On May 3, I was called by a Radio New Zealand journalist to give an interview for Morning Report. The interview concerned my petition challenging a Givealittle campaign that asks supporters for funds to promote breast binding in colonised regions. After completing the interview and preparation, I was informed that this interview “appears to have simply dropped out of the system” at Radio New Zealand. The story was also refused for publication as a digital piece. This is a transcript of my own copy, with the interviewer’s identity protected.
Radio New Zealand (RNZ): So, tell me about your petition.
Renee Gerlich (RG): I started this petition in the weekend. It is addressed to Givealittle, which is owned by Spark – and Givealittle is a crowdfunding platform, so it’s marketed as a platform for positive change and social good. But there is a campaign that is promoting breast binding in specifically colonised regions, which I think is anything but a “social good” and in fact the last thing that we should be doing.
I think a lot of people know that women, especially in North Africa and Central Asia – two of the regions specified in the crowdfunding campaign – are fighting practices that mutilate the bodies of women and girls. We need to ensure that any women’s movement we have here is informed by those struggles, and not promoting additional harms by adding layers of colonisation through neoliberal, postmodern ideas and experimentation – like breast binding done in the name of Western transgenderism.
RNZ: Is this something that people are doing, anyway?
RG: Breast binding?
RG: Well – that seems to be the case. Breast ironing is also something that people are doing anyway, as well, in some of the regions that are targeted in this crowdfunding campaign. Female genital mutilation is also done in lots of parts of northern Africa and Central Asia – I don’t see how that makes it alright, though.
RNZ: Is it fair to compare breast binding – or chest binding, shall I call it – with female genital mutilation?
RG: Well, first of all there is the physical damage. Breast binding can lead to compressed and broken ribs, fluid in the lungs – you have to understand that it is designed to destroy the breast tissue, it is designed to stop the body from being able to do what it would otherwise naturally do: develop breasts. Imagine – in order to do that, it’s basically like a strangulation device for the breast area. It can lead to breathing problems, which is not hard to imagine – we know that that was true of corsets in the Victorian era, and they weren’t actually designed to stop breasts from developing. They can lead to blod clots and even heart attacks. None of that is made clear in this crowdfunding campaign.
Look at the impacts of female genital mutilation – and breast ironing, also physically very damaging practices, but also often promoted and carried out in the name of things like “culture”, “identity”, and “honour”. Those are the same kinds of concepts that we are using – except with a neoliberal framework, which is supposed to make it okay – to promote things like breast binding. Also in the name of culture and identity – whilst not being explicit about the real impacts, including the impacts on women’s rights movements. What happens to women who are fighting against these practices, in order to lift the status of women in places where they are widely condoned?
RNZ: It was interesting to read that report about the physical impacts of breast binding… 98% of people reported some kind of adverse affect, yet, most people, they were saying, they were telling the people who did the report: “this makes me feel better.”
RG: I think there are a few things that we have to consider in light of things like that – one of those is that, that report – I think we have looked at the same report, I don’t think there have been many produced – it is bias toward the practice. So it is definitely more likely to say things like that and not look at the reasons why someone might say something like that, or look more critically at what exactly is going on.
Afghanistan, for instance, is one of the countries in the regions targeted by this crowdfunding campaign. I know that at the moment in Afghanistan there is a practice called bacha posh, which is – there is shame attached to women who cannot produce boys, and may through several pregnancies give birth to girls and then eventually raise one of those girls as a boy – to enhance their own status, perhaps.
Some of these girls, then, actually really enjoy being able to run around outside and play with kites and play sports – then they hit puberty and they have to “transition back”, because they will start their menstrual cycle, they’ll start developing breasts – and that obviously produces a lot of dysphoria. They want to reject the body that is potentially going to subject them to things like being sold into child marriage, for instance. But, I think that we have to consider in the West: what does it mean if we start promoting ideas that imply that actually, those girls, who are wanting to bind their breasts to escape the realities of women’s oppression in regions that are colonised – and where there might be sharia law, or patriarchal religion in the mix as well – what does it mean when we participate, by saying – “yes, you are a boy, you should bind your breasts.” I mean – that’s white blindness to another level!
RNZ: If people are doing this anyway though, isn’t it good if people are trying to learn how to do it safely?
RG: Ask that question about any kind of social ill or harmful practice, you know. People are going to murder each other anyway, or commit suicide anyway – does that mean that we should promote assisted suicide through the medical establishment. Or, is slavery better if it is done quote unquote “safely”. Female genital mutilation is now being carried out in Britain by surgeons – it’s more “safe” than if it is done, say, with a rusty blade, but does that make it alright? I don’t think so.
RNZ: Is the onus on Givealittle to make judgments about the kind of thing that people are raising money for?
RG: Well Givealittle promotes itself as a platform for positive change and social good. If they want to be consistent with that, then yes, they should be assessing whether the crowdfunding campaigns on their platform are actually in the interests of positive change and social good. I actually spoke on the phone to a representative from Givealittle who told me that they “remain neutral” on their campaigns. And I said, Well, what if someone wanted to start a campaign to crowdfund for their Ku Klux Klan bonfire party, would that be okay? Clearly it wouldn’t, and I don’t see why it should be any different where women are concerned, and a practice like breast binding is concerned, which is clearly sexist; and when it is targeted specifically at women in colonised regions, is clearly racist.
RNZ: Renee, I appreciate your time.