Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectivesby Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf
Bolokoli, khifad, tahara, tahoor, qudiin, irua, bondo, kuruna, negekorsigin, and kene-kene are a few of the terms used in local African languages to denote a set of cultural practices collectively known as female circumcision. Practiced in many countries across Africa and Asia, this ritual is hotly debated. Supporters regard it as a central coming-of-age ritual that ensures chastity and promotes fertility. Human rights groups denounce the procedure as barbaric. It is estimated that between 100 million and 130 million girls and women today have undergone forms of this genital surgery.
Female Circumcision gathers together African activists to examine the issue within its various cultural and historical contexts, the debates on circumcision regarding African refugee and immigrant populations in the United States, and the human rights efforts to eradicate the practice. This work brings African women's voices into the discussion, foregrounds indigenous processes of social and cultural change, and demonstrates the manifold linkages between respect for women's bodily integrity, the empowerment of women, and democratic modes of economic development.
This volume does not focus narrowly on female circumcision as a set of ritualized surgeries sanctioned by society. Instead, the contributors explore a chain of connecting issues and processes through which the practice is being transformed in local and transnational contexts. The authors document shifts in local views to highlight processes of change and chronicle the efforts of diverse communities as agents in the process of cultural and social transformation.
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Introduction: The Custom in Question
—Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf
"I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves."Bolokoli, khifad, tahara, tahoor, qodiin, irua, bondo, kuruna, negekorsigin, and kene kene are a few of the terms used in local African languages to denote a set of cultural practices collectively known as female circumcision. These practices, which are fervently adhered to by some ethnic and national groups, "are differentially embedded in specific institutional and social structures" (Kratz 1994: 346). In each context, there is marked variation in prevalence, in the type of surgery performed, and in the rituals associated with it. Even within the same geographic locality, the nature of the practice, its justifications, and the age at which it is performed differ vastly by ethnicity and class. For instance, among the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria, 90 percent of adults remain determinedly committed to the perpetuation of female circumcision, whereas in another section of the same ethnic group, the Ijebus, this tradition, which was formerly widespread in the community, has been unreservedly rejected (WHO 1996).
—Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792
"When the sign heralding the promising waters arrives-the sighting of flying fish beyond the prow of the boat-the crewman facing forward ought to be the first to see them."
—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 1992
"Changing traditions and behaviors that have such long histories is not easy. When one does not understand a problem it is not easy to appreciate it. If you do not understand your health, you cannot appreciate the problems of female genital cutting, and if you do not continue to educate people they will not understand. All we are seeking is knowledge. Knowledge will change people's attitudes."
—Mansata, former female circumciser in the Gambia, 2000
Generations of supporters of these contested practices espouse a wide range of ideas about why female circumcision constitutes an important part of their cosmology and worldview. These practices, which others often contemplate with horror and trepidation, are exalted and sanctified through the very language used to refer to them. Most of the local terms translate as ritual purification. To followers, these operations are, first and foremost, important events constituting "a domain of cosmological fixity: the changes they encompass are a recalibration of local detail to the grand order of things" (Herzfeld 2001: 209).
No one has been able to identify the origin of female circumcision with any accuracy, and explanations of its genesis and growth remain highly speculative. One prevalent belief, which was widely held by some European travelers, saw the practice as an ancient Egyptian invention and explained its adoption in other localities as a product of cultural diffusion. For example, Karim and Ammar showed how "Aetius (A.D. 502-575) quoted with approval the Egyptian custom of the amputation of the clitoris before it grows large chiefly about the time when the girl is marriageable" (Karim and Ammar 1965: 3). However, the ascription of the practice to ancient Egypt remains highly controversial in historical scholarship.
An alternative, yet equally ubiquitous supposition on the question of origin has identified Islam as the incontestable source of the practice. This assumption is clear in David Gollaher's argument that "In the world of Islam, female circumcision has long been acknowledged as a rightful counterpart to male circumcision" (Gollaher 2000: 191). Linking female circumcision to Islamic philosophy and instruction has proven quite dubious. If Islam is indeed the foundation of female circumcision, how can we explain the persistence of the tradition among non Muslim peoples who embrace it with equal ardor and enthusiasm? Conversely, how can we account for the fact that the great majority of adherents in some Muslim societies do not carry out any form of female genital excision? Contrary to the facile correlation of Islam and female circumcision evidenced in Esther K. Hicks's Infibulation: Female Mutilation in Islamic Northeast Africa (1996), extensive ethnographic studies and demographic reports have demonstrated that people across religious affiliations share the notion that female circumcision is an act of cleanliness and self control. When the Islamic jurist Jamal Badawi was asked about the existence of authentic texts in the primary sources of Islam which require female circumcision for religious reasons, his reply was unequivocal: "no mention of female circumcision is to be found in the Qur'an either directly or indirectly. There is no known Hadith which requires female circumcision" (Badawi 2000: 2). Since the Qur'an (the scripture believed to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad) and the Hadith (the teachings of the Prophet) are the two most important sources for all aspects of jurisprudence and social regulation, the absence of female circumcision from these texts and teachings demonstrates that the various views surrounding the practice are matters of interpretation. These competing interpretations are not to be equated with incontrovertible religious edicts. Several leading Muslim jurists have confirmed that there should be no conjecture or speculation about the fact that these practices preceded Christianity and Islam, and that, whatever their origin may be, the call for ending these harmful operations should be loud and clear. The Religious Leaders' Symposium, held in Gambia in 1998, was a step in the direction of a public repudiation of the practice; the Arusha Declaration on Harmful Traditional Practices urged religious leaders to take concrete steps to strengthen their commitment to educating, sensitizing, and convincing their followers to end female circumcision by forming coalitions for this purpose (see IAC Newsletter 28, December 2000: 16).
While female circumcision is, for the most part, carried out in Africa, it exists among other ethnic communities in India, Malaysia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Indonesia (Aldeeb 2001). It is estimated that over 130 million girls and women have undergone genital excision and at least two million per year are expected to go through the practice (WHO 1999). Rising tides of migration have altered the geographical distribution of female circumcision dramatically and prompted momentous debates on tolerance, asylum seeking and refugee determination systems, and multiculturalism. Tom Hundley of the Chicago Tribune commented that until a few years ago, female circumcision was thought to be a Third World problem, but now, because of shifting immigration flows, the practice has appeared in Europe, especially in Italy, France, Britain, and the Scandinavian countries. Health authorities in Italy estimated that 40,000 women of African origin, mostly Somalis, have undergone the practice and 5000 young girls are currently at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that, in the United States alone, more than 150,000 women and girls of African origin have already been cut or might have the operation performed on them (Hundley 2002). On the medical front, health care providers are starting to learn about circumcised female bodies. An article featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported: "After years of unprecedented African immigration North American health professionals are seeing growing numbers of women who have undergone the controversial practice of female genital mutilation. Doctors have been confronting difficult births, unusual gynecologic problems and ethical quandaries, complicated by their own emotions as they try to relate to patients who consider ritual mutilation normal and proper" (McCullough 1999: 1). The rise of immigration from circumcision practicing societies to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe led one observer to aver: "The custom of female circumcision could no longer be considered the possession of any people or continent" (Williams 1997: 498).
Local customs determine which kind of genital surgery girls undergo. The major types of surgical operations are grouped by the World Health Organization (WHO) into three categories (WHO 1998: 5-6). If the clitoris is entirely or partially removed, the operation is termed a clitoridectomy. In excision, the clitoris and part of or all of the labia minora, the inner lips of the vagina, are excised. The most drastic form of genital surgery is infibulation, in which the clitoris and labia minora are removed and then the labia majora, the outer lips of the vagina, are stitched together to cover the urethral and vaginal entrances and a new opening is created for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. Trained or untrained midwives, traditional healers, barbers, and occasionally doctors or nurses perform these surgeries. The consequences of these practices are unquestionably grave. In addition to the immediate risks of bleeding, shock, and sepsis and the longer term risks of infertility, infection, and obstructed labor, there is an increasing concern in medical circles that unsterilized instruments may be spreading the AIDS virus, particularly when group circumcisions are performed. In her essay "Traditions Against Health: The Struggle for Change," the Sierra Leonian activist Olayinka Koso Thomas wrote: "In most African countries, as well as in many other parts of the world, certain traditions, which have been kept intact for generations, have had serious effects on the health of the population. The continuation of one of these traditions remains baffling to those who understand its consequences, feel its impact on their lives, and suffer from its application" (Koso Thomas 1995: 122).
Numerous groups in Africa today are grappling with these practices, which have proven harmful to women and girls, in an attempt to end them once and for all. Increasingly, female circumcision is becoming a focus of eradication programs throughout those African communities in which it is practiced. The well informed efforts of African men and women to extirpate female circumcision are an obvious sign of significant social transformations that testify to new and emerging forms of internal self criticism and cultural change. Organizations have adopted comprehensive strategies to persuade people to abandon the practice by articulating this initiative in culturally acceptable terminology and by employing legal, medical, political, and economic means to foster women's political representation and ability to partake in decision making processes. Today the Comité National de Lutte Contre la Pratique de L'Excision in Burkina Faso, the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, the Babikir Badri Scientific Association for Women's Studies in the Sudan, the National Research Network in Senegal, the National Union of Eritrean Youth, the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kenya, the Egyptian Task Force, and the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization in Kenya, in addition to 26 active branches of the Inter Africa Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, are all addressing this highly sensitive issue. However, these organizations are well aware that female circumcision cannot be targeted for eradication in isolation from other equally pressing problems affecting the welfare of individuals and communities.
Any meaningful discussion dealing with the question of female circumcision should heed the importance of terminology. As David Palmer argues, "language is the stage on which consciousness makes its historical entrance and politics is scripted" (Palmer 1990: 3). Attention to language is vital to understanding the political and ideological debates that surround the subject of circumcision. As the chapters in this volume make clear, the debates on what terms to use to describe these practices extend well beyond words. These practices, which have commanded the attention of Christian missionaries, colonial governments, human rights activists, health providers, and feminists, have come to be widely known as female genital mutilation (FGM). The joint statement issued in April 1997 by WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA defined the practice as follows: "Female genital mutilation comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non therapeutic reasons" (WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA 1997: 6). The Technical Working Group of the World Health Organization agreed that the adoption of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a standard term for these practices is essential for research, training, planning, policy making, and formulating appropriate legislation at all levels (WHO 1996: 5). Participants stressed that the term FGM should include the physical, psychological, and human rights aspects of the practice (WHO 1998). Some nongovernmental organizations have chosen to adopt female genital cutting (FGC), a medical term which appears to be more neutral and sensitive to local beliefs.
Terminology cannot be isolated from the political discourse from which it emanates, or from devising suitable approaches to end the practice. In this collection, the contributors use the terms female circumcision, female genital mutilation, and/or female genital cutting, depending on their preferred practice. The term circumcision is used because it translates directly into African languages and because researchers have found that using FGM alienates those who still support the practice and must be persuaded to relinquish it. After all, these practitioners are the most important players in any effort aiming at obliterating the practice from society. Contributors who choose to use female genital mutilation explain how terminology figured in their particular experiences in the field with shifting attitudes within local communities; this matter is especially salient in Mohamud, Radney, and Ringheim's discussion of the Alternative Rites of Passage program in Kenya and Abdel Hadi's analysis of the abandonment of the practice in Deir El Barsha, a village in rural Egypt.
Beyond the diversity of terminology used in this volume, the question remains: Is female circumcision a vicious act of mutilation and injury, or a virtuous act of purity and rectitude? Two opposing views dominate current debates, one authorizing cultural accommodation and the other advocating the observance of universal standards of human rights. The former view has been widely vilified for sanctioning violence under the guise of culture, and the latter has been reproved for its ethnocentric stance toward cultural rights. The fundamental ideas embedded in these divergent viewpoints toward the practice deserve consideration.
Both practitioners and scholars endorsing accommodation of cultural difference and the "free exercise of culture" proclaim that reducing the ritual to a crime, as missionary, colonial, and feminist discourses have done, reflects the inability to "read and to see and to hear female genital mutilation as a series of complex social practices and signifiers which circulate in many other practices and signifiers to produce mutable and mutating and mutual social texts" (Fraser 1995: 338). Anthropologists have made significant contributions illuminating the motives for these rituals and the cultural contexts within which female circumcision is carried out (e.g., Boddy 1998, Gruenbaum 2001, Nhlaop 2000, Shweder 2002). Insofar as a culture is a "society's repertory of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns" (Harris 1971: 137), it is self-evident that decisions affecting people's lives are not taken at random. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, "Increasing the freedom of people to exercise their rights depends on close cultural understandings of the frameworks that often constrain choice" (Ignatieff 2001: 72). Indeed, awareness of the body of knowledge, capabilities, and habits associated with female circumcision is key to the comprehension of its persistence across time and locales. Understanding the reasons behind these practices, however, does not imply that we should close our eyes to the effects of the practice on women's bodies. Rather, such knowledge helps us understand why this rite has met with the approval of its adherents for thousands of years.
In one of the touchstone studies on female circumcision, Woman, Why Do You Weep? the Sudanese physician Asma El Dareer began with these words: "I was circumcised in 1960, at the age of 11 years. I remember every detail of that operation, and that the worst part was when the wound became infected and I had to be given five injections of penicillin by the operator, a qualified nurse. From that time, I began to think, to wonder why girls are circumcised and to learn more about it" (El Dareer 1983: iii). The multiplicity of reasons advanced to explain why female circumcision is practiced all underscore the centrality of these practices in the formation of social identities across practicing communities. Why, then, do women subject themselves and their daughters to this unmistakably harmful tradition? To chart an episteme or a configurational interpretation of these practices, we must analyze the particular contexts within which such practices come to be accepted and upheld (Abusharaf 1998, 2001; Shweder 2002).
Many decades ago, Ruth Benedict argued that in all studies of social custom, the crux of the matter is that the behavior under consideration must pass through the needle's eye of social acceptance, and only viewing history in its widest sense can give an account of these acceptances and rejections (Benedict 1934: 232). Despite the austere nature of this ritual, its practitioners have attached important symbolic qualities to it. Not only have they come to accept the practice, but they also cling to it with conviction. From the standpoint of adherents, the performance of tahara invites an abundance of exultation, happiness, and joy. Such enthusiasm and devotion are rationalized on several grounds and supported by explanations that help spell out why this contested tradition continues to enjoy such a strong hold on people in many societies today. Supporters attest to its significance in defining and reinforcing ethnicity. Because the justifications of the practice as a vehicle for making ethnic boundaries are forcefully engraved in the consciousness of the community, few could acknowledge the legitimacy of anti circumcision messages. In a study unraveling the magnitude and characteristics of practitioner in West Africa, Diop et al. have unearthed complex factors linking circumcision to ethnicity. The authors stated, "Consideration of numerous characteristics suggests that those that are most significant in Burkina Faso are Islamism and ethnicity (specifically the Mossi). The probability of being circumcised is three times higher among the Mossi and twice as high for Muslim girls. In Mali, the practice is nearly universal, but the probability of being circumcised is highest for the Bambara/Malinke ethnic group. All ethnic groups in the Kassena-Nankana District of northern Ghana practice FGC" (Diop et al. 2001: 1-2).
Common rationalizations for the continuation of the practice include its role in shaping and defining feminine sexuality and gender, aesthetics, tradition, and religiosity, through which "cultural meanings are renewed and recreated on a stage as wide as society itself"(Diamond 1989: 150). In spite of the continued physical suffering that envelopes genital excision, it remains a powerful celebration of, and homage to, what is desirable and considered befitting in specific communities. As I have argued elsewhere (Abusharaf 2001), not only have these supporters discounted the severe nature of the surgery, but they also continue to stress its symbolism and metaphoricity. Suffering and pain, they confirm, subside in the face of joy and pride, which form emotional attachments among girls who undergo the practice together as initiates, as well as between themselves and their sponsors and spectators. This process, as several studies on ritual symbolism indicate, represents the alphabet of gender conditioning. According to Audrey Richards, the importance of symbolism in ritual secures a kind of emotional compromise, which satisfies the majority of the individuals who compose a society and support its major institutions (Richards 1982: 169). Female circumcision, analogous to other rites of initiation, can be seen as a way to metamorphose "the physical body into a sort of social filter able to contain within a social form, biological forces and libidinal energies that lie beneath" (Turner 1995: 168). It is clear that this practice is entangled in an ideological web of social relations in a given community of practitioners. This conception not only illuminates the ways in which ideology shapes practices, but also contributes to comprehension of how emotional ties to specific rituals take hold and prosper. In the course of the elaborate festivities and the rites associated with genital alterations, pain and suffering are appropriated and employed as techniques for creating social cohesion and gender solidarity. Following the ritual girls become adults, while those who are uncircumcised may not be vested with this rank whatever their age. As far as adherents of the practice are concerned, an uncircumcised female is not a woman. Because of the nature of this belief, its effects on consciousness cannot be underestimated. Not only do these rites initiate new roles and expectations for young women, but they also guarantee the strength of the group. Within this complex ideology, this ritual tahara provides a dramatic illustration of how emotions can play a critical role in cementing a practice that may otherwise seem detrimental and reprehensible.
One of the most fruitful approaches to persuading people to abandon this practice is to draw attention to these wide-ranging cultural views. Passing laws is a necessary but not sufficient measure if these laws do not take into account local views. As Geertz argues, "Like sailing, gardening, politics, and poetry, law and ethnography are crafts of place: they work by light of local knowledge" (Geertz 1983: 168). Understanding the complexity of local knowledge on the custom from a woman's standpoint is critical. A former circumciser in the Ivory Coast who became one of the most vocal opponents of the practice expressed concerns about bans or other coercive strategies that ignore the cultural context within which female circumcision is performed. Gueri Agnes Kone argued that there are major problems regarding the impact of a ban on a community: First, the mystical and spiritual elements associated with circumcision ceremonies, such as masks and masquerades accompanying the practice, represent spirits that are believed to protect both the practitioner and the circumcised girl. Banning the practice may therefore generate a sense of spiritual vulnerability (quoted in Awaken 1998: 10). In light of this set of cultural understandings, the practice is hardly thought of as a human rights issue, let alone as discrimination.
Universalism and Human Rights
Proponents of cultural accommodation have been taken to task for advancing culture at the expense of rights. For example, in his essay "Idols of Our Tribes? Relativism, Truth and Falsity in Ethnographic Fieldwork and Cross-cultural Interaction," Robert Shanafelt argues, "While it may be the diffusion of relativist methodology and ideals of tolerance that is anthropology's greatest contribution to cross cultural understanding, this is only a temporary solution to the problem of evaluation whose weaknesses are revealed as the world increasingly globalizes" (Shanafelt 2002: 25).
From a universalistic standpoint, the reasons proposed by proponents of cultural rights are nothing but excuses for committing acts of violence against women. The universalist claims are strongly rendered in Ashley Montagu's "Mutilated Humanity": "I think it would be greatly to our advantage if instead of calling ourselves Homo Sapiens, we called ourselves Homo Mutilans, the mutilating species, the species that mutilates both mind and body, often in the name of reason, of religion, tradition, custom, morality, and law. Were we to adopt such a name for our species, it might focus our attention upon what is wrong with us and where we might begin setting ourselves right." Critics like Montagu portray practitioners as barbarians and savages who perpetuate "an archaic ritual mutilation that has no justification whatever and no place in a civilized society (Montagu 1991: 1).
From this standpoint, female circumcision is seen as a form of violence against women, indistinguishable from murder, rape, trafficking, forced prostitution, physical and emotional abuse, stalking, and sexual harassment. Proponents argue that female circumcision infringes upon human rights conventions that protect and defend women and children from violence and aggression. Seven conventions are cited in support of the argument that this constitutes a human rights violation: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1959); The African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990); The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1992); The United Nations Declaration on Violence Against Women (1993); The World Conference on Human Rights Declaration and Programme of Action, Vienna (1993); and The United Nations High Commission on Refugees Statement Against Gender-Based Violence (1996). In light of the issues asserted at conventions, the practice is considered as a human rights violation because it transgresses three primary accepted protections: the right to heath, the rights of the child, and the right to bodily integrity (CRLP 2002: 69-80).
The Right to Health
The effects of circumcision hinge on the type of surgery, the proficiency of the circumciser, and the circumstances under which the operation was performed. According to Olayinka Koso-Thomas, negative effects occur at six stages: immediate, intermediate, late, at consummation of marriage, at delivery of the firstborn child, and postnatal (1992: 25). According to Jones et al. (1999), there is a strong correlation between the type of cutting and the probability of health complications. This study, which focused on the practice as a reproductive health issue in clinics in Mali and Burkina Faso, concluded that most of the people are not acquainted with the harmful aspect of the practice, and thus both men and women accept the practice. The literature shows that more often than not, persons with no medical training or knowledge carry out these surgeries.
The Rights of the Child
Female circumcision is seen as a ghastly form of child abuse since children have no say whatsoever about the practice. Girls have no ability to speak against undergoing it; whether they wish their genitals to be cut or not is not important from the adults' point of view. In view of the absence of informed consent, female circumcision is seen as a violation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which emphasizes "children must be guaranteed the opportunity to develop physically in a healthy and normal way" (Boulware-Miller, 1985: 164-65).
The Right to Corporeal and Sexual Integrity
Relying on liberal notions of autonomy and individuality, those who invoke the right to bodily integrity embrace a universalized discourse on sexuality, the body, and subjectivity. Consequently, female circumcision is seen as a form of castration that removes the women's organ of sexual pleasure and in so doing violates their fundamental rights. The argument that female circumcision curbs sexual gratification was advanced by the French urologic surgeon, Gérard Zwang: "Prior to first coitus, the clitoris is usually the only source of female orgasm. It has the obligatory role of activation establishment of the epigenetic connection of orgasmic circuit. If this neutral reflex circuit is not active during childhood it will never be functional. In the months or years following first coition, intra vaginal penetration cannot trigger an orgasm unless this circuit is functional. Ablation of the clitoris during the infancy prevents the establishment of the reflex circuit, and the woman will never be able to experience clitoral or vaginal pleasure" (Zwang 1996: 1). Karim and Ammar's study of female circumcision and sexual desire seems to bear out Zwang's analysis. The authors found that among Egyptian women, sexual desire, although not markedly decreased, was qualitatively affected, since orgasm relies on greater stimulation of all the sex organs (Karim and Ammar 1965). Some members from communities practicing female circumcision disagree; they affirm the notion that circumcision does not interfere with sexual desire or with their ability to experience pleasure in any way.
As Adrienne Rich, the American feminist poet, has remarked: "There is a danger today in feminist rhetoric, rigidified in reaction against the past, harping on the same old problems in the same old way, leaving unsaid what's really bothering women and men" (Rich 1993: 124).
Closely related to matters of terminology and universalistic human rights assumptions is the global feminist discourse on female circumcision. Feminists have portrayed the practice as a symptom of female victimization by male authority and an attempt to control women's sexuality (e.g., Eisler 1995, Hicks 1996, Hosken 1994, Lightfoot-Klein 2003, Okin 1999, Walker and Parmar 1993). This position betrays an unsettling propensity to homogenize representations of African women as helpless victims of patriarchal ideologies and norms. The practice has come to occupy an exceptional position in literary and nonfiction works relying heavily on a genre of horror and horrific imagery to highlight its gruesome, sadistic nature (Abusharaf 2002-2003: 127). Describing the performance of circumcision among the Bambara of Mali, Fran Hosken cites Pascal James Imperato's account: "Bambara girls are excised by the women of the blacksmith caste, who are also the pottery makers. The operation is performed on the outskirts of the village in the presence of the assembled adult female relatives of the candidates for the operations. In some villages, the operation is done at the site where the women make pottery. Each girl is seated on an earthen jar, which is turned upside down. Three adult female relatives stand behind her and hold her. With the legs spread apart, the operator takes hold of the clitoris and amputates it with a swift cut of a knife or razor. The amputated clitoris is buried or thrown into a rat hole" (Imperato, quoted in Hosken 1994: 219).
Such representations have undoubtedly shaped the feminist debate on the subject, evoking a discourse that questions the very cultural premises that poetize and legitimize the ritual among its devotees. Indeed, these representations and lacunae, which are so cogently established in the study of African women, have had devastating consequences. According to Richard Shweder, this global discourse "portrays African mothers as mutilators, murderers, and torturers of their children"; he suggests that "we should be dubious of representations that suggest African mothers are bad mothers, or that First World mothers have a better idea of what it means to be a good mother" (Shweder 2002: 247). The depiction of Africans as cruel and uncivilized in feminist representational discourses created considerable disapproval and remonstration; these discourses are seen as a continuation of "imperial meaning making" in which Africa and African women are constantly thought of in non African terms.
Viewing African women primarily as victims of patriarchy, Hanny Lightfoot-Klein labeled them "prisoners of ritual" (Lightfoot-Klein 1989, 1992). This travelogue, which the New York Times Book Review praised as a "superb account of what Lightfoot Klein discovered," has is little to say about African adaptability or responsiveness to change. This notion has overwhelming consequences for sculpting the feminist discourse on female circumcision in the Western world (for recent critiques, see James and Robertson 2002, and Chanock 2000).
Take, for example, the 1995 Beijing Decade of Women's Conference Platform of Action, which stated that women's rights are human rights. This declaration stresses the universality and indivisibility of human rights. It validates the philosophical line of reasoning that since human rights emanate from an essential human nature we all share, these rights are fundamentally universal, interconnected, and indivisible. Women's rights as human rights are founded on the central principle that men and women have equal rights by virtue of their humanity (CRLP 2005). As Machan acknowledges, the idea of human rights implies that "certain unifying principles of social conduct based on our understanding of what it is to be human, deserves systematic protection by legal enforcement" (Machan 1994: 479). No doubt, the notion of women's rights not only amplifies the possibilities of international law but also allows women the leeway to make international legal claims, as has been extensively examined by the legal scholar Hillary Charlesworth (1993). Indeed the idea of women's rights, human rights, and feminism as a proposition for change as well as a political movement that struggles to put an end to the subjugation of women has received significant support across geopolitical and cultural frontiers. However, there are critical divergences within feminism both as theory and praxis that need to be explored, especially those dealing with the representational discourses on female circumcision. A synopsis of critiques of mainstream feminists has special bearing on this matter. In the United States and Western Europe, mainstream feminism has come under considerable disapproval for discounting the existential realities that shape women's lives in less privileged circumstances (see Alexander and Mohanty 1997, Basu 1995, Mohanty 1988, Paravisin Gerbert 1997). Mainstream feminists' focus on gender and male dominance at the expense of other forms of difference and hierarchy that weigh heavily in defining women's place in society has been the central point of criticism by feminists in developing countries. To steer clear of the predilection to "fetishize" African women, Sondra Hale urges "white feminists to self interrogate, calling on us always to be suspicious of our ideas and beliefs, and to work on ways of being effective (invited) allies" (Hale 1994: 26).
Although many African women would recognize the influence of gender in shaping their lives, the common victimization narrative is often privileged at the expense of a thorough consideration of the systemic nature of oppression itself. Johnetta Cole cogently and correctly argues that "without denying the influence, and indeed the importance of tradition and culture, and without minimizing the pain that women can feel from bigoted attitudes and behavior, we can say with overwhelming evidence that the condition of women in society is fundamentally a reflection of economic structures and dependency" (Cole 1980: 162). Because of the critical consequence of class in the determination of women's lives, Gayle Rubin posited, "There is no theory which accounts for the oppression of women—in its endless variety and monotonous similarity, cross culturally and throughout history—with anything like the explanatory power of the Marxist theory of class oppression" (Rubin 1975: 160). While gender and class are particularly decisive elements of women's experiences, no singular explanation can sufficiently explain the degradation of women's status cross culturally (see O'Barr 1976). To escape reductionism, it is necessary to be aware of the various subject positions, or, to borrow Homi Bhabha's phrase, "strategies of selfhood," which qualifies race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, and sexual orientation (Bhabha 1994: 9). Disregarding these subject positions has led many women from non-Western societies to "feel foreign in feminism" (see Lam 1994: 865).
The feminist debate over women's rights as human rights poses complex questions surrounding the applicability of human rights laws under specific cultural, political, social, and economic conditions, particularly in the developing world. According to one Nigerian lawyer (quoted in Cook 1993: 5), "the rights discourse in Africa is not meaningful. The severity of socioeconomic problems faced by women in countries undergoing structural adjustment may require basic needs strategy rather than rights strategy." Leslye Amede Obiora put her finger on the pulse of a larger quandary when she argued: "To minimize the disparity between the rhetoric and the reality of human rights norms, those influenced by the liberal tradition can exercise the option of falling back on elaborate sets of infrastructure that is in place to actualize and sustain the rule of law. However, such reliance presupposes the availability of institutions that may not exist in viable forms across cultures" (Obiora 1998: 922).
The pressure to conform to cultural convictions is undoubtedly immense. Recognizing this overwhelming influence, African feminists and women's rights activists such as Nawal El Saadawi, Olayinka Koso Thomas, Khalda Zahir, Nafisa Awad El Karim, Marie Assaad, Efua Dorkenoo, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, Raqiya Abdalla, Asma El Dareer, and Amna Mahgoub Osman have long recognized the gravity of the practice and attempted to engage in culturally acceptable dialogues with practitioners by taking into account their multiple views and concerns. For example, through persuasion and dialogue Amna Mahgoub Osman, a Sudanese feminist, succeeded in convincing tens of relatives to stop the practice; when she encountered tenacious opposition, she persuaded them to choose the mildest form of partial clitoridectomy. One of her relatives recounted the conversation she had had with Amna: "Amna convinced me that circumcision is a harmful practice and reminded me about the suffering of my two older daughters. She said to me 'Khadjia: are you going to be happy if one of your daughters dies in the surgery? You should instill good values in your daughters and help them be strong young women. Circumcision is not going to inculcate good values, only life-long injuries.' She said a lot of things and I am happy I listened. My older daughters are infibulated, the middle ones are excised, and the three young ones are uncircumcised. Amna was one of the closest people to me in this world. She helped me change my mind."
Similar cases across Africa demonstrate that those opposing female circumcision can act without offending believers' sensibilities. In Guinea-Bissau, Aja Tonnkara Diallo Fatimata, a female gynecologist, performs fake operations; her simulation has spared thousands of girls from the harm of surgery while satisfying the relatives who pressure them to undergo the procedure (San Diego Union-Tribune, 1 January 1997, quoted in Awaken). Such stories show that the "prisoners of ritual" are taking impressive steps towards ending the practice and are emerging as "subjects of their own history" (Magubane and Faris 1985: 91). It is therefore, imperative to heed Obiora's compelling proposal: "It behooves international campaigners to reconceptualize the affected population as subjects, not objects. All things being equal, they are best equipped to inspire critical attitudes and formulate efficient levels of change with more emphasis on grounding than upon attaining triumphs which are unsupported by the rest of the culture" (Obiora 1997: 360).
New Perspectives on Processes of Change
Recent years have witnessed a marked proliferation in the literature dealing with female circumcision across disciplinary boundaries. Anthropological literature on the subject has advanced our knowledge of the symbolic contexts within which female circumcision is performed and sustained. Although this knowledge is crucially important, little has been done to record how these symbolic systems change over time. In spite of the heavy weight that society places on individuals and communities to conform to its dictates and conventions, numerous examples of resistance demonstrate women's adaptability and receptivity to change—and even, happily, their ability to initiate and achieve social transformation in accordance with their own interests. As the studies in this volume demonstrate, cultural patterns do not continue in a static mode, as if frozen in time. Cultural traditions might come to be challenged in the name of the very principles and moralities to which they claim commitments and loyalties (Abul Fadl 1994).
In the light of these broader debates, this volume does not focus narrowly on female circumcision as a set of ritualized surgeries sanctioned by society. Instead, the contributors extend their attention to glaring gaps in current conceptualizations of the problem by exploring a concatenation of issues and processes through which female circumcision is being transformed in local and transnational contexts and by describing in detail the indefatigable attempts of grassroots activists to eradicate these practices in a variety of African societies. For this reason, and in response to the urgent need to illuminate local activism, several authors in this volume present highly descriptive accounts of campaigns against the practice in specific communities. These authors, most of whom are active members of NGOs, draw upon years of direct involvement with the communities in question. As these chapters so richly illustrate, people are not rigid beings unable to respond to the changing worldviews around them, and communities are not fixed, isolated, or immune to deliberate collective transformation. Forces of change within societies where female circumcision has traditionally been carried out have led courageous women and men to modify the practice or end it altogether, and the innovation has spread through multiple social channels until it is widely accepted. In this volume, considerable attention is devoted to systematic documentation of the shifting attitudes of African men and women towards these practices in Africa and among those of the African diaspora. The collection revolves around three substantive topics: the larger context within which female circumcision is performed and debated; African efforts to end the practice; and current debates surrounding the practice in countries of immigration and asylum seeking, specifically the United States and Canada.
Understanding local context is vitally important. As Rosalind Petchesky suggests, "Until we know more about the local contexts and ways of thinking in which women in their everyday lives negotiate reproductive health and sexual matters, we cannot assume that reproductive and sexual rights are a goal to seek and therefore one that has universal applicability" (Petchesky 1998: 1). Women's embodiment is configured by structural forces grounded in political economy and enacted on the terrain of intimacy and kinship. How women in specific sociocultural locations and generational positions understand their own situations is as important as what information and resources they have access to in articulating their interests and desires and envisioning alternatives for themselves.
The anthropologist Terence Turner has argued: "That the social body is produced as an ensemble of bodily activities implies that it must be understood as a pattern, or patterns of social appropriation of the real: specifically, the material reality of the body in action" (Turner 1995: 166). Providing a complex analysis of "the body in action" is the agenda of Fadwa El Guindi's pioneering ethnographic fieldwork. In contrast to most writings on female circumcision, which approach the subject from a personal, ideological and polemical, or feminist interventionist perspective, ethnography yields profound insights into the positions and perspectives of those who perform and undergo this ritual practice. In her chapter, "Had this been your face would you leave it as is? Female Circumcision Among the Nubians of Egypt," El Guindi contributes an ethnographic analysis of female circumcision as practiced by the Kenuz, Mettokki speaking Egyptian Nubians who lived in Dahmit, a district that existed south of Aswan prior to the building of the High Dam. In recent decades, in a historical trajectory that parallels in more dramatic fashion the migration of many groups within Africa, the Kenuz Nubians were relocated to new rural communities in the south of Egypt, and men and whole families moved to cities for employment and education. El Guindi began her study with a three year fieldwork project in Dahmit, Alexandria, and Cairo almost four decades ago, when she not only interviewed women and men on the subject of circumcision but also directly observed its performance. Later, during a research project on the Islamic Movement, she conducted interviews about the practice with college women muhajjabat (literally, headscarf wearing, a sign of religious observance). El Guindi's chapter attends to the ways in which Nubian women have been changing the procedure even as they see continuing the ritual as a valuable way of enhancing and socially validating women's embodiment.
Explicating the multiple religious contexts within which female circumcision is discussed, Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh situates his analysis within a comparative framework and explores the parallels with male circumcision. Aldeeb argues that male and female circumcision are equivalent ritual procedures and that the rationales behind their performance are virtually the same. In examining the debates that surround both forms of surgical genital alteration, Aldeeb advances an argument that in principle any justification for infringing on the sanctity of the human body should be questioned. His conclusion is based on a rigorous analysis of religious arguments about circumcision in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He concludes that bodily integrity should be supported regardless of whether the excised person is male or female. While providing a textured comparative analysis of male and female circumcision in specific contexts, this chapter illuminates the possibilities for change across cultural and religious boundaries.
After exploring these contexts and debates surrounding the practice in Part I, the volume turns to examples of current campaigns in Africa to eradicate female circumcision. Although attempts to halt these practices in Africa are not new, globalization has brought this matter to the world's attention and stimulated intense international involvement in the issue. Today, national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and development agencies play active roles supporting programs initiated by women's groups. Asha Mohamud, Samson Radeny, and Karin Ringheim analyze community based efforts to eliminate female circumcision in diverse districts in Kenya. Reporting their experiences, research, and evaluation of grassroots-oriented programs, the coauthors enhance our understanding of indigenous African activism.
The Alternative Rites of Passage program is one of the most successful strategies employed by the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO) to end the practice of cutting while preserving the ritual and enhancing the transmission of knowledge surrounding it. Although not every community considers circumcision a rite of passage, in those societies where female circumcision is embedded in a time honored ritual joyfully celebrating the transition from girlhood to young womanhood, the entire process is a public enactment of themes associated with honor, maturity, and marriageability and, in some situations, courage. Whether the operation is carried out individually or with a group, the subject is secluded during the process, and the completion of the transition is celebrated by kinswomen and covillagers. The procedure is considered a vehicle for affirming the young woman's movement through the female life cycle and confirming her position in society. Mohamud, Radeny, and Ringheim show how, in communities where circumcision has been part of culturally valued rights of passage, the abolition of circumcision may be facilitated by the adoption of a viable alternative that replaces genital excision with other meaningful ceremonies. The chapter delineates in detail both community-based efforts and strategies for empowering individuals; most importantly, it shows how vitally women and families making new choices rely on social support from like minded neighbors and kin. The strong commitment of MYWO to community outreach and mobilization has yielded remarkable success in raising awareness about the practice and enabling women to make effective decisions against continuing it.
In "A Community of Women Empowered: The Story of Deir Al Barsha," Amal Abdel Hadi examines the significant shifts in attitudes that led a Christian village in Upper Egypt to abandon the practice without deliberate outside intervention. She argues that the experience of this community can best be understood as an example of economic and cultural change. The communal declaration against female circumcision was intricately linked to development efforts involving the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services and local leaders. Abdel Hadi conducted field research to probe the factors that led villagers to change their thinking about female circumcision, sexuality, and bodily health. She concludes that development and education projects, coupled with substantial male labor migration, combined to produce transformations at the level of gender politics and the village society at large. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the successful experiment, Deir Al Barsha today is hailed as a model for other communities to emulate. Both El Guindi's and Abdel Hadi's contributions illuminate the centrality of kinship networks in translating women's access to economic resources into decision making power over matters relating to their bodies.
A number of interventions to encourage individuals, families, and communities to abandon the practice of female genital cutting have been undertaken in West Africa over the past decade. Nafissatou J. Diop and Ian Askew provide detailed descriptions of programs conducted by national committees, NGOs, and grassroots activists which center on awareness raising campaigns that highlight the health problems associated with the practice. Strategies aiming at converting traditional practitioners and formal health care providers who do the cutting have had limited positive results in several countries. More recently, organizations have developed and supported community based behavior change strategies. Until recently, interventions were implemented without much attention to documenting how they work and evaluating their effects on knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Consequently, there was little empirical evidence of what strategies are most effective in inducing participants and communities to abandon female genital cutting. Since 1996, the Population Council has undertaken a series of operations research studies in the region to test and evaluate a range of strategies. Innovative research methods have been developed to generate quality information concerning anti-FGC campaigns.
Diop and Askew highlight significant findings of operations research studies undertaken in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the importance of including community perspectives on the practice, especially its negative health outcomes, as well as lessons learnt about the role of health providers and the conversion of traditional practitioners. Community interventions that use an integrated approach, including public declarations and social support for forgoing FGC, are exemplified by the Village Empowerment Program (VEP) conducted by Tostan, a Senegalese NGO. One of the most successful projects in Africa, Tostan's VEP mobilizes whole villages to sign on to plan their campaign "so that no one carried a stigma" by dissenting and abstaining from performing the ritual (see WHO 1999: 115). Diop and Askew's chapter not only provides empirical data about the effectiveness of common intervention strategies but also illuminates the social processes through which they work.
Local, national, and international NGOs have shouldered an enormous responsibility for eradicating practices that undermine the health and welfare of women and children. The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) has played an outstanding role in 26 African countries since its formation in 1984. With support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international agencies, the IAC facilitates networking among groups providing training for health providers, sensitizing policymakers and the public, and devising strategies to eradicate such harmful practices as early marriage and public defloration of brides, as well as female circumcision.
Hamid El Bashir systematically assesses the multifold activities of a national committee affiliated with the IAC in a country where female circumcision is widely practiced and has been explicitly defended. Making female genital mutilation (FGM) its highest priority, the Sudan National Committee on the Eradication of Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (SNCTP) has carried out a wide range of programs, often in conjunction with local NGOs and national government agencies, including a mass media campaign, training sessions and informational materials for health care providers and grassroots groups, and the training of trainers. El Bashir's research employed Participatory Rapid Assessment and Appraisal methods and was conducted through contacts with diverse actors in the field (e.g., community leaders; men, women, and children; health workers; and cooperating organizations) in both rural and urban areas. Reporting the critiques articulated by SNCTP's grassroots partners as well as its striking ability to mobilize nationally and its measurable successes in changing attitudes and behavior in some groups, El Bashir's chapter elucidates the strengths and limitations of national-level work.
Throughout the recent history of female circumcision in the Sudan, religious leaders, politicians, and feminists from a growing women's movement have taken on the challenge of addressing female circumcision in all its complexity. Nongovernmental and governmental organizations working at local, regional, and international levels have proposed diverse agendas ranging from supporting the medicalization of the practice to abolishing all forms of circumcision. The Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women Studies (BBSAWS), under the auspices of Ahfad University for Women in Khartoum, emerged as a leading force in calling for an integrated, unified campaign to end the practice. Over three decades, BBSAWS has launched and sustained a remarkably comprehensive effort to eradicate female circumcision in the Sudan. Shahira Ahmed discusses BBSAWS's pioneering initiatives to integrate health, legal, psychological, and religious debates regarding the practice. This holistic approach succeeded in breaking the silence on the harmful effects of female circumcision, not only in the Sudan but across Africa. Translating selections from awareness-raising booklets, interviews, and workshop proceedings, this chapter emphasizes the complexity of the issue and highlights some of the main hurdles to overcome as expressed by the local leaders and active citizens who are campaigning against female circumcision.
Raqiya D. Abdalla describes the struggle of Somali women to end female circumcision. Because of the pervasiveness of female circumcision in Somalia, the voices supporting it were loud and clear. Abdalla challenges widespread beliefs which correlate the practice with women's inferiority and subjection in Somali society by showing that resistance to circumcision is not new and that through grassroots activism, poetry, and storytelling women facilitated the exchange of ideas and dialogue that support behavioral changes in their communities. The chapter represents a unique contribution by allowing women's voices to come to the fore. I have argued that using personal narratives counteracts the pervasive tendency in literature on female circumcision to speak for the excised women (Abusharaf 2001). Abdalla's use of personal narratives is prompted by the need to comprehend women's viewpoints as seen through the lens of everyday experience.
Part III of this volume considers the debate in immigrant receiving societies surrounding the question of whether female circumcision should be considered a criminal act imposed by parents on children and as a human rights violations serving as grounds for political asylum. Tiko Pkoye has warned against the "unmitigated pressure impinging on the average immigrant family unit in the United States" as an outcome of this reporting (Sudanet 2002: 1008052). On September 30, 1996, the U.S. Congress enacted a provision criminalizing the practice as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996. According to this provision, "Whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia minora or labia majora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years, shall be fined under the title or imprisoned not more than 5 years or both. The statute exempts a surgical operation if such an operation is necessary to the health of the person on whom it is performed and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner" (CRLP 1997). A survey on national-level legal measures chronicled proposals in fifty countries worldwide to enact laws against the practice (Rahman and Toubia 2000). Although no one has yet been tried under these laws in the United States, in France Malian midwives were convicted along with two men and three women (Hosken 1999).
In the United States, Canada, and Australia, female circumcision has received the lion's share of media exposure. Sources of sensationalist coverage in the United States range from such popular magazines as Marie Claire, Jet, and Ladies Home Journal to talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey and "20-20," television sitcoms such as NBC's "Law and Order," and even the R-rated movie "Barber Shop." Two incongruous factors account for the production of knowledge in host societies—using the term knowledge to encompass representations that may be vicarious and distorted, but nonetheless powerful in determining policy. The first factor is the widespread publicity of fears harbored by the dominant groups of host societies of the continuation of the practice by immigrants and refugees who seek to preserve it in the diaspora. Only a few organizations are bridging the gap between immigrant sending and immigrant receiving societies (for an exemplary project, see Abdel Magied and Badri, 2000.) Secondly, knowledge of female circumcision is produced through public discussion of several recent asylum cases brought on behalf of African women escaping female circumcision that received considerable media coverage. Since the famous 1996 case of Fawzia Kassindja, the Togolese woman who fled her country and sought refuge in the United States, the practice has been considered grounds for a well-founded fear of persecution sufficient for refugee status. Migration and asylum seeking contributed considerably to the enactment of legislative measures in the receiving societies of Western Europe and the North America. In Germany, the Green Party (Buendis '90/Die Gruenen) introduced a motion on the practice into Parliament in November 1997. This motion, which stressed genital excision as a violation of bodily integrity, announced support for nongovernmental organizations to provide training and accepted FGM as a ground for asylum (Awaken 1998, 2: 3-4).
Audrey Macklin's chapter on policy formation in Canadian law opens by shifting the question to which we should attend from whether or not immigrant-receiving nations should tolerate the practice of female genital mutilation to how FGM can be eradicated and then demonstrates that acknowledging the differences between this principled goal and a range of democratic means makes all the difference. Focusing on policies proposed, adopted, and implemented in Canada, Macklin explores the complex positioning of women within refugee communities in which FGM is prevalent and the sometimes unanticipated ways in which women's efforts to end it intersect in practice with the provisions of public policy, offering a probing case study involving Somali activist women who used the legal system of the host country to redress this particularly stark manifestation of gender inequality within their communities.
Finally, Charles Piot tracks the groundbreaking 1996 "Kasinga" clitoridectomy asylum case through the U.S. courts, the media, the Internet, the embassies, and the State Department, and through Kassindja's own autobiographical accounts. His chapter explores the way in which the case was discursively constructed in various global arenas; the question of her refugee status brought a Togoan issue into transnational circulation. By dissolving a complex West African reality into a series of binary oppositions between modernity and tradition, choice and coercion, autonomy and obligation, individual and community, the courts and the Western media selectively appropriated the "facts" of the case and demonized the local community in the process, which came to stand metaphorically for all of Africa. Reflecting on the role of anthropologists in the objectifying construction of African woman as victim, as well as on his reassessment of this subject's situation, Piot concluded that "Kassindja's travail is better understood as one about modernity than tradition, more about the state than the family, more about the entanglements of personal histories than the timeless traditions of an African community."
These essays provide insights into the everyday struggles of Africans to empower women at the grassroots in the process of social transformation. The dialogue about women's rights and human rights that has begun within these communities has reached from local to national and transnational forums, shifting the terms of the debate from the victimization of women to women becoming agents of change in the most intimate and collective dimensions of their lives.
Meet the Author
Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf is Senior Research Associate at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University. She is the author of Wanderings: Sudanese Migrants and Exiles in North America.
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