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The saviour complex

You cannot spend anytime in the trenches of the battle for sex workers rights without quickly realizing that those who would save  us cause immense damage. From Kristoff to Bindel or Murphy the world is full of people making a good living, non consensually, off the labour of sex workers, labour they refuse to even recognize. Their voices are more powerful than ours, they get invited to speak despite having nothing but a prurient interest in the sexual activity of strangers and a belief that they should control said activity.

Given this background my spidey sense starts to tingle when people unrelated to an issue start putting themselves front and center of any campaign, and alarms of all kinds are currently going off at the fact female genital mutilation seems to be the new cause celeb of those wanting to do good. Cameron has apparently declared it must be eradicated in a generation, and sees arresting parents and profiling those at risk as the way to achieve this.

A white middle class man believing incarceration and racial profiling are useful tools is of course not a surprise, but there are other issues with this rescue the poor brown children narrative. There are many women of colour fighting against FGM, some of whom are survivors of it themselves. They understand the complexity of the issues, and can speak with the voice of experience. When however Cameron, and others, take center stage then there is a huge risk of this becoming an us versus them narrative, the civilized west versus the primitive and superstitious savage.

The new law on the arrest of parents seems to highlight this most clearly. The demonization of parents who are not white happens in a number of contexts. We had it in Cambodia with Somaly Mam and her lies. The idea that parents allow FGM because they are unloving or evil is not only unhelpful and racist, but will most likely lead to girls hiding what has happened to them and medical advice not being sort when it is needed. Cultural traditions are not just something to give window dressing at the opening ceremony of sports events, understanding them is vital to avoid measures which harm.

Yesterday for a short while the news services ran a story that ISIS had announced that all women and girls in Mosul had to undergo FGM. It turned out to be false. However if we continue down the current path of making this about white people telling people of colour what to do this runs the risk of becoming an issue those opposed to the west will use. This is not helped by the usual mainstream feminists deciding it is their latest way to attack trans women, defending the “lady parts” of real women, yet another example of the bodies of women of colour being the battle ground of white feminism.

Female genital mutilation as far as I can see is wrong, it causes pain, trauma and often lifelong medical conditions. However the people who need to be listened to here are not white and western, they are the women in the communities in which it occurs. I fear that just as with sex work their voices will be lost, downed out by those who have deemed themselves saviors.





9 comments on “The saviour complex

  1. missguide
    July 25, 2014

    On the whole I like and agree with this article, but feel compelled to share my experience.

    I’ve actually been told to shut up on the issue when I have brought it up before. To all intents and purposes I look and sound like a white western middle class woman, and have been told to shut up & stop being a white orientalist Islamophobic saviour by the Islamic Society president at my old university.

    Yet, am pretty sure she (& this is just a guess, as she is of Pakistani origin & am not sure FGM is a particularly big issue there) is far less entitled to opine on the matter than I am. For, in spite of my appearance, I was subject to it and know rather a lot more about it than many people. Yet, it’s not the kind of thing I would like to share with people, I don’t (& who would) to make my vagina the focus of the discussion, nor is it any of anyone’s business. So, I shut up. I let others who clearly know jack shit about it talk and I stay silent.

    What to do? I don’t know.

    I’m white(ish), I’m sort of Western. I get the same kind of attitude that’s described above when I talk. People make assumptions and that is so wrong. As you said:

    “However the people who need to be listened to here are not white and western, they are the women in the communities in which it occurs. I fear that just as with sex work their voices will be lost, downed out by those who have deemed themselves saviors.”

    I’m a white, western ex-muslim who won’t be listened to, in spite of the arranged marriage, in spite of the FGM, in spite of growing up in a white, western, yet Islamic fundamentalist insular community. I’m still too white and too western to have an opinion. It seems I won’t be taken seriously until I’m brown and disown my westerness.

    Please tell me how and where I can talk and what my place is? As you seem to have made up your mind that my place isn’t to talk about the things that I find so important, even if they have happened to me. I need to leave that to non-white, non-western people, even if it hasn’t happened to them.


    • cartertheblogger
      July 26, 2014

      I’ve thought long and hard about responding, and before responding, because I don’t want to be mistaken for someone bidding to elide your experience, or to make false comparisons between my understanding of the impact of having a white pass, and your experience. (This post explains what I’m on about –

      You’re absolutely right that some people will see you as white and therefore ‘read’ you as knowing nothing about FGM. Because of how you are ‘read’ there is a risk that you will get bracketed with the well meaning saviours rather than with the survivors.

      I understand, too, the need not to make your experience, your body, the platform on which a greater understanding of the breadth of this problem is built. I don’t know anything at all about the community in which you were born, or in which you experienced FGM. Is there a way in which you could tell us more about it? I’d happily publish an anonymous post by you here, so that it could be about your experience, but without you having to be the focus of debate. No matter how much you disagree with Jem’s assumptions her key phrase is that the women who should be listened to are the women from the communities where this happens. If we can help give you a voice, as a woman from a cmmunity where this has happened, and provide a space in which you can do that anonymously, I’d be happy to help.


    • jemima2013
      July 26, 2014

      I am so sorry that my post suggested to you that only women of colour suffer from FGM, and reading back i can see i too fell into the trap of over simplyfing this complex issue.
      I would like to repeat Carters offer, if you felt able to talk about your experiences here we would be honored to host a piece, my overriding wish is that the women involved be the ones listened too.


  2. elrondmiddleeng
    July 25, 2014

    often it is the mothers who have under gone FGM who insist on their daughters being mutilated. Or is this another media myth.


    • jemima2013
      July 25, 2014

      No, its true, this is a far more complicated topic than soundbites and headlines suggest


  3. Marie
    July 27, 2014

    Hi there,

    I felt compelled to comment on this post, as a white woman who has campaigned on issues around fgm, as I find some of your arguments really concerning and they seem to ignore what many women within the anti fgm movement have to say.

    Firstly I don’t feel your post really credits the incredible work done by orgs like daughters of eve, forward and equality now in making fgm a mainstream issue as opposed to something ignored or sidelined. These incredibly brave women have put their safety at risk to get fgm on the agenda with one aim – to end fgm in the uk and around the world. They have worked so hard to get fgm recognised as child abuse, as violence against girls – leading to, for eg, the nspcc helpline after the nspcc previously ignored fgm as an abuse issue. To ignore this work and paint fgm as a “white saviour” issue is to completely disregard the commitment and courage of these women.

    Secondly, I have worked with some of these women who talk about the importance of mainstreaming the conversation – this in part means making it an issue that all of us care about. White people need to talk about fgm too, in short. We all have to raise our voices and condemn violence against girls.

    I share your concern that some groups take an anti fgm stance in an islamophobic way – the Edl has done this – and that is why anti fgm orgs have worked to put fgm in the context of patriarchal violence against girls – it is not a Muslim issue or a culture issue, it is a VAWG issue.

    Of course it is easy to be cynical about Cameron standing up and talking about fgm – his govt are hardly leading the way on ending VAWG. But what do you suggest? That we go back to fgm being hidden, unacknowledged? That we return to a situation where the women speaking out are silenced and ignored? Where the media, politicians and police shrug and call it “culture”? To do that is to ignore what women have been fighting for.

    Because in the end this is about ending violence against girls. I think we both agree that the voices of the women campaigning every day to end fgm need to be upfront, heard and listened to, and respected.


    • jemima2013
      July 30, 2014

      I dont really think we are disagreeing here, orgs like the Daughters of Eve do amazing work, but i am looking at this I suppose through the lens of knowing about sex work, and how a genuine issue such as trafficking has been used by people to raise funds and politicise issues that means the actual victims get lost.
      My fear is that the same will happen to FGM and knee jerk legislation like the arrest of parents will be passed that pushes the issue underground.
      The only solution is to promote the voices of those directly involved imo


  4. elrondmiddleeng
    July 28, 2014

    I totally agree.

    I find there is too much ‘I am white and privileged to comment and do anything’ in some commentary. That does not mean we shouldn’t listen and involve this we are trying to save. We still should be fighting for what it right. Yes I do support Cameron on this issue, though as I have not seen or read any news for 2 weeks I might be backing the wrong horse.


    • jemima2013
      July 30, 2014

      however you know from sex work that the road to hell is most certainly paved with good intentions.


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