Seeing the “other” as a “you”
How local narratives can help us to reach the promise of cosmopolitanism
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) “includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (WHO, 2017). In the communities where it is practiced, FGM is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. The procedure is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15 by traditional circumcisers, or by health care providers who have the erroneous belief that FGM is safer when medicalized (WHO, 2017).
It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (WHO, 2017) — although it is also common among migrant communities in North America, Europe, and Australia, as noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2010).
For the HRW (2010), FGM is a violation of human rights in a number of ways. In a general dimension, it violates “women’s and children’s human rights, including their rights to health, to be free from violence, to life and physical integrity, to non-discrimination, and to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”. In a specific dimension, particular instruments, declarations, and resolutions explicitly directed to FGM are raised. In addition, I would argue that FGM could even be considered a form of genocide.
Despite the popular view that genocide always involves killing, as Balabanova (2015: 88) explains, the 1948 Genocide Convention (Article 2) states that it is also related to ‘causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group’ and ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’. So, if gender groups were entitled to protection within the UN definition of genocide, FGM would probably fit as a form of genocide.
Some groups are not protected within the UN definition of genocide (i.e. members of political parties, disabled people, regional, gender or cultural groups). In addition, if genocide can be also understood as the ‘whole’ or ‘partial’ destruction of a group, what proportions of the whole constitutes a part is not specified. Finally, it is necessary to prove an intent to destroy a group, however the convention does not specify how this intent is to be proven, nor the extension of its the degree. Such features and ambiguities challenge a clear definition of what can be constituted as genocide (Balabanova, 2015: 88–89).
In any case, who holds responsibility?
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) points out that it is a duty of the national governments to modify customs that discriminate against women; to abolish practices that are harmful to children; to ensure health care and access to health information; and to ensure a social order in which rights can be realized (UN Women, 2017). Other institutions (HRW, 2010; WHO, 2017) highlight the responsibility of the medical community worldwide and international organisms such as UN, WHO, and UNICEF.
Moreover, the media are also responsible for not only reporting, but also covering (Gregory, 2016: 197) possible and ongoing violations of human rights, while pressuring governments and global community for taking action and holding their duties. Another dimension of media responsibility is its cosmopolitanising potential. Considering the context of globalization and the digital revolution, Chouliaraki & Blaagaard (2013) talk about the possibilities of new authenticity (new principles on representing and voicing the realities of distant others) and new solidarity (encouraging a sense of responsibility and care towards others beyond our own communities of belonging) in news journalism.
Going in this direction is “Needlecraft”, a short animated film that aims to inform and raise awareness about FGM. It begins by presenting us, the audience, a colorful needlework scenario with a delicate soundtrack. We are then introduced to Maria, a catchy girl who tells us how she loves dancing, and playing outdoors. Suddenly, we are surprised by someone taking Maria out of her innocent happy world and assaulting her with a knife, metaphorically cutting her. The video then brings the message “A girl is perfect — why cut her?”, along with information on FGM and how to help girls at risk. The final image shows Maria back in her beautiful ideal world and accompanied by her community followed by the message “Together we can end FMG”.
If analyzed from Cavarero’s perspective (Hanafin, 2012), “Needlecraft” shows potential to fit as an absolute local narrative. Cavarero defines the absolute local as the space where politics is not demarcated by the boundaries of the state, and where the thinking of rights goes beyond the institutionalized rights discourse (Cavarero cited by Hanafin, 2012: 331). It is about who people are; not what they are or represent. In this sense, the ‘who’ is not the other (a disembodied, abstract subject), but merely another, someone with a face, a name, a history, someone one could easily call ‘you’ (ibid.).
In “Needlecraft”, this another (or you) is Maria. Besides the narrative, the visual use of needlework textures also helps us to build this proximity, as it makes us feel her pain in our skin in an almost literal metaphor. The definition of geographical boundaries and the institutionalized rights discourse is approached in a few moments when the video brings information about how many countries practice FGM, or how the practice is penalized in the UK. Even so, in my perspective, the animation per-se goes beyond that, if not accomplishing, at least aiming for a cosmopolitics of singularities (Cavarero cited by Hanafin, 2012: 330).
As some scholars advert, the extensive use of testimonials to approach human rights claims can be counter-productive. Drawing on Moeller, Gregory (2006) explains that compassion fatigue happens when audiences, faced with an overwhelming series of miserable, violent, suffering scenes, “lose or abdicate their ability to respond with caring to a situation” (Moeller cited by Gregory 2006: 197). In the same vein, Avini talks about the ‘dark side’ of the visual and narrative culture of human rights witnessing. According to her, it can lead to a “mass-mediated economy of suffering, one in which victimhood is reified and fetishized” (Avini cited by McLagan 2006: 194).
“Needlecraft”, however, finds a good balance between suffering and compassion. The fact that Maria is not a real witness and the fact that we are presented to an animation rather than real graphic images help to soften the fatigue that the film could create. At the same time, we still can connect with the girl as an existing individual, as a ‘you’ who is struggling and needs help, which explains why we are compelled to care.
It is also interesting to notice that “Needlecraft” is inserted in a wider context. The film is part of the FGM Guardian Global Media Campaign. The project makes use of witnessing in a collection of videos and articles in order to convey the stories of the “real Marias”. It is all about those girls and women — in the case of the videos, for example, there is almost no participation of journalists on screen. Besides projects like this, citizen journalism could also be used to advocate against FGM. If developed within the communities, citizen journalism could help documenting not only stories that have already happened, but also why the practice persists in a daily basis, which could assist on the prevention of FGM and not only in its remediation.
I have already talked about our difficulty in dealing with the “other” here, but in another perspective. Check it out and let me know your thoughts!
This is an adapted version of a course paper I wrote during my Master’s degree at JMK — Stockholm University, 2017. You are welcome to use it, just make sure to include this post in your list of sources/references.
Balabanova, E. (2015) The Media and Human Rights: The Cosmopolitan Promise. Abindon: Routledge.
Chouliaraki, L. & Blaagaard, B. (2013). “Cosmopolitanism and the New News Media”, in Journalism Studies 14(2): 150–155.
Gregory (2006). “Transnational Storytelling: Human Rights, Witness, and Video Advocacy” in American Anthropologist (2006), 108(1): 192–220, special issue: “Visual Anthropology: Technologies of Witnessing: The Visual Culture of Human Rights”.
Hanafin, P. (2012) “A rights to politics? Towards an agonistic cosmopolitics of human rights”, in Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies, Abingdon: Routledge.
McLagan, M. (2006). “Introduction: Making Human Rights Claims Public” in American Anthropologist (2006), 108(1): 192–220, special issue: “Visual Anthropology: Technologies of Witnessing: The Visual Culture of Human Rights”.
The Guardian (2016). Needlecraft. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2016/may/02/needlecraft-an-animated-story-on-female-genital-mutilation-video. Accessed: March 20, 2017.
World Health Organization (2017). Female genital mutilation. Available: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/ . Accessed: March 12, 2017.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (n.d.). Sources of international human rights law on Female Genital Mutilation. Available: http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/645-sources-of-international-human-rights-law-on-female-genital-mutilation.html. Accessed: March 12, 2017.
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