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Eleanor Heartney - 1995 


Despite advances in women's economic and social status throughout the world, the female body remains, in artist Barbara Kruger's words, "a battleground". In the United States, a woman's right to abortion remains one of the bitterest areas of disagreement between conservatives and liberals. Elsewhere, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism threatens to erase hard won progress toward female autonomy.

Obliteration, a multimedia installation by the Iranian born artist Elahe Massumi, uses the practice of female circumcision to explore the difficulties which women still face in this supposedly enlightened era. Routinely carried out throughout Africa and in parts of Middle East, female circumcision involves the removal of the clitoris and sometimes-other portions of the female genitalia from young girls and young women. The painful procedure, which is frequently performed without benefit of anesthesia, is deemed necessary to ensure that the young women will be marriageable. It also ensures that they will not experience sexual pleasure. Health officials report a variety of physical and psychological risks associated with the practice, among them depression, infection, transmission of HIV, recurring gynecological problems and even, in some instances, death.

The walls are inscribed with texts offering common justifications of female circumcision; some based on folk superstition, some on spurious medical information and some on religious belief. A hypnotic drumbeat accompanies the videos, reinforcing the ritualistic nature of this brutal procedure. Obliteration confronts us with the horrors that face millions of women who have no control over the disposition of their bodies. 

Massumi was raised in pre-Khomeini Iran. While Muslim, her family was westernized in its outlook and she was encouraged to think for herself. She left Iran as a teenager to further her studies in the United States. The year was 1979; the eve of the fundamentalist Islamic revolution that destroyed the fragile gains Iranian women had made socially and economically under the Shah. Massumi has not felt free to return to her native country since the revolution.


Why is an Iranian woman preoccupied with the issue of female circumcision, a custom that is not practiced in her native country? For Massumi, female circumcision imposed upon women, particularly those living in third world countries. She is deeply aware of the ways in which the lives of Iranian women are limited under the current regime. Their movements outside the home are sharply circumscribed, their education and career options are carefully controlled and their creative self-expressions are carefully controlled and their creative self-expression is largely suppressed. In turn, this awareness has made her sensitive to the sufferings of women in other overtly patriarchal cultures. She sees connections between the difficult situation of women in Iran, as well as battered and oppressed women in the third world and throughout the world. This installation is a tribute to them as well. 

Massumi acquired her documentary evidence from informants in France, the United States, Canada and Geneva. She notes that female circumcision is more or less legal in a number of supposedly enlightened western countries, where the argument is made that, if female circumcision is going to be done any way by devout Moslems, it might as well be done in sanitary manner. In Holland recently, such misguided liberalism almost led to the open legalization of the procedure. There are also reports that female circumcision is also practiced, though more covertly, in parts of the Southern United States. As always the justification for the acceptance is the belief that female circumcision is an integral part of Islamic Culture.

As a result, female circumcision provides a test case for theories of cultural relativism. Liberal tolerance dictates that it is wrong for one culture to impose its values or customs on another. Instead, liberal thinkers rely on cultural anthropology to explain how apparently irrational, destructive or morally questionable customs can be understood in context. Such tolerance offers a useful counter to the human tendency to condemn anything different as wrong. However there are certain cases, and female circumcision certainly seems to be one. Where such relativism breaks down. Can torture, even ritual murder, be justified if it seem as part of a society's religious structure? Is the notion of human rights simply a western construct employed to justify economic warfare against noncomliant nations?

By exposing the inherent brutality of female circumcision, Massumi discloses the limits of liberalism. Faced with the unshakable certainty of moral absolutism, well meaning liberals must either acquiesce in practices, which violate all their precepts about human rights and personal autonomy, or they must admit that tolerance of intolerance is a contraction in terms. 

Thus, the case of female circumcision raises the troubling possibility that liberalism can never raise an adequate bulwark against fundamentalism's moral certainty. As posed by Massumi, it also suggests that we must accept the existence of certain values - among them the autonomy of the individual and the right of self-determination ­ which transcend specific human cultures.

Among these values are those which revolve around such questions as: who has the right to inflict pain? Under what circumstances is this permissible? History suggests that pain played a variety of roles in human society. Self ­ inflicted pain, long an element in the explorations of religious mystics and sexual adventurers, can be a source of knowledge. Observed as spectacle, in the circuses of ancient Rome, or their modern day equivalent, the action film, pain provides entertainment and voyeuristic sensation of vitality. Meanwhile, from a political point of view, externally inflicted pain becomes a means of control.

Female circumcision clearly falls into the latter category. Imposed on women generation after generation, its necessity becomes internalized, so that the most fervent enforcers are often the older women who themselves underwent its trauma when they were young. This was the case in a recently publicized case of a young Togo woman who sought asylum in America to escape ritual circumcision. Her flight became necessary when the death of her enlightened father left her in the custody of a paternal aunt who insisted on complying with traditional law.

As this example suggests, female circumcision is simply part of larger coercive social structure, which keeps women firmly in their "place". The pain and subsequent trauma, which accompany female circumcision, come to seem part of the natural order of things. Any effort to introduce the element of choice into this procedure is seen as a threat to social stability.

This is not the first work in which Massumi has dealt with pain and cruelty. Inspired in part by Antonin Artaud and his "Theatre of Cruelty", she created several installation/performance works which incorporated elements of actual physical pain. These works, with their incorporation of pain as knowledge and pain as observed spectacle, conform to Artaud's ideas about the function of cruelty as means of transformation and as an affirmation of the life force. With 

Obliteration, however, Massumi appears to have shifted her focus from psychology to politics. In the new work, cruelty is no longer a means to self-knowledge. Instead it becomes an instrument of control. As a result she is focused on ethical questions. Pain lends itself to political ends because the pain of others is always, on a certain level, invisible to us. We see the physical effects, and when we try to imagine another's pain we can only do it through metaphor (we describe pain by saying things like it feels Œas if' a hammer is striking flesh or glass shards are slicing through skin.) Thus the spectacle of pain raises the question ­ how do others become real to us? How do we acknowledge the authenticity of their feelings and their desires?

Many religious and ethical systems contain some variant of what is known in Christianity as the " Golden Rule" which states: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

Obliteration makes a plea for the recognition of the essential determination. It also reveals the extent to which the female body and the female consciousness have been pawns in the power games of oppressive regimes. By literally bringing us inside the painful procedure of female circumcision, Massumi eloquently urges us to acknowledge the reality of others and of the pain they endure.

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Eleanor Heartney is an art critic and curator based in New York who is a regular contributor to Art in America.

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From the exhibition catalogue for The Fifth International Istanbul Biennial
Curated by Rosa Martinez
October 1997

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