Children’s Genitals Under the Knife
Author: Hanny Lightfoot-Klein
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J. Steven Svoboda
Hanny Lightfoot-Klein is one of the seven wonders of the world. Having previously written two unique, valuable books published by Harrington Park Press, Prisoners of Ritual (1989) and A Woman’s Odyssey into Africa: Tracks Across a Life (1992), she has recently completed her trilogy with the self-published book Children’s Genitals Under the Knife.
Some readers who do not know Lightfoot-Klein’s previous work may be wondering what could be left to say in a third book on the same topic. Yet Children’s Genitals Under the Knife offers its own uniquely panoramic, idiosyncratic perspective. Prisoners of Ritual primarily examined female genital cutting in the Sudan; A Woman’s Odyssey into Africa both narrowed the focus to the author’s voyage of self-discovery and broadened it to encompass gender topics and issues specific to Lightfoot-Klein’s personal growth and development. While never departing from being a book about genital cutting, Children’s Genitals Under the Knife may contain the broadest overview ever presented of the complex larger social context underlying and overlaying the pervasive set of human rights violations represented by genital cutting.
Lightfoot-Klein adroitly points to the parallel between the 150-year male circumcision craze in the US and our unique belief in simple and direct solutions to problems. She points out that as a country our perverse uniqueness may be even more starkly typified by the fact that clitoridectomy remained in vogue here for over fifty years while only enjoying brief popularity in every other Western country that tried it.
There is plenty here of extreme relevance that I have never heard about before, at least not in such detail. Care for a ‘vulvular massage’ from your physician, ladies? Vibrator-assisted ecstasy was routinely available from select doctors for a period of at least forty years that bracketed the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of us know that popular articles appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine favoring ‘female circumcision’ as late as 1976 (and medical articles appeared as recently as 1973 in favor of the same procedure). But Lightfoot-Klein reminds us that no lesser institutions than Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School were advocating for complete clitoridectomies and simultaneously concealing data not supporting their position as recently as 1966.
One complaint some readers may have is the strength and repetition of the author’s conviction that female genital cutting is substantially more damaging relative to male genital cutting. And yet Lightfoot-Klein is also a ferocious, tireless, and longtime opponent of male genital cutting, wryly noting, ‘In defining the severity of male circumcision, one might liken it to the crushing and ripping away of the eyelids, a procedure for which it would be most unlikely to find many volunteers among those male circumcision proponents wishing to prove its harmlessness.’
Her section providing some first-hand accounts of genital cutting are difficult to read but inspire awe at the endurance and understated eloquence of their subjects, not to mention anger that these horrors still blight the face of this earth. A later pair of contributions by intersex speakers also resonate in our minds long after we have turned the page, with Intersex Society of North America founder Cheryl Chase proving particularly indelible. One further unique, utterly unforgettable component of this book is the extended excerpt from a statement in favor of female circumcision, concluding with the assurance to the listener: ‘It will do her good and she will thank you for it.’
The author pegs the recent debate over outsiders’ attacks on FGC just right, emphasizing that first world critics have an important role to play in ending FGC, but ‘the West must first discard any illusions it may yet harbor that it will lead the Children of Africa out of their wilderness.’ The author acerbically notes the frequency with which Western critics pick this particular practice to pile onto while overlooking problems viewed by Africans as even more essential such as obtaining safe water, reducing infant mortality, and improving health care. Lightfoot-Klein was an early, outspoken gadfly to those who would overly simplify the sexuality of genitally cut women, showing with her groundbreaking research and activism that even many infibulated women ‘manage to enjoy a healthy sexual and emotional life.’ As a result of her objectivity and search for the truth, she was maligned and unsuccessful attempts were made to silence her in order to further certain political agendas.
The author is a woman of passion and careful observation, unafraid to speak the truth yet not particularly seeking the limelight herself. Lightfoot-Klein contextualizes genital cutting within an interrelated skein of perspectives, while at the same time offering hope through her nearly fifty-page section collecting many different examples of positive change evolving due to activism by folks like (and unlike) you and me. You can’t afford not to accept the author’s offer to travel with her on the complicated, at times grim, but ultimately inspiring journey she offers us.
This review also appears in Perspectives on Global Issues International:
Review of Children’s Genitals Under the Knife, by Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, Perspectives on Global Issues International, Spring 2008 issue, pp. 62-63.