This is an article I recently penned for Gender across Borders. It chronicles the nuances, complexities of intersectionality living. If you can deconstruct that sentence, you my friend are a star. Please check out their blog, and their good work. http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2011/04/29/somalia-and-its-discontents/
I once attended a women’s conference in Alberta, and the topic of discussion revolved around the lived experiences of Muslim-Canadian women who are forced to operate amongst two often-competing paradigms. A semi-prominent social scientist began her treatise against the illiberal cultural practice of female genital circumcision, and the oppressive cultural space Somali women inhabit. This orientalist continued to discuss Somali women as if she were discussing zoo animals on an episode of national geographic, and continued her rant without any regards to the actual lived experiences of Somali women. When I interjected, and explained that Somali women are active agents in this exploitive practice, and not passive spectators in their own subjugation, she dismissed my opinions and accused of me being a patriarchal apologist. I explained that this is a cultural practice performed, encouraged, and maintained by women, within the confines of a patriarchal society. Many human rights activists have challenged the legitimacy of FGM as a cultural institution; and have called upon governments to ban this practice. But many of these activists fail to understand the cultural importance of female genital circumcision to the individuals that practice it.
While it is an oppressive practice, purveyors of this tradition view it as liberation, for how can ‘womanhood’ be constructed without the cutting of a woman’s perceived sexually deviant clitoris. In the eyes of the protectors of ‘Somali culture’, to attack female genital circumcision is to attack the Somali women, as this is as customary as dolls given to little girls. I do not suggest we accept this excuse, or lend legitimacy to it, but we must listen to these narratives, as understanding the context around this social institution is important in abolishing it. If one depicts a visual representation of submissive and docile Somali woman, then one overlooks the powerful role Somali women play in legitimizing this tradition. In my own experience, it was my father and uncle who objected to this practice, and saved my siblings and I from the unjust fate experienced by many Somali women, while my mother supported it. She continued her lecture, again ignoring the voices of the women she claims to fight on behalf of, and completely rejecting my analysis.
I remember having this feeling of déjà-vu, as I am persistently playing a mediator between the global north and south. When amongst my Somali co-nationals, I am charged with being the westernized feminist who seeks to delegitimize important cultural institutions. When I’m amongst western feminists, I am the apologist for tyrannical and anti women institutions. And to this academic, I was simply a brainwashed African woman in need of the protection of liberalism.
My experience is not unique. There are many women who are forced into this mediator role by competing cultural paradigms. If I lend political and social agency to Somali women, and reject the limited narratives about my homeland, then I am in solidarity with patriarchy. On the other hand, if I challenge and call on Somali women/African women to address our subjugation at the hands of our men, I am merely the political messenger of the West. I think much of this conflict stems from society’s need to group cultures into comfortable boxes, so we may understand and place judgment upon them. Even within a specific cultural perspective, like that of Somali women, there exists many multi-dimensions. As a Canadian of Somali descent, my experiences and challenges are different from a Somali woman living in war torn Mogadishu. As a feminist, and political activist, I find it at times difficult to mediate these worldviews, as I feel I am often caught in the middle between the civilizations.
When one thinks of Somalia, one imagines our planets version of hell, with images of pirates, warlords, FGM, and poverty fresh in the minds of the public. While these images are part of a society in chaos, it is reductionist, and these limited accounts provide little support to the efforts of dividing the cultural gap between global women. Women are complex, our experiences are nuanced, and our struggles cannot be summed up in a PHD dissertation. The image of the oppressed African women does little to support African feminists, and our quest for social justice. Similarly, the perception of western women amongst African women must be re-evaluated, and not reduce an entire movement to western imperialism. If we want to address and devise solutions to our common/uncommon problems, we must accept our multidimensional layers of our experiences and identities, while rejecting the ‘othering’ of our fellow sisters.