The Female Circumcision Cake

I’ve been traveling so I haven’t managed to sit down and write this post until now. On the way to Istanbul I saw a picture on my FB timeline of what looked like a black woman cake. I opened it and found this image:

At first I thought it was some kind of big joke. I mean how can a scene like this happen in 2012? Then I read the caption: Swedish minister at anti-female circumcision event, feeding cake of black woman who was just metaphorically circumcised to the head of the artist.

What?

The more I read & thought about it, the more crazy it seemed that this sh*t still happens today. The Swedish MINISTER OF CULTURE!

But then, how surprising is it, really? Living in the Netherlands has proven to me how racist discourses are still VERY strong, latent as they may be. Discourses such as the “white man’s burden” or “black culture oppressing Africans” or “we need to save them from themselves” are so prevalent that it isn’t actually *that* surprising to see an event like this happening in a country like Sweden.

And then defenders of the event & “art installation” bring up the fact that the artist is black, as though that makes everything okay.

The only good thing to come out of this disaster is the amount of brilliant, inspiring critiques from both Africans & Europeans (some at least). Just as with the Kony 2012 disaster, the outcry has been big. Since so many amazing critiques have already been written, I will just quote a few here, with whom I completely & utterly agree:

The event was launched with Swedish minister Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth cutting the first piece of cake from a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, which we understand was created by the Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman,  and is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake.

Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts off the genital area (clitoris)from the metaphorical cake, as the  artist Makode screams distastefully.  The gaze of the predominantly white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who  is positioned  at the crotch end,  as they look on at their visibly ebullient culture minister with seemingly  nervous laughter as she becomes a part of the performance – a re-enactment of FGM  on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman.

The work is definitely not empowering or transformative for women who are victims of FGM  in any shape or form, and the racial overtones of this project re-inscribe the exploitation and dehumanisation of black African women, which clearly cannot be denied.

One does not need to be subjected to the epistemic violence  underpinning the grotesque reconstruction of FGM,  in the form of a black woman having her clitoris cut off to the sound of  a laughing crowd with a fixed gaze,  drinks in hand, to raise awareness of this very serious issue.

 Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake.

As such We/African Women/African-Americans and many women of the African Diaspora the world over view this as an assault on our foremothers, sisters and our selves who have worked tirelesslly in different historical and cultural contexts to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular  and stereotypes of black women as  sluts, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent.

We view it as a racialised slur and an attempt at erasure of all that we have struggled for historically in order to genuinely empower African women the world over.

No one, including the artist seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities.

What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.

You can read the rest of this stunning critique here.

On a lighter note:

DAKAR. Africans say they have little hope that Europe will ever become civilized, after a week in which Spain’s King Carlos went on an elephant-killing spree and the Swedish Culture Minister was entertained by a racially offensive cake. “You can take the European out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the European,” sighed one resident of Kinshasa.

Read the rest here.

Needless to say, this is yet another shameful event in Europe that shows how integral & definitive their colonial “past” continues to be in defining their present.

The issue of “culture”

I think one of the most dominant pillars of the current Euro-American neocolonial project is the way it has used the notion of “culture” to oppress those in the East while at the same time freeing itself. There is little doubt that when a violent or negative event happens at the hands of someone who is not a white male, more often than not, that event falls on the shoulders of everyone in the race/gender/class/religion that the single person who committed the event is from. So when a Muslim man steals, this reflects on all Muslims. When a black woman abandons her child, this reflects on all black people. At the ideological level, this has become very predominant lately. When one Muslim is homophobic, not only are all Muslims homophobic – Islam itself is homophobic. When a woman spends hours in front of the mirror doing her hair, not only are all women obsessively into appearances – the female gender has some intrinsic quality that makes them obsess about appearance.

I was just watching an interesting lecture with Lila abu-Lughod, who criticizes this idea that “cultures of violence” only exist in lands far away from America. She points out that everyday in the US, women are raped, beaten, abused, and stigmatized – but American culture is never blamed. But when the focus is on Egyptian “culture” or Nigerian “culture” or Colombian “culture”, suddenly the violence becomes cultural. The problem with this is not only that it essentializes culture into one homogenous thing, but it is the fact that these discourses apply to “Others” and not to those who are in power. When a white male steals money from millions of Americans, this does not reflect on all white males, nor on American culture, nor on Judeo-Christianity. It reflects only on him. In other words, it is individualized. If he were anything but white, it would have been collectivized – i.e. all people sharing those characteristics would have been made to carry the burden/stigma.

A while ago I wrote a post on the global LGBTQ movement, and Steffo left this amazing comment in reply to another reader who asked what Muslims should do to fight homophobia, even if it was a result of colonial policies:

Homophobia/ queerphobia/ transphobia are always horrible, yes. But we have to look at the fact that if a colonized person is homophobic, that is made to represent their culture as a whole— this does not happen for the colonizers. So when homophobic or transphobic hatecrimes are carried out by white people, this is not seen as representing all white people. We do not find people saying that “white people are homophobic.” But when brown people do bad things, they are seen to represent all brown people. This is racist.

This is exactly what we need to fight against. Why are 2 billion Muslims suffering now because one man crashed into a building in New York? Why are all African-Americans seen as lazy and sexually promiscuous? Why are Eastern Europeans seen as opportunistic and violent? These discourses are extremely prevalent in not only the mainstream media but in academic and intellectual circles as well. This shows how effective the Empire has been at locating certain issues in “culture.”

Cultural arguments are distributed unevenly around the world as explanations for what we are seeing, and if I had to think of one culture to blame for the violence affecting women in the Arab world, it would be that of armed conflict and militarism exemplified by invasions and occupations, like the US of Afghanistan and Iraq; and of Israel to Palestine. We don’t normally relate militarism to American culture or to Judaism or Protestantism, though in these cases, one could say that. But we don’t. We call it politics. And we see that it is connected to economics and so on (Lila abu-Lughod).

Lila gives an example from Palestine, where she shows how Palestinian feminists have traced forms of family violence to the larger political situation of harassment, humiliated men living in poverty, of besieged families living in fear in inhumane conditions. Palestinian women point at the larger structural issues affecting their lives, without brushing under the carpet local family issues. You cannot isolate gender relations from the context of occupation and simply blame it on “Palestinian/Islamic culture.” Not only is this simplistic, but I also don’t believe it is a coincidence or mistake. It happens, repeatedly, in order to produce people of colour/women/LGBTQs as essentially backwards/violent/problematic. 

This reminds me of an article I read last year about how the experiences of going through Apartheid in South Africa can be directly linked to the widespread violence among black men today in the country. The author gave a detailed historical overview of thee effects of Apartheid on black men; economically, politically, socially, psychologically, personally; and then went on to show how these are still manifesting themselves in modern-day South African society. But instead of analyses such as this one, we constantly hear how (black) South African men are naturally violent/can’t control themselves/dangerous and therefore that they need to be disciplined. Again, the reasons are “cultural” and in this case specifically “racial.”

As long as we focus on gendered violence of the personal sphere as though it were detached from the larger, global political sphere, and as long as we selectively blame other cultures or religions for women’s suffering instead of focusing on bigger structures that dictate how women live their lives, structures we in the west are hugely responsible for creating, we won’t be able to solve anything (Lila abu-Lughod).