A Theory Relatively

Posted by J Foster on Mar 8, 2015 in Cultural Anthropology, Gender Studies

In most modern day feminist circles, opposing the practice of female circumcision is a given. To oppose female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) as the practice is often called, is to oppose the very definition of gendered oppression and the restriction of female sexuality under patriarchal rule. These views tend to go against the more classically relativist approach of social science which typically seeks to understand female circumcision on local terms without immediately imposing obvious agendas to eradicate the practice. To say then that I am against female circumcision might then appear to be in line with typical Western ideas of individuality, political autonomy and freedom, and notions of bodily integrity and the self. But I do not oppose female circumcision as a practice in and of itself and, in fact, do not advocate for blanket bans of the practice at all. This is because I do not locate the problem of female circumcision in concerns about sexual function (Ahmadu 2007), in its short term or long term health implications (Al-Hussaini 2003 and Sayed et. al. 1996) or in its cultural symbolic value (Boddy 1982 and Ahmadu 2000). Instead, I locate the problem of female circumcision in the problem of choice. Just as we recognize the meaningfulness and cultural validity of marriage as a cultural institution, most anthropologists would likely still oppose instances of forced marriage, particularly among young children. Similarly, female circumcision per se is not the problem, forced circumcision is. While for many of us this reveals our own distinctly Western position and dedication to discourses of human rights, it does not negate the traumatic experiences of many women who have undergone female circumcision without consent and who now speak out against the practice and the harms it can and does cause. Acknowledging the positive and affirming aspects of female circumcision also does not mean anthropologists cannot oppose its darker aspects. In this way, we must seek an altruism that is not grounded in “othering,” but in a universalized principle of choice. This principle of choice is not unproblematic, however, grounded as it is in homogenizing rhetorics of global human rights. But the point here is not to seek a one-size-fits all policy regarding female circumcision but to use choice as a method for guiding global responses to local practices that produce both cultural meaning and injury.

In “Searching for Voices,” Christine Walley proposes one way to get beyond the binary and polarizing viewpoints commonly expressed toward female circumcision in the West (either moral outrage or hyper-relativistic tolerance) in an attempt to reconcile a feminist with an anthropological response. It is Walley’s contention that both humanist critics and cultural relativists share an unacknowledged common thread:“a hardened view of ‘culture’ based on a rigid essentialist notion of difference that can be historically linked to the colonial era” (Walley 1997:407). Addressing the deeper nuances of the practice, as she advocates, can then stimulate a more productive feminist and anthropological debate that moves past binary limitations of “us” and “them.” By noting the powerful presence of African voices on both sides of the debate as well as the continued realities of global communications, multinational corporations, migrant communities, refugees, and tourists, Walley demonstrates that global transformations “are breaking down what has been a pervasive, if always problematic assumption—namely, that internally homogeneous First and Third Worlds exist as radically separate ‘worlds'” (1997: 406). This also means that the increase in the permeability of national, cultural, and ethnic boundaries does not unfairly place female circumcision within global discussions of universal human rights or consent and the treatment of minority populations. But I take to heart the danger in continuing to frame the discussion on female circumcision in terms of Western and Imperial notions of sex, sexuality, gender, and power. Therefore, I agree with Walley that altruism and activism must be based on “alliances and coalitions” (1997: 430) so that when communities request or welcome assistance from outsiders, aid workers and anthropologists alike will be “capable of critiquing practices such as clitoridectomy and infibulation without resorting to neocolonial ideologies of gender or denigrating the choices of women who support such practices” (1997: 430). The role of choice then, is to focus aid and activism efforts specifically on those in need and not on an any kind of essentialized or naturalized category of “victim”. By attending to issues of individual and group consent versus protest, people who intervene in a spirit of altruism might better avoid vilifying societies where female circumcision takes place and denigrating those cultures as primitive and backward. Failing to understand the cultural and social needs that female circumcision fulfills and undermining the culture of practitioners is, ultimately, unproductive and will do nothing to improve the lives of women and girls who are harmed by or refuse the practice of female circumcision.

In the end, we must get beyond the basic dilemmas of ‘ban completely’ or ‘allow unfettered’. Far too many case studies become mired in questions of medical imperatives, criminalization and punishment, or cultural backwardness and “tradition”. If we are to take a position of altruism, then it must be an altruism of support, an “other” altruism where we the Western, the educated, and the feminist are “othered” in relation to the selves of indigenous women as they distinguish their own boundaries of certainty, uncertainty, identity, and meaning. This means supporting the choices of those who seek refuge from forced circumcision without imposing a necessity for these women to assimilate to Western modes of thinking. It also means giving resources to those harmed by female circumcision without demanding a complete eradication of the ritual or leveraging judgments of inferiority. Through the discourses of choice and consent, the focus is shifted from social action to its effects and from demonizing women who find significance in the practice to caring for women injured by it. Choice means accepting nuance and affecting a kind of humanitarianism that doesn’t automatically imply authority. As Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala-Okeyo cautions, quoted in Walley: “the role of [Western] feminists is not to be in front, leading the way for other women, but to be in back supporting the other women’s struggles to bring about change” (1997: 430). This is the other side of altruism, the side that gives its power so that others may speak.

Works Cited:

Boddy, Janice. 1982. “Womb as Oasis: The Symbolic Context of Pharaonic Circumcision in Rural Northern Sudan.” American Ethnologist (1982) 9(4): 682-698.

Ahmadu, Fuambai. 2000. “Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision,” in Female “Circumcision” in Africa, Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, eds. (Lynne Rienner Publishers 2000): pp. 283-312.

Ahmadu, Fuambai. 2007. “Ain’t I a Woman Too? Challenging Myths of Sexual Dysfunction in Circumcised Women,” in Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context, Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, eds. (Rutgers 2007): pp. 278-310.

Walley, Christine. 1997. “Searching for Voices: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations,” Cultural Anthropology 12(3): 405-438.

Al-Hussaini, Tarek. 2003. Female Genital Cutting: Types, Motives and Perineal Damage in Laboring Egyptian Women. Medical Principles and Practice, 12, 123-28.

Sayed, G., M.A.Abd El-Aty, and K.A. Fadel. 1996. The Practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Upper Egypt. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 55.3, 285-91.

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