Words matter, especially when they’re about FGM/C.

For the past couple of months, one particular topic has been following me around. I wrote a final paper on it last semester. A paper on the same topic crossed my desk for editing about a month later. And finally, this past week as part of another course I had to comment and peer review yet another paper on the issue. What is it, and what do I feel so compelled to blog about it?

So let’s talk about FGM/C, also know as Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision. If you have issues with this topic, and need to “applesauce” it, which we say in our friend group as a safe word, then please, scroll down and read another one of our lovely posts on a less violent and uncomfortable subject. But if your curiosity is piqued and you want to know more, read on.

I won’t go into the details of FGM/C here, if you’re unfamiliar feel free to consult the UNHCR or other organizations for info.

Also, this is going to be a long one, folks.

When I wrote my paper on FGM/C, I spent a decent amount of time reading the writings, statements, interviews, POVs, etc. of women who had been through the process. I particularly liked Empathy and Rage: Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature because it opened my eyes to why so many people (including both writers of the other papers) get FGM/C wrong, and how the current views in our millennial culture grossly misrepresent it and the people that the practice impacts.

Let me be clear. I do believe that FGM/C is a human rights violation and that we, as an international community, should support the women and communities who are trying to provide those alternatives to the practice. However, I vehemently disagree with the way FGM/C is represented, how the women and communities in regions where FGM/C is practiced are not given voice or agency, and how judgmental, paternalistic attitudes attempting to “address” or “end” the practice are used to discuss the issue.

The broad, sweeping stereotypes regarding “cultures” that practice FGM/C, or as the papers I read described “Africa” are usually the first issue that comes up. “Africa” is a region of the globe, not a homogenous collection of similar or like-minded states. In fact, there is arguably no place on earth that has as numerous and disparate groups as in Africa. So while it may be convenient for writers to broadly generalize, such stereotypes are perpetuating the white man’s burden and sentiments of a backward Africa, and are completely unhelpful at promoting effective, locally contextualized programs or projects.

Addressing locality of an issue is a logistical necessity, but rather than alienating particular groups or regions, I believe it is best to approach the topic more broadly. Rather than saying, “African cultures practice this horrible practice and we must work to end it,” why not first acknowledge that there are terrible human rights violations occurring in all nations? If we must point fingers, then at least we will not fall into age-old trap of “a spec in another’s eye, a log in our own.” If outside involvement must happen, at least take up the fight not from a single perspective, but only while acknowledging others’. And perhaps the best way to assist is to simply stop perpetuating stigmas about the cultures in which FGM/C takes place.

Maybe now is a good time to pause and recognize all the amazing work that women across disparate groups practicing FGM/C are already doing to make great strides in replacing this practice with other coming of age traditions, with education, and alternatives that provide a similar function within the society while not perpetuating violence against women or supporting any patriarchal structures. This seems to be underappreciated (read: not mentioned) in the peer papers that I’ve read.

It is also important to note that some women feel empowered by this practice, and no matter what myself or any other western millennial believes personally about its status as a human rights violation, the voices of those women should be recognized and validated. I can understand and respect taking proud ownership of one’s body and what it has gone through, especially when the process is an historical and cultural tradition. All the more power to you.

Moving right along with my other concerns.

Words have immense power. Words such as “barbaric,” “horrifying,”and “atrocious” when used to describe FGM/C are not limited only to the practice itself, but are implicitly thrust upon the societies and people who practice it. It is not appropriate to use caustic words to rile up people and make a call to action at the expense of degrading other people and societies. When will we stop self-righteously picking pet projects and waving around our white savior flag? Because that’s what I feel like many of my peers, and even myself, are often tempted to do.

My plan is not to throw my hands up in surrender and say, well, I can’t do anything because my actions will be degrading other cultures. Not at all. I am not saying that we be culturally relativistic. Although, because people from those cultures are standing up and calling to end the practice of FGM/C themselves (and these are the people we should be supporting, either verbally or perhaps with financial assistance), there is an argument to be made that we could in fact, support the end of FGM/C and still be culturally relativistic (if excluding the option that they are only doing this having been influenced by Western notions, and I doubt this).

I believe that this is the best place for me to stand. Behind the women and communities from societies practicing FGM/C and support them in their efforts to change the status quo for the better of all humankind. I will stand in solidarity as much as possible. My hope is that this post will help remove the stigmas and social constructs that are making their work more difficult.

 

‘Till next time,

Natalie

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A Jew, A Catholic, A Protestant, Two Pagans, and a Familiar Have a Passover Seder

Actually, that might not give a totally accurate view of the full diversity we had there, but you get the gist. A more accurate title might be “A Jewish Atheist, A Catholic Christopagan, a Protestant Almost-Buddhist, a Celtic Pagan, A Nordic Buddhist Pagan, a Familiar, and Three Tarot Decks (They Really Need to Be Counted as People) are at a Seder, and A Catholic Shows Up Late” but that’s not really as snappy, is it?

This post is a joint effort by the Catholic Christopagan (me, Danny) and the Protestant Almost-Buddhist (Nat) to describe the experiences we had at the Passover Seder we had with our friend who unfortunately could not go home to have it with her family this year.

Danny’s Experience

I know, I know, a couple of Christians talking about their Jewish friend, how trite, but hey, I’m a religious studies major, when I have a religious experience, I can’t help myself.

The Seder was not really what I expected. I mean, I don’t know what I expected, and it certainly wasn’t a completely traditional one. We joked a lot. We asked for clarifications a lot. We interspersed discussions of each of our own spiritualities, and the clear relations we saw. It was all wonderful, however  few things stood out to me.

The first thing that struck me was the ceremonial hand-washing. This struck me as a Roman Catholic who had once been an altar server, that this was the first time I saw the origins of what I had done many Sundays on an altar for years. I knew for at least half of those years that the Last Supper that we acted out every Sunday was a Passover seder. The sheer fact of doing the Seder, shortly after Easter, was powerful. I was excited, thrilled, to be participating in something integrated in my religion in it’s own religious context, in a context closer to how the man I followed would have done it.

But it truly hit me at this moment: We shuffled through the bathroom, our Jewish friend turning the faucet on for each of us in turn then offering a towel, until she was the only one left. She handed me the towel and said, you’ve done this before, because I had, and I had known I had, basically, but I didn’t fully realize it until the towel was on my arm, and I was turning the faucet, that for years and years standing on an altar I held a jug of water, a towel, and a basin, and poured water over my priest’s hands before the Communion, and I was doing this ceremony again, differently, in a new way, with a completely new mindset.

The second thing that struck me most was the Dayenu prayer-song. The blessings given to the Jewish people as they left Egypt, escaped their pursuers, and received the Word of God were listed, and each time, at each step, we spoke a chorus “Dayenu”, a Hebrew word that means “it would have been enough”. At each step, if nothing else happened, if no more blessings were bestowed, we said, “it would have been enough”. This is beautiful and grounding and perhaps one of the greatest gifts given to me in this experience, this reminder. It was such a grounding concept, to think each step of the way, at each great gift, that even if nothing more followed, even if there was still negativity and bad conditions around, the gift was still there, and it was enough, it was something to be grateful for.

The final thing was the moment when we ate matzah with horseradish and an apple-cinnamon mix. For those who have not had this lovely experience, you eat through half of the matzah covered in horseradish, through to the apple mix. This is supposed to represent passing through hardship and bitterness to get to sweetness. I got the horseradish in my mouth, and then my body did this lovely thing where it refused to let me swallow because of how much I hate the taste of horseradish in my mouth, so I just sat there suffering with it sitting on my tongue, because I did not intend on being rude (or a wimp) and spitting it out, but my throat would not swallow.

But let me tell you, when I got that canned apple pie filling (this was a college student Passover, after all), it was the sweetest and most lovely thing that has ever been in my mouth. It was a type of visceral symbolism that Catholicism had never given me, not cruel, not over the top, but perfectly satisfactory to the occasion.

We spend religious holidays together at school when we can’t go home for them, because we don’t want each other to be alone. I did this for a friend, but I think I got more of a gift than she did. I say this not to make something so entirely Jewish about me, a non-Jew, but instead to express how lucky and grateful I am to have had such an experience. I felt closer to my Lord than I had after many a Catholic mass, and though I don’t think I suddenly know what it means to be Jewish, let alone a first century Palestinian Jew, I think I’m a little closer to understanding the messages He left. My spiritual landscape is changing, I am shifting paradigms and my relationship to the Divine, and if participating in a Passover Seder was the only thing the Lord gave me to guide me on my path, well, it would have been enough.

Nat’s Experience

This was actually my second Seder. The first happened a couple weeks prior, in my hometown, with my grandparents and their Christian congregation being led by Messianic Jews in the community.

It began innocently enough, with everyone a bit impatient but curious, and very respectful. But gradually, the regard for the sanctity of the event was lost to political commentary and crude, oversimplification of things like the “Palestinian-Israeli situation.” It got so bad, and I became so upset that I quietly left the auditorium where the dinner was being for a brief evening walk in the last lights of the day.

I don’t claim to have a personal stake in the issue. I’m not Jewish nor do I have relatives who are affected by the conflict. However, I have worked with women’s grassroots organizations working for a peaceful solution when I interned this past summer. And I do have friends whose hearts are close to this issue. And seeing an event, a sacred practice and ritual that is meant to bring people together be used to further divisiveness and fuel conflict and hatred was just too much.

Which brings me to my second Seder.

This one took place at my apartment, which I have with great commitment and pains attempted to nurture good and calming vibes. Some peacefulness in the life of anyone is good, but particularly stressed out undergrads. This Seder was led by my Jewish friend, someone I consider very close to me, and was attended/participating with others in our friend group. A diverse, eclectic group of people from varied backgrounds, childhoods and upbringings, religions, and academic disciplines. But what we had in common was what brought us together that night, and was, I believe, one of the main purposes of rituals like the Seder.

First, we wanted to support our Jewish friend who was far from her community and her home. Second, and the more selfish but more honest reason, was to participate in and honor the struggles of a people who overcame enormous odds and hatred to not only survive, but thrive. For a brief evening, we were allowed to enter into this community and experience the minutest portion of this struggle, perseverance, and overcoming to help us realize our own determination to overcome and succeed. For me, it was both a reminder of others immense struggles and a reminder of the ones that I have overcome and will overcome.

I am immensely grateful to have been a part of such a tradition, and I have only thankfulness and respect for the people of this tradition.

Next year in Jerusalem!

What I Did for Beltane

For those who don’t know, Beltane is celebrated on May 1st, and is celebrated as a secular holiday in many places as May Day. In Celtic tradition, Beltane (Bealtaine) was a fire festival bringing in the beginning of summer. The celebrations often including young men and women collecting wood for the bonfire the night beforehand, and on returning livestock would be passed between two bonfires to ward off disease. As such, Beltane is also a fertility holiday, and a traditional time for witchcraft work having to do with love (though many Neopagans speak against love spells directed towards a specific person, spells for general help in the romantic sphere are acceptable). This holiday is generally a lively celebration, and a time to let go of inhibitions.

What did I do for Beltane?

Almost nothing.

I lit a candle (jasmine) and burned some incense (rose and lavender), and I sat at my desk chock full of DayQuil and attempted to write a paper.

This paper is a final for a religion class titled “The Story of the Universe”, and the paper is giving me a headache. I had little idea what I was going to write on, and at first explored what interested me as I was developing my own new cosmology: Celtic paganism.

I am beginning to accept to my own sadness that Celtic tradition might not hold a lot for me, and I had little interest in reporting on the tradition. So instead, this became more a creative writing project than a paper per se, and I decided to begin to write on what I believe, and use that as a base to answer the question of my class: What is a cosmic person?

I could answer that question for someone else, follow a disconnected cosmology, research and cite and find what wisdom some other tradition offers, but instead I am trying to find the wisdom I’m developing, searching to see if I have the answer in my changing spirituality.

Yesterday, Beltane 2016, I had a hard time writing a paper, but I sat down and worked on it, I wrote through my ideas of the divine masculine, my ideas of the divine feminine, my ideas of the source of life, of the physical and metaphysical, of travel through the Wheel of the Year, and of the Holy Days of Catholicism, and I may not have had any revelation but I solidified words inside me that had yet to be turned into words. Maybe I did something for Beltane.

So, if Beltane is getting a party this year, it wasn’t yesterday. It will be later in May, my birthday, my 21st birthday. This signifies something of the reason I have transitioned my own faith system into the Neopagan paradigm. If this is a holiday of freedom and excitement, celebration of light and my favorite element fire, if it is joy and growth and the Triple Goddess entering a new life stage, then I truly ought to celebrate it when it feels right, and sure it seems silly to call getting inebriated on my 21st birthday religious, but I truly believe that if I do a spell, a meditation, an offering for Beltane, if I attempt to connect to the Divine in nature and in myself and in the cosmos, that is where it belongs, at least this year. It certainly doesn’t belong in the middle of papers and finals stress.

Oh, and I guess this is something to, because this writing is the first time I’m attaching my name to paganism online.