiqi's website and her published work. That in turn led me to the maelstrom of fascination that is EBSCOhost and all of the wonders that it possesses. There I landed on an article by Drs Mustafa Afifi and Margareta von Bothmer called "Egyptian women’s attitudes and beliefs about female genital cutting and its association with childhood maltreatment" from the journal Nursing and Health Sciences (2007). I am the sort of person who sets aside articles on female genital cutting to read as a reward for getting work done…

My first encounter with an earnest activist against genital mutilation occurred during my final year at UMBC. A friend and fellow linguistics major espoused (and continues to espouse) an outspoken objection to male circumcision as genital mutilation. While I disagree with him that it is comparable to the most extreme form of female genital cutting or mutilation (which includes the partial or total removal of the labia and/or clitoris often along with the partial closing of the vaginal opening), I do agree that the decision to remove the foreskin of the penis is one that should not simply be standard protocol, as it currently is in the US and other countries. I furthermore disagree with the practice even as a religious tradition, but that point is beyond the scope of this entry.

After visiting Egypt the first time this summer, and staying 11 weeks in Cairo, I learned how widespread the practice of female genital cutting is in that country. Despite government action to make the practice illegal, as well as declarations from both Christian and Muslim religious authorities that the practice is not a part of religious protocol, it nonetheless continues. What is more, increasing attention to the issue has resulted in increased ‘medicalizing’ of the practice. Formerly, female genital cutting was carried out by traditionally trained female practitioners. Today the overwhelming majority of female cutting is carried out by formally trained medical professionals, often in hospitals.

The purpose of the article is to draw attention to the connection between abuse and female genital cutting. The conclusion is that women who are abused are more likely to abuse their children and to have their daughters’ genitals cut. The authors refer to previous research that has isolated another connection, between women who have had abortions and the likelihood that they will abuse their children.


Therefore the authors make the leap that these abortionists will also be more likely to have their daughters’ genitals cut. This notion rests on the assumption that abortions are traumatic events. The subtext is that women who have abortions experience guilt and shame because abortion is type of ‘trauma.’ The authors continue with the sentiment that “the woman ‘knows’ [emphasis by authors] subconsciously that her traumatic event (the abortion—clarified by me) must be exposed and understood to be conquered.” This statement is totally inscrutable to me. Why on earth must the so-called event be exposed and understood? Exposed to whom? Understood by whom? Even more absurdly the authors make the leap that if the psyches of women who have had abortions demand them to reenact the so-called trauma in the form of abusing their children, then likewise will women who have had their genitals cut be compelled to continue that practice, as well as other intentional abuses of their children.

Firstly, since abortion is illegal in Egypt, I can only assume that women who undergo abortions in Egypt have done so illegally. While I cannot account for the reasons behind the abortions, I might reasonably assume that they occur either to avoid the social stigma of pregnancy outside of marriage or to prevent the growth of households by eliminating potential members. In the latter case, the abortion, though illegal and thus carrying definite risk (medical and legal), is a manifestation of empowerment. It represents a woman’s control (in the face of legal, religious, and social constraints) over her own fertility, and may not actually accompany any sense of shame or trauma or guilt—why would it? It is disappointing that the researchers have chosen to reinforce the norm of abortion as a universally shameful act resulting in (what is assumed to be or ought to be) requisite guilt.

What IS this previous research? One of the articles in the bibliography that is provided as ‘previous research’ that proves the link between abortionists and child abuse is not academic scholarship but religious activism. Hosted by Heritage House 76, a Christian, anti-abortion organization is the sponsor of the the Elliot Institute, which hosts the article “Abortion Trauma and Child Abuse.” Together these sources present the damning reality of religious dogma and non-science appearing as legitimate academic material. Shocking.

Another citation of ‘proof’ is the result of a study whose sample was from Baltimore, a far cry from Egypt. The population consisted of women receiving public assistance who had had abortions in addition to carrying children to term. While this article is not a religious piece, it still does not account for the contextual peculiarities that govern the case of Egypt—where abortion is illegal and where women’s agency is far different than women’s agency in Baltimore (being a poor woman in Baltimore is worlds away from being any type of woman in Egypt). Thus the extrapolation of the conclusion is beyond weak.

I began reading this article out of curiosity, but before I had reached the halfway point, outrage and annoyance compelled me to continue avoiding my work once again and spell out my frustration. Integrity is everything in research. Cheating, plagiarizing, fudging data, and any number of other offenses severely degrade the quality of academic research. Writing that pretends to be research but is really activism disguised as scholarship is outrageous and offensive to critical thinking people. Activism posing as scientific data has no place in scholarly research. Admittedly the social sciences must avoid relativism in order to shed light on abhorrent phenomena that interfere with human dignity. Nonetheless, normative assessments must be tempered by frameworks that guarantee that we are not replacing dangerous relativism with equally dangerous religious or other philosophical bias.

In sum, we must allow social scientists to condemn abhorrent practices like female genital cutting without allowing items off of a religious agenda (like anti-abortion ideology) to sneak into the analysis.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Forensic linguistics

One of my colleagues directed me to this story in early December, perhaps as a cautionary tale. He also sends me stories about hashish, and he has no idea that I have a strong research interest economic policy, migration and the narcotics trade in Morocco. In any event, grim. Media here doesn’t shy from showing gruesome pictures of survivors of assault of any kind, including of minors. The headline reads: ‘Moroccan man accused of raping an American arrested in Khenifra’

The 23 year old woman was serving in the Peace Corps as a health educator at a local hospital, and the accused, aged 26, was apprehended by the Royal Gendarme. A private doctor was sent from Rabat to collect forensic evidence.

As unfortunate as this story is, there are some powerful Arabic lessons to be learned. First off these three words taken together, according to

السائل المنوي الخاص

mean semen.

However, taken separately, the linguistic rabbit hole of Arabic reveals itself...

According to Hans Wehr:

السائل: fluid, liquid
المنوي: seminal, spermatic
الخاص: special, exclusive, specific

In addition to this learning opportunity, there were comments left by readers. The most recent comment was totally inscrutable to me, but said something about the flip on American meat and Saudi meat. According to a Moroccan friend of mine, the reference to American meat is a tasteless euphemism for the young survivor, and it is not entirely clear why Saudi women come up. Herein lies an example of the difficulty for foreigners of learning spoken varieties of Arabic. Because there is no standard codification of international or regional variations, even native speakers experience difficulty in understanding.

The next commenter tries challenges the newsworthiness of the item by citing metaphorical rapes of Moroccans and Arabs, such as at Abu Ghraib (oh brother, the drama).

The third comment also refers to American meat...
And predictably the fourth once again takes a tit-for-tat approach in justifying the assault as reciprocation for foreign occupiers (military and non-military alike) having raped Iraqi women.

The following comment lauds the writer of the story for authoring the piece in view of the risk to reputation and the general paucity of morals in the area (prostitution, homosexuality, raping of foreign women).

Afterward comes a comment in French that announces indeed no rape had occurred. If anything, the young man was guilty of failing to acculturate his foreign friend to the ways of interaction between the opposite sex in Morocco. Because they were friends and she had visited him before, there could not have been rape, you see.

And then a return to the 'squaring of accounts' response. I have perhaps exhausted the learning opportunity by this point. Take a look for yourself.