Generations of Mutilation

by d

via Flickr user RNW

UPDATE: You can sign a Care2 Petition to stop breast ironing here.

When you think of Africa, you may recall photographs and video of African women in tribal dress with their breasts exposed. The image titillated paternalistic explorer/conquerors, and continues to titillate boys looking for a legit way to see some boobs. You may or may not have to turn off your Safe Search filter to find such images on the internet, women with their chests exposed, no matter how small, big, youthful, or droopy. I actually had a hard time finding an image for this post. Put “breasts” and “Africa” into a search engine and you get birds (real birds!) and topless women.

I couldn’t use any of those, because those breasts were whole, unscathed.

In Cameroon, breast ironing is a practice growing in frequency. Mothers press hot stones, tools, or wood against their prepubescent daughters’ budding breasts, intentionally harming the tissue so they will not grow. The fear is that a girl with developed breasts is a target for men seeking sex. Teen pregnancy is rampant in Cameroon, and girls often abandon their education when they fall pregnant. Breast ironing damages the breasts in permanent ways, including scarring, ongoing pain, infection, abscess, malformation or eradication of the breast.

The practice immediately brings to mind other forced body modifications like genital mutilation, where a girl’s genitals are cut or sewn to prevent sex, or remove the element of pleasure. On watching CurrentTV’s video, I was reminded of another practice–foot-binding.

The mother in this video is very upfront about what she is doing, she sees nothing wrong with it. Her daughter tries to escape, she cries, but her mother “holds her down.” She is also very honest. She is doing it, in part, because it will negatively impact her own life if her daughter becomes pregnant, as she will be the one who has to raise the baby.

Foot-binding was done in China for the sake of beauty; men fetishized the petite ‘lotus foot.’ It had no health benefits, only hazards, requiring constant care to prevent deadly infections. It hobbled women, forcing them to sway while they walked, and preventing them from running or laboring effectively (though many did labor).

What I find so striking is that both foot-binding and breast ironing require an ongoing effort, by the mother, that causes her daughter extreme pain. The Chinese had a tightly wound system of family honor–a mother not binding her daughter was highly visible, and cause for speculation about everyone in the family. What was wrong with them?

In Cameroon, family honor is still an issue, but not ironing is not as obvious as not binding. Ironing is largely performed on girls who begin to develop at or before the age of nine. Improved conditions in the country have lead to earlier development. But these girls are not walking around with their chests bare, no one needs to know that they have not been ironed. It would only become apparent as time passes, and, honestly, I’m not sure how well the practice really works.

The mother in the CTV video has had several children and her breasts are very large, indeed. She says it was done to her. Minus one point from effectiveness. Despite knowing the pain, this woman is willing to inflict it on her own child. The mothers of China were victims of binding themselves, and yet they also passed it on, from generation to generation. Their skillfulness in this was almost a point of pride. Certainly, no one wanted to be bad at it, or you could cripple the girl. Foot binding was begun around the same age as ironing–between the ages of 3 and 14.

Though the era of mass foot-binding is over, the girls of Cameroon are still suffering. It is estimated that one in four women will be ironed. That is a horrible sentence. It makes them sound like wrinkled sheets.

RENATA is the organization campaigning against breast ironing. They began by working with teen mothers, training them to be ‘aunties’ who educate other young people.

I complain about my breasts a lot, they’re too big. But I wouldn’t want to go through this.

UPDATE: You can sign a Care2 Petition to stop breast ironing here.

12 Responses to “Generations of Mutilation”

  1. This is one that I don’t remember ever hearing about before. When I saw that title, I was expecting to see a post about genital mutilation. This, however, is also something that word needs to get out about. Perhaps even more so than genital mutilation because most people I speak to have at least heard of that. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with anyone before, or seen a special on television, or a piece online about this ironing. Which leads me to believe you have to deliberately go looking for it if you want to find it. Which means if you don’t know someone who knows about it and you don’t know about it yourself, you aren’t going to find anything about it. So, this is certainly something that needs to be talked about more. How awful! I complain about my breasts for being too big, too, but I wouldn’t want to go through this, either. This cycle of torture for young girls (like the other cycles still out there) needs to be broken. That can’t happen without more widespread knowledge of it, though, and more people getting involved. I am very, very glad that you posted this.

  2. I hadn’t heard of it before today, either. And finding information was very tough, there isn’t much out there. It’s mostly the same stuff being rehashed over and over.

    Thank you, CurrentTV!

  3. That woman in video is outrageously accepting her crime. Shocking.

    Even if they manage to bring a law (as they did for FGM) nobody will be convicted.

  4. Shocking this, shocking that. When will we stop fetishizing the violence of other cultures, and start judging ourselves by the same standards we judge others? This is a well-written article, but it is disturbing how readily it assumes the White Man’s Burden.

    Cameroon, like many parts of Africa, was colonized under the pretext of spreading development and humane European virtues to backwards “savages.” Colonialism was and is promoted on the basis of “saving” backwards people by forcing our own enlightened culture on them. It is based on judging people rather than listening to them, and assuming that we are necessarily more developped.

    Sure, genital mutilation, foot-binding, and breast-ironing suck. So do breast-implants, pierced ears, and crash-diets… which many US mothers here inflict on their children, too! However, none of us would put up with anthropologists airing our dirty laundry for the sake of “developed countries” to tsk-tsk at how barbaric we are. If we demand respect, we must also give it— that is the only way to create meaningful change.

    • Roxy, I’m not sure what parts of the post reminded you of “the White Man’s Burden.” It certainly wasn’t what I was going for. The colonial powers did awful things to the places they took over. Protecting and educating the poor ignorant savages was indeed a popular motive, though ultimately it was all about money.

      I don’t think other cultures should be judged as lacking when compared to the one(s) we ourselves come from or favor. I also don’t think other cultures should be absolved of what harm they cause.

      I do not approve of a lot of what you mentioned–I don’t like piercing the ears of babies, I think breast implants are mostly done for the wrong reasons, and any parent who forces their child to diet in an unsafe way, or berates them for their weight, should be evaluated by CPS. I don’t support these things, and as time goes by I will probably take a crack at them, too.

      My objective with this post was to bring more attention to something that has flown well below the international radar.

      I see breast ironing as an abusive, violent practice, inflicted by mothers on children too young to consent. The vast majority of adults and teenagers who -opt- modify their bodies do so because they want to (that decision being more or less influenced by their culture).

      Many piercings, especially of the ears, does not interfere with the healthy functioning of the body, so long as the open wound is cared for properly. One could argue that there are still terrible risks involved, infection being the most common (death, or the disabling of the tongue being some of the most severe). However, the scale of the problems caused are very different from the practices mentioned above. The very goal of these practices is to reshape the female form, either because it isn’t good enough as it is, or because it is dangerous. I am as outraged by this as I am by diet pills and boob jobs, which are driven by the pervasive attitude that we are not ok, and we won’t be ok until we are -fixed-. I am MORE upset about foot-binding, breast ironing and FGM because they are perpetrated against young children, without a safety net of education and regulation, and no escape.

      I see these practices as mothers perpetuating violence against their daughters, in its most extreme and brutal form. I do not regard them as freaks, savages, or misguided children. They are adults who, given their knowledge and the mores of their culture, have chosen to do things to their children that will scar them enough so they will in turn repeat the practice on their children. This happens in the West as well, but it’s usually emotional abuse leaving scars that can’t be seen. Both kinds of violence need to stop.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

        However, there is a disturbing trend I’ve found when it comes to articles on mutilation— they disproportionately target non-Western countries and frequently assume science is a neutral discourse without any colonial underpinnings. Science has been and IS used to gauge “modernity,” and to label as well as judge people. It is a “discourse of sobriety” frequently used by the very nations who colonized Africa, although science itself claims to be neutral. By calling itself neutral, it selectively ignores history and claims history is irrelevent. This is not to say science has not accomplished anything worthwhile, just that scientists have agendas, too!

        We must be aware of these agendas, and how they play into our motives. The view of Africa as the “dark continent” stemmed from the “scientific” 1700s assumption that Europe was modern— which was made at the expense of labeling Africa as traditional, and “in need of modernizing.” Science became a way to legitimize colonialism and racism, and was used to catagorize difference on a scale of “better” and “worse.” Scientific discourse continues to be used as a weapon to delegitimize non-Western societies as “traditional” or non-modern, and this mentality creeps into Western feminism as well (no matter how good our intentions are.) This does not mean science is bogus, just that we have to ask ourselves why scientists are studying this in the first place. Where does the funding come from, and why do we care so much about these people?
        Motive matters, and the benign “humanitarian motive” that is frequently thrown around disregards any and all historical precedent. Like the German “stunde null,” it assumes the past is over, and doesn’t bleed into the present… and that we are all autonomous individuals with no roots in the past, or histories that influence our judgement. This “humanitarian assumption” also mistakes equality with sameness, and assumes we can all just hug and be friends— failing to take into account the complexities of history and national identity that keep us apart. The Stunde Null was a lame attempt for many Germans to distance themselves from the Holocaust entirely, and claim a “fresh start” where none existed— and this mentality lives on in many Westerners who attempt to fix Africa’s problems through misguided, starry-eyed “one-world” motives.

        Breast ironing is abusive, but so is piercing the ears of children against their will— although you don’t see anthropologists running around marveling at how barbaric Americans are, and trying to save us from ourselves. Bride-burning in India was also harmful, and colonial scientists seized on it to label Indians as savage and in need of saving, for the good of humanity! However, we cannot help anyone if we do not first respect them, and work WITH them. Giving aid is a form of establishing power and dominance, and a form of passing judgement. This does not mean we shouldn’t give aid, just that we should be aware of our position and not assume that our intentions or the effects of our actions are neutral. When talking about abusive practices in other cultures, it is a mistake to hide behind medical neutrality and assume that all violence is created equal, and has no history to it. If we truly want to stop practices that harm the body, we must first understand mindsets— including our own. We will not change these customs by judging them or using science to label them as modern-day barbarism… this will only continue the objectification of the women suffering this violence, and the objectification of Africa as a dark continent full of backwards people.

      • I agree with you on everything here. The past influences the future, no one is free of motive (scientists can be VERY hard-headed), etc. The West should be looking inward before trying to fix its neighbors… and yet I think the physical mutilation of children does demand attention over, say, piercing the ears of an infant, which is almost guaranteed to survive and suffer very few ill effects over the course of his or her lifetime. The severity of these practices is what shocks, and what compels us to drop everything we’re doing and rush over there, to fix their problems. (Doctor, heal thyself!) I think whale bone corsets are barbaric, but if given the choice, I would run to the child whose feet are being broken and re-broken every week. We all have varying priorities, I happen to put quality of life ahead of most other things.

        I’m still not sure what you saw in the original post that inspired this. I had these themes in mind, and tried to avoid them while still giving my honest opinion. Could you be more specific?

      • The physical mutilation of children is perpetuated by intrusions from the West. The more we try to “save” people from themselves, the more haughty and hateful we grow towards them— and the more they push us away. This reminds me of when Christian missionaries try to convert me in hopes of saving my soul— as you said, all of us have different priorities. And I did not imply scientists were hard-headed… just that they have motives to portray things a certain way, including economic motives. Westerners don’t throw money at Africa out of the kindness of our hearts, but to reassure ourselves that we are not savages. This is the “white man’s burden,” in the flesh: we give Africans and other “third world people” attention only to highlight how quaintly backwards they are, and then claim we care— even though we know little to nothing about their cultures, and only pick out the most “fashionably savage” parts of them to play on our media stations. It is this motive and these depictions that troubles me— because they contribute to the very forms of violence your article condemns. How do you think kids grow up when they’re always lingering as simplistic victims or aggressors, in the shadow of Western paternalism?

        Here are the parts of article which trigger the “Dark Continent” mentality, which keeps Western paternalism and exploitative structures in place:

        * Emphasis on the physical. Depicting people as bodyparts (vaginas, feet, breasts), not individuals with lives outside of their bodies. This is something that pisses off Holocaust survivors, too… depicting someone as only a body dehumanizes and objectifies them.

        * The uncritical implication that RENATA betters the situation. RENATA is tied to the German nonprofit Inwent (Germany had colonies throughout Africa, including in what is now Cameroon), which creates “human resource development” in third-world countries. According to their webite: “Inwent is commissioned by the German Federal Government, the German business sector, and the German Länder.” Hmmm…

        * The “bad mother” judgement implied in the examples of mothers who know the pain, and iron their children anyway. This makes them sound like sadistic monsters… you are judging her as you are writing the article. Maybe her motives are more complex than RENATA would have you believe…

  5. This entry has generated such amazing responses that I’m going to post on this subject. Stay tuned.

  6. Also… here is a source that just came to mind. It’s from the book “Fit to Be Citizens,” which is free on GoogleBooks. It detailed the “Well Baby Clinics” Califorina opened by Anglo Californians for Mexican-American women in the 20s. These clinics were staffed almost exclusively by Anglos who “educated” women to be “modern” mothers— or rather, used their pateints to collect statistics which blamed problems caused by racism and poverty on “Mexican cultural backwardsnesness and the women’s lack of education.” These statistics used harsh realities like high infant mortality rates to depict Mexican women as bad mothers, and unsympathetic morons. The government then aired the statistics in white communities, who subsequently agreed that Mexicans were dirty and unfit to live with. This lead to segregated schooling and generations of inequalities that sitll haven’t been addressed— it has also created a perception of uncleanliness and de-facto segregation that persists to this very day.

    This is why I’m skeptical of scientists from Western countries who try to “help” people in “third world” countries by airing their dirty laundry, and depicting their “friends” as simple-minded, inexplicable savages in need of book learnin’.

  7. I am glad you covered this topic. I did the same – Breast Ironing in Cameroon: Another form of child abuse?:

    I hope everyone signs the petition. Spread the word


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