In our last class we discussed Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. The class as a whole gave great consideration to the plight of Jacobs, and also to her bravery. As we discussed The Fugitive Slave Act, few students brought up the following quote:
Why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north? Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right? Would that I had more ability! But my heart is so full, and my pen is so weak! There are noble men, and women who plead for us, striving to help those who cannot help themselves. God bless them! God give them strength and courage to go on! God bless those, every where [sic], who are laboring to advance the cause of humanity!
While I cannot speak for the whole class, I believe this quote proved meaningful to most. This quote may have made many of Jacobs’ contemporaries in the North blush at their general lack of support for abolition, and for not helping those slaves who had fled and may have been in their immediate area. Why did many “free men and women of the north” stay quiet? Did they feel pressure not to aid slaves because of institutional and personal racism? Were they concerned that their neighbors would judge them harshly? Some of us my think that surely we would have been active abolitionist, perhaps even helped fugitive slaves. Indeed, Jacobs’ words still cry out to us.
Yet, what does this quote mean for us today?
When I first read this quote, I could not help but think of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and its presence in America. FGM is defined, by the UN as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” (http://data.unicef.org/child-protection/fgmc#_ftn1) This means removal of the clitoris and often the inner and outer labia.
While the majority of FGM cases take place within Muslim countries, it is NOT a religious tenet written in the Koran. This means that it is not a religious practice, it is a cultural practice found within Muslim communities. For the purpose of this post, I will only draw parallels between the presence FGM in the United States and The Fugitive Slave Act, and not FGM as a practice in the rest of the world.
You may be asking yourself where this is going…
Eleanor Goldberg at The Huffington Post quotes a statistic from Sanctuary for Families (an organization that devastates for victims of domestic violence), ” It found that the number of girls and women at risk for FGM in the U.S.increased by 35 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to an analysis from the 2000 U.S. Census.” The United States is home to many vibrant immigrant communities including some predominately Muslim communities. For instance, Arizona over the past few years has become home to a large Somali refugee population. (http://www.allied-media.com/Somali_American/Somali_American_demographics.html) Somalia has a long documented history of practicing FGM (http://www.unicef.org/somalia/SOM_FGM_Advocacy_Paper.pdf) Some Muslim immigrants have brought the practice of FGM to America.
How should we respond?
Today, in many university settings, students are taught that cultural relativity is the only and correct way to evaluate other cultures, including immigrant communities inside the United States. I have personally been in a class discussing FGM and had fellow students tell me that I should not criticize this brutal practice, even inside the United States, because “it is not appropriate to criticize another person’s cultural practices.” It is not that my fellow students did not think FGM was harmful. They were simply unwilling to let go of their cultural relativity. While cultural relativity can be a wonderful thing, we must heed Jacobs’ call and speak out against cruelty and help to empower the those who are unable. These women and children living with the painful reality of FGM are telling us “…[w]ould that I had more ability! But my heart is so full, and my pen is so weak!”
Perhaps this comes as a shock to you, Dear Reader, and I hope it does. However, maybe you have also experienced this first hand. Perhaps you have been called a racist or a bigot because you dared to speak up about FGM.
Or maybe you subscribe to cultural relativity to the point that you will not criticize FGM
The more I think about Jacobs’ call to the free men and women of the north to not be silent, the more I think we as students of Arizona State University should be dedicated to aiding those who have been subjected to the horrors of FGM (not solely in American, but in the world). We should speak out against cultural relativism becomes a tool to silence speech. We should lift our voice for those who cannot. This means discussing FGM openly in class, and not giving into the fear that some of our classmates and professors will disagree with us.
Immigrant women and children are here in this country, where they are supposed to be guaranteed some modicum of personal autonomy, yet this practices goes on. Will our “tongues falter in maintenance of the right…” out of fear our classmates or professors may judge us?
How can we stay silent?