Radical Empathy: Understanding the Mother-Daughter Relationship in FGM
[Originally published with Women in the World]
Empathy is the act of putting yourself in the shoes of another in order to reach an emotional state where the other person’s emotions are not only understood, but are also felt with equal pain and grit. Radical empathy reaches further, to break up the layers of the soul that have hardened over time; hardened layers that don’t allow for growth or new ways of viewing the world and our place in it.
Carrying empathy beyond a catch-phrase and into practice, writer Eleanor Stanford calls it an exercise of basic human decency, stating that radical empathy is a recognition “that other people have different experiences from your own and trying to understand what those experiences might feel like.” Stanford poignantly notes the practice of “human beings talking to each other as human beings” is critical, especially now, given “America’s deep divisions, [where] everyone wants to feel that they, at least, have compassion.”
However there is a difference between empathy and compassion. While empathy humanizes without judgement, creating space for awareness of collective grief and pain as part of an evolving experience in what it means to be human, compassion stops short of simply recognizing the problem exists. Compassion alone, without radical empathy as the guiding principle, is often how prejudice against a community is exhibited kindly. One can say they care about a community of affected women, but without understanding that group and humanizing all members within that group (especially those whom we may not want to develop an understanding for), we run the high risk of masking xenophobia and bigotry with a mask of compassion. In other words, how many times have we heard, “Look at what is happening to those women,” without any further conversation on the nuances of what it means to belong in a community with and as “those women.”
In my evolving experience as a Muslim Reformer that subtle delineation between compassion and hate has been ripe in the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) surrounding the landmark Detroit FGM trial over the last year.
In April 2017 federal charges were brought against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an American-born doctor from Michigan’s Dawoodi Bohra community who performed female genital mutilation (FGM) on two seven-year-old girls. In September 2017, charges were also brought against the girls’ mothers. Of the many contentious women’s rights issues raised in 2017, the FGM trial is ripe to become another lightning rod issue moving into 2018 as we continue exploring the many layers of consent and autonomy over women’s bodies. Including in this is the subsequent discussion around education versus criminalizing FGM at the state level.
The state-to-state battle over how states need to define laws against FGM, and what those penalties look like, has spread from Michigan to Minnesota and Maine. The FBI has also expanded the radar for FGM victims to over ten states including California, Illinois, and New York — a move that is partly shadowed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an effort to act preventatively and also better identify victims.
For many, the move is seen as further deepening the stigma of criminalization with immigration. In speaking with FGM survivors and anti-FGM activists, the preferred method of prevention and identification is not through just law enforcement, but through an equal emphasis on soft outreach. Activists believe that engaging communities compassionately is the far more receptive and effective way to stop FGM.
Herein lies the value in radical empathy. Radical empathy offers a third path that relieves pressure from a tug-of-war between educating communities and criminalizing behavior. It starts by understanding how the cultural significance of FGM in the foundational layer of community: between mother and child.
The Damaging Effect of Regressive Cultural Evolution
FGM occurs in cultures that anchor female security and success within the framework of marriage. For this purpose, FGM becomes a ritual to make women in a group more eligible for marriage. In other words, it is a forced anatomical correction to reinforce cultural preferences in that community. An article in the Economist titled “Cultural Evolution and The Mutilation of Women” compares the impact of cultural adaptations to biological adaptations:
“Cultural evolution is generating conformity in the same sort of way that biological
evolution does when the plumage of male bird must conform to female expectation of
what a male looks like if that male is to mate successfully, even though brings no other
In studying communities impacted by FGM, there is a consensus in understanding cultures have leaned toward the biological alterations they believe leads to social success. However, there is only minimal exploration into the psychological ramifications of the practice that looks at all links in the chain before arriving at the end point: the cut girl-child. Doing so humanely and without blame would require radical empathy.
When an emerging woman — the young girl on her way to womanhood — is cut-off from her own deeply intuitive state, both physically and mentally, she’s dulled from her ability to perceive and react to her environment. This makes it harder for a woman to know when she is being transgressed and how to respond, let alone how that transgression impacts other women around her, including her own daughters.
When a culture cuts a woman off from her own intuitive self, it also primes her to look toward other people in her life who are still treated as whole: men. It’s a regressive cultural evolution that produces an environment void of harmonic balance between male and female. Not only does it defer to men, it also gives men the proverbial conch to continue to marginalize and sometimes eradicate the female voice. This is not to demonize men, since we’re dealing with men who in many cases have grown up with distorted archetypes of the mature masculine.
For the boy-child, he is growing up in an environment alongside his sisters, conditioned at an early age on the normalization of disparity between males and females. The next generation of loves, parents, leaders, grow up with no inherited knowledge that women are nurturers and strongest when fully self-possessed and embodying the full scope of their womanhood. Rather, they grow up in a home that became a cage, where women are over-domesticated, and natural and creative energy of females is severed.
When families live within this framework everyday, it makes it easier for a mother to offer her daughter for FGM or “female circumcision,” a procedure she had likely also gone through. This reinforces taboos of purity to secure social acceptance, and normalizes variants of domestic abuse and results in higher rates of forced marriages of little girls.
When we discuss the Detroit FGM trial, a common question raised by those outside this community, is why a mother would allow this to happen to her daughter.
This is how it happens: mothers are “tamed” long before a daughter is “tamed.” A woman tricked into forfeiting a part of herself cannot help her daughter escape it as long as she herself is still part of that unaffected culture. We can understand (but not agree with) how a mother can allow a ritual cutting to take place on her young daughter by first understanding the mother herself was long cut off from her intuitive self. The first cut near paralyzes her ability to cultivate instincts that empower her to identify predatory patterns and break from the rigidity of ritualistic behavior.
Deploying Radical Empathy
Understanding why a mother would subject her own daughter to FGM is key to moving us out of bigotry and into radical empathy. Go beyond compassion for the victims and try to understand the other people involved. Once you do this you cannot hate the mothers and other women in these communities; you’ll even find it a little difficult to hate the men in these rigid patriarchies.
These are not broken people. These are people who have been made to be dispossessed from themselves. As a nation we now recognize this issue because of the spotlight the landmark FGM trial has put on communities afflicted with FGM. But the community and its need for healing, is no different from other areas of society where there are predatory forces that need compassion and acts of empathy.
These communities cannot move forward organically until the predatory elements within it are understood and unworked. This is often difficult, in part, because citizenship and outward adoption of Western values doesn’t necessarily include the acceptance and practice of American values in immigrant communities.
To ensure that communities shed the predatory skin of the culture they’ve been anchored to (without losing the beauty within those cultures), education and outreach initiatives must understand the many layers that build up identity within those cultures, and then work within those to change perception. We must work to respectfully nurture the intuition of women in these communities by strengthening the community through programs and initiatives that celebrate individuals, breaking them out of hyper-normalcy without looking to “educate” with tone and rhetoric that implies superiority of one people over another.
Photo by Jason Ashwood.