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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

Using Empathy to Understand FGM and the War on Gaza

Updated: Apr 8

Traditionally seen as a feminine trait, empathy is extremely misunderstood in today’s society. When used correctly, empathy gives us a clear-eyed view of reality, and helps us assign accountability.

I just read a piece in the Guardian focusing on three girls who died from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Sierra Leone, a topic I keep up with regularly. The article taught me a new, horrifying statistic: 83% of females in Sierra Leone are subjected to this grave violation of human rights. In Somalia, the estimate is 98%.

If you don’t know the extent of FGM’s horrors, I encourage you to learn more about it. At first glance, a lot of people liken it to circumcision. It’s not like circumcision. The male equivalent of FGM would be cutting off the entire head of the penis, which is still an inadequate analogy due to the differences in female and male anatomy. 

The Guardian article mentions a 16-year-old girl who fled her village because she rejected the procedure. She comes from a family of FGM practitioners, and she worries she’ll be kidnapped and mutilated by her own family. 

Sierra Leone is one of a number of countries worldwide where FGM is still legal; 51 of the 92 countries where FGM is practiced have outlawed the procedure. FGM practitioners are women. They mutilate the girls and then keep them for a few weeks to teach them about adulthood. This education involves lessons on subservience to their husbands, how to cook and clean, and how to get along with their in-laws. 

It’s easy to feel rage at the practitioners. As women, how could they subject a girl to a lifetime of pain and risk of infections? The rage compounds when discovering how some of these female leaders act as the driving force to prevent laws against FGM. 

By the same token, it’s the easiest thing in the world to feel compassion for the 16-year-old girl who finds herself in danger from her own family because she refuses to be mutilated. 

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. 

FGM practitioners have a lot to lose; they get a sizable income from the ceremonies, and they enjoy significant personal power through their roles as intermediaries between the government and female groups. Many of them are likely motivated by retaining money and power. 

However, many of them express different motivations, occasionally centered around the misconception that FGM is a religious obligation, or motivations focused on ensuring these girls can survive in their patriarchal society.

Members of the affected community may shun an unmutilated woman. For men, if a woman doesn’t experience sex as painful, her husband may always be scared she will cheat on him. For some women in the community, there is a perceived risk she’ll try to steal their husbands because her physiology doesn’t compel her to actively avoid sex. 

In an impossible situation, faced with an incomprehensible choice, these practitioners choose the path leading to social acceptance and survival. 

FGM provides one of the most extreme and holistic studies of patriarchy. That women lead the charge on perpetuating FGM exemplifies one of the most insidious, infuriating features of patriarchy and, indeed, all oppressive systems. So often, they force the oppressed to be the foot soldiers for their own oppression. These interlocking dynamics are one reason why the campaigns to end FGM must be empathetic, community-focused, and multi-faceted.

One of the myriad luxuries Western women enjoy is that the feminist ideal of an “empowered woman who doesn’t need a man” is a realistic goal. For much of the world, women do still need men. Their circumstances often deny them an opportunity to survive on their own. 

This should infuriate us because it’s the root cause of things like FGM. Everything about FGM, from the procedure itself to the lessons in subservience you get while convalescing, is designed to diminish women within their patriarchal system. 

To dismantle FGM is to change the very fabric of patriarchy.  The activists who undertake such a herculean task are heroes in every sense of the word.  

As a comparatively minute example, the act of gossip also shows how oppressive systems coerce the oppressed into actively maintaining the system. We struggle so much not to put other women down because we have been conditioned to put each other down! And then, of course, men judge us for gossiping, society judges us for gossiping, and we judge ourselves for gossiping. 

If even such a small action is challenging, imagine how much more insurmountable the hurdles are when survival is at stake. 

When it comes to FGM, every single category of person involved deserves some level of empathy. But what kind of empathy? And where do we draw the line? 

The 16-year-old girl is the easiest person to have compassion for: Empathy Level One. 

The female practitioners of mutilation also deserve empathy, because they were born and forced into an impossible situation with impossible choices. This is Empathy Level Two, and it comes with limits. 

We are not innocent of moral crimes we commit while under bad influences. We’re not fully responsible, but neither are we absolved of responsibility. If we ever want to be able to get out from under our bad influences, the first step must be compassion. Compassion doesn’t dispel someone’s accountability, but it allows for a soft landing; it increases our ability to reckon with our accountability and begin to grow beyond it. 

Some people don’t want to grow. Some FGM practitioners are driven by money and power, and they won’t budge because they enjoy their power structure. 

In these cases, we use empathy differently; it offers a clear-eyed view of people’s motivations and their potential for change. Some people would call the second type of empathy logic because of its unsentimental nature, but, at its core, empathy is knowledge of humanity, both good and bad. 

Men who participate in the FGM system offer us an opportunity to practice the most difficult kind of empathy: empathy for injustice’s beneficiaries. I am not at all suggesting we should have sympathy for them - no, no, no. Empathy, though? It’s essential. 

Systemic injustice damages the psychology of even its beneficiaries. In fact, psychological damage is the only thing making systemic injustice possible. The people who benefit from injustice still have responsibility for their actions, but understanding these mechanisms provides essential insight into how things got to be the way they are. We won’t change something until we comprehend it. 

Men are victims of patriarchy as well, and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the case of FGM. FGM is a study in the evils of patriarchy as a systemic force, not as a collection of individuals (although there are definitely culpable individuals of all genders in FGM.) It is difficult to change hearts and minds about the practice because many people genuinely believe it’s for the girl’s benefit.

Imagine the kind of psychology you’d live with as a man who wants his wife mutilated, whether out of a lack of knowledge or as a conscious choice. You would always, forever, every minute of every day, be saddled with a latent fear of your wife and, indeed, all women.

Women fear men because of their actions, but in extreme cases of patriarchy, men fear women just for being women.

I suppose part of the point of this post is to rehabilitate empathy’s reputation. Our society sees empathy as something weak, soft, and emotional (because women have more of it than men.) In reality, empathy is discerning above all else. It allows us to perceive the nuances between good and bad, and to see the extremely fine lines separating the two. 

I want to tie this into the war on Gaza because lately, my mind connects every single possible thing that happens to the war on Gaza. 

When it comes to the war on Gaza, we see the opposite example: the world has too much compassion for Israel. 

The Israeli government doesn’t restrict internet access (yet). Their society enjoys an open and unrestricted flow of people, information, and influences from all over the world. They are affluent and have almost all avenues of opportunity available to them. They have vocal activist organizations dedicated to proclaiming the truth, such as B’Tselem, +972 magazine, and more. 

The majority of Israelis who protest are not protesting the war in principle; they’re protesting because they want to prioritize saving the hostages, or they feel the number of soldier deaths is too high, or the blow to the economy is too significant. Primarily, it’s the hostage issue. 

The Israeli police suppress anti-war protests, and there are Israeli dissenters to the war on Gaza. But it is important to know just how much they are an exception to the rule. 

If we were to apply Israel’s scenario to FGM, the women in Sierra Leone would have enjoyed for many years the opportunity to be self-sufficient and achieve financial stability without a man. They would have universal internet and unrestricted access to the tools and support needed to shift their perspective. And they still, in the face of all those resources, decided to continue FGM. 

That’s not what we see in Israel. They have all the information, tools, finances, and knowledge available to see the truth, but the vast majority of their society refuses to do so. While the Israeli media doesn’t show the public the horrific carnage in Gaza, they also don’t prevent Israelis from seeing it. 

Empathy helps us identify the appropriate amount of accountability for an action or behavior. The practitioners of FGM who, after years of dedicated information campaigns by activists, still insist on mutilating women so they keep their power? They’re culpable. At that point, they can no longer say they didn’t know. 

The same can be said for the people of Israel. They know what’s happening a few kilometers away from them because they can literally see it, and it’s very easy for them to find out the truth. I’m not suggesting they’re responsible for singlehandedly overthrowing the government and forcing a ceasefire, but at the bare minimum, they’re obligated to dissent. 

Similarly, the American government and the American people also can’t say they didn’t know. The United States is the reason this genocide is possible. American bombs are killing Palestinian children. American responsibility is equal to Israel’s; dissent is the bare minimum.

Compassion has its limits, and these scenarios are examples of when compassion must end and cold-eyed decision making must take over. 

As a Jew and a human, it’s crucial for me to call out the extent of the moral reckoning Israel faces. We have to understand the stakes. We must grasp just how bad this truly is, not just in terms of death and destruction but also with regards to underlying psychology. 


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