Female genital cutting

Recent books reviewed

Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives

Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives. Edited by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 287 pp. $19.95.

Long-time Sudanese-American activist against female genital mutilation (here referred to as female genital cutting – FGC) Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf has edited Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives. For better and for worse, this book exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of edited volumes. Some contributions (those at the beginning and end of the book) are highly engaging and enlightening, while several of the middle chapters add little to the existing literature or to our understanding.

Things start off very promisingly indeed. Following a well-written (if somewhat pro forma) overview of the chapters to come written by the editor, Egyptian-American anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi provides us with a fascinating and laudably free-thinking overview of FGC among Nubians in Egypt. El Guindi’s title, “Had This Been Your Face, Would You Leave It As Is?” suggests that her mission is to re-examine practices in a manner as free from cultural biases as possible. Her extensive experience as an activist is evident. “Over forty years ago … [Charles] Callender and I argued for the significance of the notion of the cultural equivalence of male and female circumcision. I argue now that this cultural equivalence extends analytically as a structural equivalence: that is, the two gendered rituals play equivalent roles in the transition of male and female children to adulthood … mark[ing] a transitional phase between birth and marriage.”

El Guindi trenchantly notes that “Americans who express concern about female circumcision in other places do not campaign against [nose jobs, facelifts, and breast enlargement] with equal fervor, despite the known health risks involved.” Subsequently she expands on the analogy. “The phenomenon deceptively called ‘breast enhancement’ could well be called ‘breast mutilation.’ Culturally, it amounts to substituting men’s sex pleasure in women’s breasts for their maternal function.” Accordingly, she points out that “Cross-cultural discussions about these matters should employ a single standard, not apply different standards to boys and girls or to Americans and Arabs or Africans.”

Cruelty of male circumcision

El Guindi finds lack of choice and absence of ritual to be the two most pungent problems with male circumcision (male genital cutting – MGC):

Choice is not brought up in relation to men who undergo very severe circumcision in various parts of the world, or the male babies in America who are operated on involuntarily. I find the cruelty of American male infant circumcision to lie in two dimensions: the absence of choice, and the absence of ritual. … Why do not activist feminists care about men’s circumcision? Their agenda is narrowly focused on women in Africa and the Middle East, who can be presented as inferior, less advanced, or more oppressed than Western women. … Most interventionist debate … assumes that women in non-Western societies are childlike and helpless, passive victims of their men, who must be saved by Western missionaries and feminists. This stance is arrogant and ethnocentric.

El Guindi’s conclusion is highly sympathetic to current efforts to bring discussion of male circumcision within a regular ethical framework: “In considering circumcision, we must include male and female forms in the same discussion.”

In the chapter following this extremely promising start, the Swiss-Palestinian academic Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh criticises “a tendency to exaggerate the harmful sexual effects of female circumcision and to underestimate those of male circumcision.” In the end, he finds that it comes down to human rights. “The right to physical integrity is a principle. We must accept or reject genital cutting in totality. If we accept this principle, we must refrain from cutting of children’s genitals regardless of their sex, their religion, or their culture.” I found Aldeeb’s contribution to include a rather more detailed review of religious doctrine than necessary, and yet one cannot help but welcome the perspective of the author of the excellent book Male and Female Circumcision Among Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate (Shangri-La Publications, 2001).

Double standards rule

Following this stellar beginning, the quality of the chapters in the succeeding section on African programs to eradicate FGC declines sharply. Asha Mohamud, Samson Radeny, and Karen Ringheim address “Community-Based Efforts to End FGC in Kenya,” and in the process reveal that have never met a male foreskin they liked, and are probably the record holders (no mean feat!) for the number of times they blithely assert the incomparability of MGC and FGC. Methinks they protest too much! Moreover, reading between the lines, it is evident that they are twisting their respondents’ words to make them conform sufficiently with their sexist shibboleths.

The degree to which the three authors are weighted down with dogma is ironic, given that the two principal programs they are reviewing (Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization – MYWO – and Program for Appropriate Technology in Health – PATH) have helped reduce FGC while remaining culturally sensitive by retaining a balanced perspective that permits ceremonial, non-mutilating rituals to continue. I also wonder why these three musketeers mention but fail to respond to “critics [who] questioned the priority given to eradicating FGM I light of other prevalent health problems, such as malaria.” Most alarmingly, the authors assume that men (apparently by themselves) are forcing FGC upon girls to control their sexuality, whereas it is typically the mothers and grandmothers who are the primary continuers of the practice – as Havelock Ellis noticed over a century ago in his pioneering studies of sexual practices (Studies in the Psychology of Sex).

Amal Abdel Hadi tells a happier tale about Deir El Barsha, a Christian village in Egypt, which discontinued FGC in 1992 as a natural outgrowth of development efforts that promoted women’s participation and equality. The next two chapters, respectively by Nafissatou J. Diop with Ian Askew, and Hamid El Bashir, are more conventional and do little to advance the ongoing dialogue about reconciling opposition to FGC with concerns about cultural imperialism. Shahira Ahmed’s review of the work of Sudan’s Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies and the Eradication of Female Circumcision is even worse, uncritically parroting the attempts by Muslim clerics to justify their opposition to FGC yet simultaneous support for MGC.

The next chapters improve greatly. Raqiya D. Abdalla, who nearly thirty years ago published the groundbreaking book on FGC, Sisters in Affliction, concludes the section on African anti-FGC programs by providing us with several heart-rending first-person accounts by women who survived infibulations.

Female circumcision in Canada

The final section, on debates in immigrant-receiving societies, is more even-handed and engaging. Audrey Macklin discusses attempts to use the criminal law to combat FGC in Canada, showing the potentially counterproductive outcomes of overly paternalistic approaches. Intriguingly, she observes that the argument for outlawing MGC was actually stronger than it was for the action the Canadian government took in explicitly criminalizing FGC when that practice had already been pronounced illegal under existing laws against assault:

From a purely doctrinal perspective, it would have made more sense to create an exemption from the law of assault for male circumcision, a common cultural and religious practice in North America. ...  The fact that no one seriously fears criminal prosecution for circumcising a male child speaks to the power of dominant cultural norms to supersede the letter of the law and determine what the law is “really” about.

After lengthy investigation, Macklin discovered, to her astonishment, that the primary impetus to criminalize FGC in Canada “emanated from women in immigrant communities who inserted themselves directly into the legislative process.” Macklin contradicts herself on at least one point, stating on p. 216 that no one has ever been charged in Canada with an FGC-related offense, and then asserting four pages later that a Sudanese couple was charged in 2002 for performing genital cutting on their daughter.

Charles Piot checks in with a brief yet perceptive, provocative and brave analysis of the Kasinga case in the United States, in which political asylum was granted to a Togolese woman based on her alleged fear of FGC. I could not help but notice that this appears to be an earlier version of his similar article in Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund’s superlative collection Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context (2007). Nevertheless, Piot is so good at what he does that I enjoyed rereading his even-handed review of this woman’s fraud-filled story and of the systemic biases and crude anti-African prejudice (among the court and the public alike) that contributed to her eventual victory.

The unfailingly brilliant Nigerian-American scholar L. Amede Obiora concludes the book with an afterword ostensibly reviewing and integrating the contributions to this volume. Much as I enjoy Obiora’s writing and her commitment to a mode of FGC scholarship that is free from groupthink and committed to balancing culture and rights, I was disappointed by her failure to even mention Sami Aldeeb’s contribution to Female Circumcision. Despite the efforts of several contributors to grapple with MGC, and the double standards that necessarily get raised when analysis of it is quarantined from FGC, Obiora focuses exclusively on FGC.

Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives ends up as bit of a mixed bag, but a reasonably-priced book whose opening and concluding chapters amply repay the reader’s attention and financial outlay.

Reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda, Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, San Francisco

Genital cutting in cultural discourse

Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan (eds). Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 373 pp. ISBN 13 978-0813540269. $34.95 (paper)

Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, the editorial team from the University of Washington that produced the excellent book Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change (Lynne Rienner publishing, 2000) have done it again. Transcultural Bodies marginally even surpasses their earlier compilation in originality, quality and page-turning interest. The book will come as a profound shock to those in the grip of the common Anglophone assumption that female genital cutting is so horrible and injurious that it cannot possibly be compared with male circumcision, that harmless surgical intervention on baby boys that has nearly as many marvelous health benefits as the philosopher’s stone. On the contrary, the contributors to this book argue forcefully that male and female genital cutting have very similar cultural rationales and physiological outcomes.

The leading article by the two editors, surveying female genital cutting (FGC) as it relates to culture and rights, starts us off with a bang. In a far-ranging article they update us on important events and scholarship during the seven years since their first book and provide overviews each of the essays in this volume. They remark that “the debate between universalism and relativism in the field of human rights has long been premised on a fixed conception of both culture and rights.” In fact, as the authors show, both culture and human rights are continuously evolving and undergoing redefinition. The editors also contest the popular notion that human rights is a Western construct imposed by First World countries on the rest of the world, arguing that human rights has relevance and robustness to all humanity. They further argue that “a human rights culture” has become a central aspect of global culture and that cultural relativism should not be taken too far or allowed to become an excuse for abuse. But neither should human rights be allowed to privilege one culture over another, and the editors question whether FGC is best approached as a human rights issue. Support for this doubt may be found in the fact that the vilification of a practice that can follow its labeling as a human rights violation can impede or halt scholarly inquiry, as Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer shows when identifying the scarcity of medically objective inquiry into its side effects.

Double standards on FGC and MGC

Hernlund and Shell-Duncan draw attention to the irony and double standards inherent in the fact that a simple prick to the clitoris is probably illegal under US law while “much more invasive procedures” on males are entirely legal and socially accepted. They devote a full page to a judicious survey of the critics of American circumcision practices, singling out the much-published pediatrician Dr. Robert Van Howe repeatedly – though regrettably getting his name wrong. Next they examine the greatly expanded interest since their last book in “designer vaginas,” cosmetic operations that women in the developed world women are having performed, usually because they want their genitals to look like those of desired models in pornography and or in the belief that the alteration will enhance the sexual experience. The authors analyze in depth the consequent ironies and double standards. Toward the end of the article, male circumcision is mentioned again, when it is noted that in 1975, after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that there were “no health benefits whatsoever” in routine infant circumcision, there were no moves to outlaw the practice. Instead, “deep-seated religious, aesthetic, and cultural norms” were allowed to influence the decision to take “an educational approach” instead.

Following the editors’ introduction, Janice Boddy contributes a perceptive analysis of the FGC controversy in cultural perspective. “Much popular writing on female circumcision is polemical, preachy, advocacy driven, and endlessly self-referential,” she writes. “It is the appeal to social evolutionary thought in all its arrogant certainty that is the most troubling feature of FGM texts.” By this she refers to the common conviction that eventually those unsophisticated Africans will overcome their dark, ignorant ways and adopt enlightened Western approaches. According to this bromide, “African women are mired in culture; ‘we’ hold the light of truth.” Boddy wonders why there is “no outrage remotely parallel to that which leads some women to insist that circumcised women are entirely alienated from the essence of the female personality? Is it because these excisions are performed on boys, and only girls and women figure as victims in our cultural lexicon?”

Next L. Amede Obiora contributes a vibrant analysis of Ousmane Sembene’s film about FGC Moolaade. She argues that “Women give in to [FGC] presumably to gain something else for their lives, and there are substantial trade-offs.” Fascinatingly, she later observes that “the commonplace reification of culture as the prime site and source of gender oppression exhausts its usefulness at some point, and the denigration of culture implicit in such representations becomes all the more wrongheaded insofar as it obscures the attributes of culture that can catalyze desirable change.”

The Norwegian anthropologist Aud Talle follows with a study of “the anthropology of a difficult issue” in which she reaches heights of poetic eloquence in describing the plight of Somali émigré women in London. “In the streets of London they are not ‘in the world’ with a perfect body as they were on the savannah in Somalia. Now they wander forward as ‘lacks’—mutilated souls in mutilated bodies. They are signs of a story they have not written themselves; in fact, their bodies have become sites of a worldwide discourse on morality.”

Sara Johnsdotter examines attitudes to FGC held by Somali men and women now living in Sweden. The threat of action by Somali authorities, combined with social disapproval of FGC (as opposed to its endorsement in Somalia) and journalistic sensationalism, lead to virtually all Somalis living in Sweden opposing FGC. Johnsdotter notes that “an implicit and sometimes explicit moral discourse [is] attached to the issue of female circumcision,” rendering reasoned discussion very difficult, since “Almost anything about the horrifying consequences of these practices can be alleged in the public discourse without evidence to support it.” She remarks that a symbolic pricking to satisfy Somali cultural requirements removes no tissue and “is far less invasive than what is done to male infants at Swedish hospitals during male circumcision.” Thus, “In a strictly medical sense there is no reasonable motive to forbid pricking of girls’ genitalia while permitting male circumcision. The reason for allowing … male circumcision at hospitals while forbidding female symbolic sunnah circumcision is purely ideological.”

Australian legislation against female circumcision

Juliet Rogers follows with a trenchant critique of Australian legislation against FGC. Women are described as “mutilated” and “represented as objects to be managed.” In the passing of anti-FGC legislation in Victoria, “the authority of law [was represented] as essential to protect Australia from ‘barbarous practices’ and simultaneously constructed ‘others’ as barbaric and as ‘mutilated’ social agents who were not entitled to the rights of citizenship.” Like the other authors in this volume, Rogers points to feminism’s focus on the clitoris as problematic, and suggests that it is “the representation of the clitoris as a singularly universally understood and experienced entity that is precisely the problem.” An ironic aspect of the double standard in Australia is that while the Commonwealth health insurance scheme, Medicare, provides a rebate for circumcision of boys, it is specifically prohibited from covering any cutting procedures on the female genitals, no matter how old the owner. It has been pointed out that this restriction may breach the Sex Discrimination Act, which provides that each gender must receive equal treatment in the provision of Commonwealth benefits and services.

Charles Piot checks in with a brief yet perceptive analysis of the Kasinga case, in which the United States granted political asylum to a Togolese woman on account of her alleged fear of FGC. Corinne A. Kratz next provides an in-depth review of both Kasinga and the other precedent-setting US asylum case based on fear of FGC, Abankwah. She demonstrates that both cases involved substantial fraud by immigrants whose main aim was to secure permanent residency in the USA! Kasinga was actually from a Togolese group that does not circumcise females, while the very name of “Abankwah”, as well as nearly everything else she said about herself, turned out to be fabricated. Nevertheless, in accordance with legal principles, her award of asylum still stands as good law and a precedent in the USA. Kratz wonders whether “political lobbying and media outrage short-circuit judicious reasoning?” Kratz’s analysis gives substance to the editors’ discussion of the sexist bias inherent in the fact that fear of circumcision is a ground for seeking asylum only by women; the assumption seems to be that males are expected to take what’s coming to them without complaint.

Michelle C. Johnson contributes an interesting case study of the interactions of culture, religion and FGC among the Mandinga people of Guinea-Bissau and Mandinga immigrants living in Portugal. She shows that Mandinga women affirm what they see as “the fusion of ethnicity and Islam by inscribing it onto their bodies.” Mansura Dopico provides us with a study of the sexual experiences of the infibulated women of rural Eritrea and in Australia, demonstrating the great variety and unpredictability of their sexual responsiveness. Johnson argues that, contrary to common belief, “there is some evidence that removal of the clitoris cannot inhibit either arousal or orgasm.” And that “the relationship between FGC and lack of sexual satisfaction had been grossly exaggerated.”

R. Elise B. Johansen writes about Somalis and infibulation in Norway. Her chapter relates to broader topics than FGC (such as the Somali construction of female virginity and the contrast between the Western tendency to fake orgasm and the Somali tendency to hide female sexual pleasure), and it is all the more fascinating for the breadth of her approach. She makes intriguing counterpositions of Western and Somali views on sexual matters and comments that “The practice of genital cutting itself suggests that inborn genital differences are not considered sufficient to constitute proper men and women.”

Next comes the irrepressible iconoclast Fuambai Ahmadu, who told the story of her own circumcision during a visit from the US to her childhood home in Sierra Leone in the editors’ earlier collection. Her unusual status as an African-born, Western-educated academic on the topic of FGC who voluntarily returned to her homeland to be circumcised gives her a uniquely authoritative perspective on the huge cultural prejudices that constitute beams in the eye of the West. She suggests that “the potential psychosocial damage of negative FGM campaigns on teenage girls and women could be far worse than any impact of the physical act of cutting the clitoris.” She refuses to accept her definition by enlightened others as “mutilated,” forthrightly affirming that “I have not experienced any change, either elimination or reduction, in sexual response following my own initiation.”

Male and female circumcision compared

The best essay in the collection is left for last. Henrietta L. Moore contributes a magisterial and far-reaching meditation on culture, difference and power, gender and agency, drawing together all the other authors in an integration that transcends the FGC issue and embraces topics of concern to all humanity — culture, justice, gender, and understanding difference. “The West, it turns out, has culture just like everyone else,” she reports. “The very idea of a rooted, native culture was the product of a traveling, comparative Western gaze.” It is so obvious and yet so rarely mentioned that Africans in circumcising cultures “may have both positive and negative feelings toward female genital operations” – just like Americans with respect to male circumcision. Moore writes that “a curious resonance is established between Western discourses of liberated female sexuality and the relationship of the clitoris to sexual pleasure and agency and more ‘local’ male discourses about the importance of removing the clitoris in order to bring sexuality under the woman’s control as a means to ensure successful, socially reproductive sex.” She observes that the political asylum cases discussed in earlier chapters “relied to a significant extent on reifying and ossifying culture … What characterizes the globalized world is everyone thinks they know about culture and about the difference that cultural difference makes.” In fact, however, new “forms of hybridization, cosmopolitan consciousness, and emerging secularism … are everywhere accompanied by new forms of cultural fundamentalism, nationalism, and religious intolerance.”

Regrettably, well over a score of typographical, grammatical and reference errors not present in Shell-Duncan’s and Hernlund’s earlier volume mar this production. I also spotted one substantive error that should have been caught and corrected by fact the checkers, concerning the organization of the (now renamed) Immigration and Naturalization Service. Such imperfections do not undermine the validity of the authors’ conclusions, though they do indicate a degree of laxness, or perhaps haste, that should have been avoided.

Transcultural Bodies makes an important contribution to critical thinking about genital cutting, human rights, anthropology, feminism and culture, offering a broad-ranging plurality of perspectives and topics that is all too rare these days, yet remaining focused on the unifying topic of female genital cutting. It is so well-done that it transcends its seemingly narrow subject matter and (as Moore suggests) offers a broad and stimulating perspective on our increasingly globalised world.

Reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda, Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, San Francisco

[ Back to Top ]