"Female Genital Mutilation"

Drawing on Psychoanalysis and Postcolonial Critiques, how do fantasies of 'otherness' structure the debates about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the criminalisation of cultural difference?

Following the incident of infibulations of two Eritrean girls in 1993, in 1996 in Victoria, Australia, female circumcision became criminalised (Rogers 181), preventing the performance of 'female genital mutilation' (AustLII). The legislation came about after the incident became known to public which invoked public concern (Rogers 181).

Surrounding the debates of FGM in Victoria were assumptions about the people of different cultures. Female circumcision was immediately imagined to be one of "cruel operations of sexual castration" practiced by those with "distorted beliefs" (Rogers 185), those who need "to get a clear message about how serious a practice it is" (182).

In relation to psychoanalysis and postcolonial critiques it can be established that these assumptions are the Western fantasies of 'otherness'. In this essay, I will consider the works of Fanon, Rogers, Gandhi and Freud to discuss the psychoanalytic reasons behind these fantasies and how the employment of these are evident in the debates of 'female genital mutilation' in somewhat justifying the criminalisation of cultural difference.

First, the components of the fantasies of 'otherness' should be clarified. According to Leela Gandhi in her critique of postcolonialism and feminism, the fantasies consist of the imagination of Others as "...uneducated, tradition-bound, domesticated ... victimised" as opposed to Western women who are "educated, modern" and in control of "their own bodies", "sexualities" and "decisions" (86). It is discussed that this imagination is created by the discourse surrounding the ideas of Others; words such as 'third world' and 'native' are used to categorise and distinguish Others from Western society (85). This process of categorising Others as inferior results in the Western belief that "white men [need to save] brown women from brown men" (94). These fantasies can be further represented in the example of Julia Kristeva's speech in China. This liberal-feminist investigator 'hypothesise[s] and generalise[s]' about China while standing in front of a 'crowd of unspeaking women' (87); The Chinese women are supposedly spoken for but not speaking. This silencing of the 'native' women demonstrates the belief of Western society that the Others lack the capacity to represent themselves and that they are helplessly dependant on the white men and women to save them.

The same approach is taken in the communication around female circumcision. The 'experts' create the language around the subject of female circumcision - officially called 'female genital mutilation' - and speaks for the silenced and 'mutilated' women and children (Rogers). It is explained by Rogers that the report of the African Women's Working Group (AWWG) about FGM was unacknowledged by the Victorian Office of Women's Affairs (OWA) (187). Some members of AWWG are circumcised women who would doubtlessly be the best representatives of the practices of FGM. Nevertheless, they are fantasised to be uneducated and the victims of FGM and therefore lack the capacity to make logical and unbiased arguments. In fact, their report was described as 'personal' by OWA implying that it lacked objectivity and sophistication and thus needed to be moderated by those who can produce unemotional arguments - those no 'mutilated' or damaged (187).

As can be seen, the silencing and disregarding of Others is seemingly justified by Western beliefs as long as the Others are in certain categories given to them by Western society.

It is clear that categorisation of Others as a whole through discourse surrounds the fantasies of 'otherness'. However, arising from this claim is a question as to why the categorisation is supposedly inevitable. In psychoanalytic beliefs, it is due to the human desire to determine one's identity; 'I' can only be identified in comparison and contrast to Others (Freud). Further, an Other is only worthy of my love 'if he is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him' (Freud 748).

As elaborated by Frantz Fanon, it is not only one's metaphysics which separate him from Others, but also 'his customs and the sources on which they were based' (110). For example, a black man is not only black; he is 'black in relation to the white man' (110). In the white man's eyes, based on the Other's visual appearance to be black, already he is under the category of being 'less intelligent than [white men] are' (113). From this, the 'I', white men, can be defined in relation to the Other who must be different from them.

This self-identification through the categorisation of Others is evident in the examples discussed earlier. The Chinese women are 'native' and 'third world women' because 'I' am not. The Others must not be able to speak because 'I' am here to speak for them. In fact, it was claimed by Spivak in her criticism of feminism that the process of 'saving' the 'native women' is in fact 'about [the West's] own identity rather than theris' (Gandhi 87).

This 'obsessively self-centred' (87) perception of Others also takes place in the reactions towards FGM. The Others being culturally different from Western culture makes them different from white men and women as a whole. According to Freud's claim that Others are only worthy of my love if they are similar to me, the 'mutilated' Others are not worthy of the love of Western society. Hence, they cannot be allowed to speak. Accordingly, the criminalisation of FGM becomes necessary in order to make the not-yet-mutilated women like the Western women so that they can be worthy of their rights.

Another claim of psychoanalysis demonstrates that the fantasies of 'otherness' are not only created to determine one's own identity, but are also due to a satisfaction deriving from the imagination of Others being hurt. This sadistic perception is taken from Freud's encounter with his patients who describe their (sexual) fantasies where 'a child is being beaten' by their father (An Infantile Neurosis 185). Freud's analyses of these fantasies conclude that the father (an authority figure) beating another child appears to be a demonstration of his love for the child imagining (187). This delivers satisfaction and pleasure to the child as the Other is not loved.

Similarly, in Western society's view, imagining the Other women and children to be 'mutilated' rather than the 'I' is satisfying. Hence the unnecessary language around the matter of female circumcision was created to imagine the Others to be 'beaten'; they are 'mutilated' and victims of 'malignant cultural practices' (Rogers 189). This is merely a fantasy of 'otherness', a fantasy which brings pleasure and security to Western society.

However, some might argue that this claim is contradicted by the criminalisation of FGM; why should they 'save' the 'mutilated' Others if the imagination brings satisfaction? It is elaborated by Rogers that it is in fact to bring displeasure onto another using 'law's whim' (190). The 'I', Western society, becomes satisfied by the imagination of the authority figure 'beating' the Other - the imagination of Western law criminalising (beating) cultural differences of the culturally different. This process, however, is the effect of the repressed unconsciousness rather than the conscious desire to hurt Others (Freud). Therefore the "good" intention to save Others from their own culture merely derives from the inhibited sadism to take control over Others.*

To conclude, the fantasies of 'otherness' structure the debates of FGM by categorising Others to separate them from Western society. The categorisation enables Western society to determine their identity as 'non-mutilated' and as those who can speak for themselves. This process is evident in postcolonial and feminist beliefs where the 'third world' countries are fantasised to be seeking the help of Western men and women. Furthermore, fantasies of 'otherness' are also created in order to (unconsciously) receive satisfaction and pleasure from the imagination of somebody else being hurt. The Other being 'beaten' means that the 'I' is loved and therefore its identity and rights are secured. These unconscious processes of categorising and 'beating' others are therefore what surrounds the debates of FGM and somewhat justify the criminalisation of cultural difference in Western society.

*Note: Here, I have not distinguished or considered instances where theories of fantasies of Otherness do not apply in making legislatures; it is NOT always the case of un/sub-conscious sadism.


Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) - Sect 32. Australasian Legal Information Institute.

Fanon, Frantz. "The Fact of Blackness," Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Freud, Sigmund. "Civilisation and its Discontents Part V", The Freud Reader. Ed Peter Gay. London: Vintage, 1955.

Freud, Sigmund. The complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Vol.17, 'An infantile neurosis' and other works Vol XVII 1917-1919. London: Routledge, 179-204, 2001.

Gandhi, Leela. "Postcolonialism and Feminism," Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998.

Roger, Juliet. "A Child is Being Mutilated: Law's Fantasies of 'Female Genital Mutilation' special issue 'Genital Modification,'" Australian Feminist Studies, 24(60): 181-194, 2009.


  1. Hey, thanks for this post. It made me look at "FGM" from a different perspective. But I have to say that your recent essays are much better than these older ones. Well done :)


Post a comment