Harriet Jacobs’ Call to the North and FGM in America

Dear  Reader,

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?

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Harriet Jacobs’ Call to the North and FGM in America

  1. fern1007 says:

    If you are interested in this issue please check out Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali is a feminist writer who escaped a forced marriage and survived FGM. Her many books, such as Infidel: My Life and Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, opened my eyes to the horror of FGM and misplaced cultural relativism.
    Her foundation’s website is:
    http://www.theahafoundation.org/

  2. I enjoyed your post, and your suggestion that we should question all acts, even if they are done by other cultures. However, you point out early on that this is not a religious act, and we do not question it based on cultural relativity, but should we not question religious acts? If people were committing FGM for religious purposes would it be okay? Should FGM be tolerated in any instance? I certainly do not think so, and we need a group that stands up against it. We need people to question societal, cultural, and religious ideas. Sadly, we also discussed in class this week how hard it is to get a group together that all believes in one thing or shares a common experience. Not many people without an experience of FGM or knowledge of it are going to be willing to stand up against it. That discussion in class reminded me of a quote from a book I liked. I can’t find the exact quote anywhere, but I remember it to read something like this, “Pain only makes people feel sorry for themselves.” It reminded me of this quote because it is so hard to unite a group to stand up against something, when most people are only looking out for their self-interests.

  3. nicksalute says:

    Wow, this was a truly captivating post on an issue that I can tell you’re passionate about. I was exceptionally pleased with how you managed to tie the reading into a current-day affair, and the issue at hand certainly needs to be discussed. Although I am not familiar with FGM and its violent progression, the desire to speak up about it does in fact exist.
    When Jacob’s pleaded for a response to the tyranny that she was experiencing, it seems that the normalization of slavery at the time stifled responsive action. Perhaps the issue with the FGM silence follows the same path; because it has been normalized in SOME cultures, those who are culturally unaware tend to leave it a lone. As we discussed in a previous Morality and Politics class, even though morality may be deemed subjective, a line must be drawn somewhere as to what is considered right and wrong. If a culture supports rape, should we let it be?
    It seems that a possible solution to the FGM dilemma lies in communication. If more individuals became aware of this horrible practice, I feel that more individuals would stand up against it.
    We tend to underestimate the power of humans to put an end to global atrocities; it is crucial to give a voice to the voiceless, and do our part to help those in need.

    Great job on the post, and I hope that increased discussion on the matter assists in its elimination.

    • fern1007 says:

      Thank you kindly for your feedback and for articulating your thoughts in a very clear an concise way. I think you made a great point about “normalization” of certain aspects of cultures. And my specific example of FGM can obviously be used to critique other cultural practices, such as the astronomical rate of domestic violence in the United States. That is absolutely a cultural problem that Americans need to come to terms with and strive to eradicate.
      I sincerely hope that your belief in great discussion and more information about the brutality of FGM allows for the practice to become extinct within our borders. Given the nature of our class, with the honesty every student brings to the table, I feel that this can be accomplished.
      Thank you for your supportive and insightful comments!

  4. alphaomegawords says:

    Your post draws an interesting parallel from Jacobs’ plea to the free northerners with the contemporary issues surrounding the practice of FGM by some here in the United States. The idea that I would like to further discuss revolves around the concept of cultural relativity. Topics (like FGM) that revolve around questions of right/wrong, morality, sexuality, etc. are generally slippery slopes for those who embrace cultural or moral relativity. Due to the generally fluid nature that such views would allow, it makes it very difficult for the relativist to philosophically hold firm convictions or beliefs about such matters. However, the non-relativist holding to their beliefs faces their own set of difficulties because human fallibility in the application of those convictions can turn out to be blatantly wrong (i.e. those southerners who believed that their ‘christian’ faith not only allowed, but supported the institution of slavery). I would hope that we can all engage in constructive dialog about issues like this to both address them and identify and implement solutions to remedy them. In the process, however, I would hope that all involved would be willing to examine their views and to evaluate their worldview for potential inconsistencies (i.e. wrongly held beliefs/convictions, endorsement of relativism while advocating some stance as categorically right/wrong). This is one of the most fruitful exercises that any of us can do while pursuing education or engagement with the world of ideas. This reminder is at the heart of the quote from Jacobs and ought to implore all of us to consider complex issues, dialog/debate them, pursue resolutions, and much more. Many of us, however, are mostly content to engage in the mental exercises but lack the follow through of long-term evaluation of our particular view of the world, ideologies, belief, or philosophies coupled with tangible acts that bring that world of ideas to life in the real world.

    • fern1007 says:

      Wow, you made some great points, and I think it is important to be self-reflexive when we evaluate a cultural practice that we find morally reprehensible. It is of the utmost importance for students to dig deep, and not solely into areas of disagreement. It is often when we hear opinions that we deem correct that requires us to put on our critical thinking caps.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s