A few years ago, while I was still living in the Netherlands, a Dutch non-government organization contacted me. They were looking for a gateway into the homogenized ethnic group of “Islamic Indonesian or Malaysian background”. Even though I specifically identified myself as being a Malay (ethnic group) Singaporean (nationality), they mistook me for an Indonesian. Indonesia and Malaysia are two different countries, and Indonesia alone has over 15 ethnic groups – facts that I would have hoped an NGO would be aware of if they were targeting this demographic.
Dispersing the misconceptions about ethnicity, nationality, and diasporic communities was work enough. Then they asked me to help them find other recent immigrants who “may not be informed about the consequences if they have their daughter circumcised.” Their assumptions about immigrant Muslim women and their culture(s) were ominously foreshadowing the recent Dutch policy to teach “gay rights” in refugee centres. Both parties paint immigrants and refugees as being inherently misogynist and homophobic.
(Can we get #NotallMuslimwomencircumcisetheirdaughters trending?)
Soon after, I received a request from an filmmaker working on the issue of routine male infant circumcision (MC). She was looking for doctors or parents in either Malaysia, Indonesia, or Singapore (though anyone from “Africa or Asia” would do) who supported the less invasive forms of female circumcision (pricking, slitting) – and she wasn’t planning on portraying them in a negative light. The purpose of juxtaposing FC (which is normally considered abhorrent) in other countries to male circumcision in the US was to help point out to Americans of their “cultural blind-spots” and “double standard”.
However, it would make more sense to change just one variable instead of two. For example, how about comparing “American” forms of genital cutting such as labioplasty/vaginoplasty to male circumcision? Instead of you know, using the rest of the world as a setting to help Americans learn more about themselves.
Most recently I was asked, by an photographer-filmmaker, to find some women or girls who had been through FC. More specifically, she wanted to film the procedure and some interviews – keeping all parties anonymous. Then: “They can wear their burqas if they want to.” #NotallMuslimwomenwearburqas
In all of the above interactions, I felt conflicting emotions. On one hand, I wanted to raise awareness about FC and MC. However, on the other hand, I felt like the person’s interpretations of the topic were being forced on me. In the case of being asked to provide contacts, I felt like they were forcing their way into an extremely intimate subject – information which had required time and emotional effort on my part to obtain – making me feel like an unwilling ‘native informant’.
As a result of feeling coerced, I curiously started to become defensive. In my mind, I even wanted to defend these practices – FC in particular because of the ‘milder’ nature more prevalent in Southeast Asia – against the onslaught of eager activists. It was a wholly reactionary defense mechanism.
Multiracial alliances can fail or be productive. As in all relations of power, there are lines of privilege to consider. I feel that immortalising representations of Muslim women through the making of media (books, films, policy papers) is something to be especially careful about. What would make me want to collaborate? What would make it worthwhile?
There was one more request by an European activist, who requested me to answer a series of questions on FC. Initially suspicious (seriously you can’t blame me though), I asked her many questions about her background, work, motivations and objectives, to get a better idea about how she was planning to represent the situation in Southeast Asia. In the end, our interactions were open, pleasant and productive, so I ended up contributing my experiences.
In her book Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances (2008), Aimee Carillo Rowe writes:
“There’s the colour of the body, and then there’s the colour of the commitment that burns like hot blue flame in our hearts… Our work is to turn ourselves inside out. To locate ourselves through our loyalty and our bravery and our willingness to fight for radical visions.”
The only project I ended up contributing to was one that I felt I had the most control over. Not only did the collaborating activist ask mostly open-ended questions, the published text is also made up mostly of quotes. This shows a willingness to let people speak for themselves (as far as it is possible in a textual form). I suppose then, what makes a collaboration worthwhile is if we can control our own representations and get our message across at the same time.
PS: I almost forgot about the random White male law student who had written a paper about FC and was looking for my feedback. When I asked him why he wanted to send it to me, he said he thought it would be ‘as much for my benefit’ as others had been ‘extremely appreciative’. I think I forgot to give him any feedback.