Female bodily mutilation
Hello, it was a woman’s voice. Yes, hello. Is that the post-grad room in Sussex University? Yes, I replied cautiously. Can I speak to Ayesha Imam? Well, no, she hasn’t come in yet. Do you want to leave a message…? Yes, could you please tell her I called, my name is… I am a TV producer. I’ll call again, after lunch, thanks. Okay, sure, I replied.
Ayesha came in late. She was well-known in university feminist circles, and much admired. We shared office space, and the rest of us would often receive phone calls intended for her. A call from Dakar inviting her to a Women Living under Muslim Laws conference. Or a call from Channel Four, inviting her to be a panellist. Keen intelligence, a cutting sense of humour, a Nigerian father and a Chinese mother. Beautiful ancestry, beautiful eyes. I passed on the message to her as soon as she came in. Ayesha frowned. Why, what’s the matter? They want to make a programme on FGM, female genital mutilation in Africa, but, well… how shall I put it… hmm what do I say? Well, what about….
Soon after lunch, the phone rang. I was working at the other end of the room but I could clearly hear this end of the conversation. ‘Yes, of course I am very interested, but surely you are not thinking of making a programme on female genital mutilation only. I think there are broader issues involved, I think there’s a core issue, that of female bodily mutilation, and surely that’s a universal phenomenon. It manifests differently in Western societies… I mean, it’s not the same in all cultures, not the same interests everywhere… in some places it’s religion, or customs, somewhere else, there are commercial interests, there’s advertising, and yes also, medical science. The issue is female bodily mutilation, I think that’s how male-centredness is secured in social life. I am sure you are thinking of covering all aspects in your programme, clitoridectomy, infibulation of course all these, but also let’s say, hmm, you know Western practices, like silicone breasts, liposuction, collagen implants in lips? Of course, in choosing these, Western women exercise their freedom, and African women are forced into submission, they have no say etc, etc, but surely we can go beyond these ideas, delve a bit deeper?’
A wicked smile hovered on Ayesha’s lips as she told me, ‘She didn’t sound enthusiastic today.’
The producer did not get in touch with Ayesha later. Maybe her funding sources had dried up. Maybe she couldn’t get hold of a sponsor. Or maybe she didn’t like the comparison between Middle Eastern/African, and Western women.
This was 1993.
A special alien
She is American and teaches photography. She had come with her husband and two other friends for dinner, about three weeks ago. As they were leaving, she asked me, ‘…and when do we get to see you in New York?’ I immediately replied, ‘In that police state? No, never.’ I quickly turned to Shahidul and egged him, ‘Go on, tell her about your Special Alien status. Tell her what you went through in your last visits to the US.’ Shahidul didn’t need much persuasion. ‘There was a long line at the airport, I think this was 2005, they took my fingerprints, my photograph, asked a lot of questions. I was led into another room, a large room with long queues. Latinos, Asians, Africans.’ ‘Any whites?’ I butted in. ‘Just a few. When it was finally my turn, more questions. Why had I come? For how many days? Where would I stay? Who would I meet? Had I ever visited America before? How many times? Why? Would I be travelling to other states? Why? I could see that he had all the answers at his fingertips, from the visa form I had filled in at the US embassy in Dhaka. But I guess, they hope to tire you out, so that you slip. They took my fingerprints and photograph again, as if my prints, my face had changed in a matter of hours!
‘When I left the States I didn’t know that I’d have to go through the same process. When I entered the US again, on another visit, they looked into their computers and warned me, if you fail to exit properly the next time, you’ll be banned for life. Yes, that’s what they said! And y’see, when you are departing, the NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) room for visitors who are exiting is located somewhere else, it’s not the same room, or even the same terminal. Pretty confusing. And in each airport, it’s some place else. Looking for it is a hassle. I remember missing my flight. I had to go through security check, go out of the building, get registered as a Special Alien, this means questions, fingerprints, photographs, then come in again, into the main airport building. Three security checks, in all. And that’s how it’s been, since then. But it depends on who you get, at one of the airports all the officials were Latino, they were very nice. They had to do their job but they weren’t gung-ho, no, not at all.’
‘How can you live there?’ I couldn’t help asking her. ‘And of course, you must know about these detention centres that are being built, for… what is it called, “new programmes.” What on earth do they mean? Are they going to put American Muslims into these centres? Like they did with the Japanese Americans during World War Two?’
She said, ‘Well, nowadays, back home I myself feel like an alien. A Special Alien.’
Of course, Shahidul’s alien-ness has material consequences (fine, deportation), that hers doesn’t. Not that she is to blame. Since 9/11, America’s terrorism policy has been reshaping its immigration policy. Muslims, whether those who intend to live there permanently, or those who enter the US on a temporary basis, ‘for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work, study or other, similar reasons,’ are subjected to greater scrutiny, to a profiling regime. In order to ‘safeguard US citizens and America’s borders,’ the US government has packed off even foreign nationals to its gulag, the Guantanamo. Even citizens of nations where the US is not an occupying power (Syria, Kuwait, Algeria, UK, Canada, Australia).
To paraphrase Karen C Tumlin’s words (California Law Review), Muslim visitors to America are special suspects first, welcome newcomers second. If at all.
The chief adviser Dr Fakhruddin met the press for the first time on November 14 after taking office on January 11, 2007. He said, ‘I don’t think the common people are facing any problems due to continuation of the state of emergency.’ (New Age, 15 November 2007)
I love statements like that. Not that I think he was being insincere. He comes across as being pretty genuine, in an earnest sort of way. At times, he does seem a bit perplexed. But then, these are difficult times.
No, I do not doubt his sincerity. It’s not that, it’s something else. When he claims to know how common people are, how does he know? Enveloped and cushioned as he is – as they are – by our constitutional rights being suspended, by emergency laws, by joint forces, remands, a muffled media, sycophants, by pats on the back by Western murubbi diplomats, how does he know how common people are? How cyclone Sidr survivors who had demanded relief felt on being interned by the police? What everyday shoppers think when powdered milk prices shoot up by 100 takas within a week? What do those who queue for rice at BDR shops want to do after having inched their way up only to be told that supplies have finished?
Reading what Dr Fakhruddin thinks reminds me of something Patricia Hill Collins, black social theorist, had written. I dig it out. Collins, in her discussion of standpoint theory, had quoted Rosa Wakefield, an elderly domestic worker. Wakefield was assessing how the standpoints of the powerful and those who serve them, like her, diverge. Her words, ‘If you eats these dinners and don’t cook ’em, if you wears these clothes and don’t buy or iron them, then you might start thinking that the good fairy or some spirit did all that… Black folks don’t have no time to be thinking like that… But when you don’t have anything else to do, you can think like that. It’s bad for your mind, though.’