Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change

Edited by: Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund

Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change. Edited by Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2000. 349 pp. $22.50. www.rienner.com. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

A seemingly endless parade of more-or-less interchangeable articles and books about female genital cutting (FGC) appeared in the 80’s and 90’s, each apparently attempting to outdo the last in the ferocity of its denunciation of the patriarchy, its explanations as to why FGC is nothing at all like male genital cutting (MGC) and its affirmation of the horrors of FGC. Recent years have gifted us with a triumvirate of fresh, insightful books, willing to re-examine all aspects of the topic, puncturing tired old dogma with insightful scholarship and refreshing skepticism. (The newest of these three works, the recently published Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood, edited by Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson, will be reviewed next issue. Our review of Ellen Gruenbaum’s The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective can be seen elsewhere in these pages.)

The opening chapter of Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change, written by its editors, makes it clear we are in for quite a ride with this book. Shell-Duncan and Hernlund question the accuracy of the “laundry list of adverse health outcomes” so pervasive in earlier works on female genital cutting (FGC), noting that they often stem from “observations by British colonial surgeons and gynecologists in the 1930s and 1940s.” Self-reported retrospective survey data, the bread and butter basis for the contentions of old-school FGC writing, suffers from recall bias. The editors argue that FGC is often less extensive than is assumed (for example, infibulation often leaves the clitoris intact) and also note evidence that other sex organs partially compensate for loss of sexual pleasure by becoming more sensitive. Shell-Duncan and Hernlund highlight the striking absence from the literature of systematic evaluations of FGC’s impact on fertility, and also stress the ceremonial importance of both FGC and male circumcision or male genital cutting (MGC) as markers of transition from androgynous childhood into gendered adulthood.

The book’s authors repeatedly allude to critics who have inquired into the basis for ignoring male circumcision while opposing even a ceremonial nick of female genitalia. Increasing trends away from traditional practitioners and toward medicalization of FGC in Africa is changing the nature and impact of the practices. Several authors discuss the growing African backlash against western feminist opposition to FGC, which all too often is superficial and ideological, lacking sensitivity to the procedure’s cultural meanings. Lynn Thomas, writing about Kenyan campaigns to eliminate FGC, notes that Africans have come to resent Westerners’ focus on their practices while neglecting more pressing developmental issues such as the need for adequate food and water and for control of AIDS.

Several authors springboard their own analyses off of Janice Boddy’s seminal 1982 study interpreting genital cutting as symbolically accentuating women’s fertility by deemphasizing their sexuality. Both Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf and Gerry Mackie raise fascinating cross-cultural comparisons with Chinese footbinding, noting that mothers in both cultures provide almost identical rationales (enhanced marriage prospects, conformity) for forcibly modifying their daughters’ bodies in what they portray as an act of “mother’s love.” Mackie provides a fascinating analysis of analogies between FGC and Chinese footbinding, writing that “both customs are nearly universal where practiced, are persistent, and are practiced even by people who oppose them.” He shows that eliminating both practices requires the offering of a socially acceptable alternative to avoid the potential disaster of loss of girls’ marriageability. Associations of parents must join together and pledge to favor marriages of their sons to uncut women, as was done in China with footbinding. Such practices, according to Mackie, tend either to end rapidly or persist indefinitely, as was the case with footbinding, which lasted for 1,000 years and then ended within a generation. For her part, Abusharaf painstakingly yet fairly takes the notoriously intransigent Fran Hosken to task for her egregious oversimplifications of “the complex tapestry of values that account for [FGC’s] resilience among a wide range of societies,” which ironically renders Hosken’s own work ethnocentric and fatally unconcerned with the “specificity of women’s experience.”

In the next chapter, Lori Leonard, writing about the recent adoption (!) of FGC in Southern Chad, similarly critiques Mary Daly’s interpretations of FGC which ignore “socioeconomic, political and historical context, us[ing] inflammatory and distancing language… and thereby effectively alienate precisely those women whom they purport to help.” Leonard intriguingly notes that infibulation may have started in certain countries as “a practical solution to the need to control body odors, particularly those produced by menstruation, given off by female herders.” Claudie Gosselin writes that in Mali she has found “a significant number of people who felt insulted by the statements of anticircumcision activists because the information presented contradicted their own knowledge and common sense.”

Michelle C. Johnson comments that Muslim Mandinga populations in Guinea-Bissau “linked circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls first and foremost to religious identity-a factor that has been significantly less explored in the ethnographic literature on the subject.” Women in these communities believe circumcision is necessary for them to have the right to pray. For both males and females, stoically enduring the cutting is highly valued as demonstrating strength and courage. Moreover, the pain and suffering from the initiation play “a transformative role that extends beyond the ritual context of initiation into everyday life.” Mandinga women consider the actual cutting of the clitoris to be the most important part of the initiation.

A number of the book’s contributors show that legislation and other external attempts to “eradicate” FGC have proven to be poor tools for social change, as consciousness-raising from within is much more effective. Ylva Hernlund notes that legal approaches can be counterproductive; fear that a law will be passed can lead to all girls being circumcised “before it is too late.” Mackie writes that a “legal prohibition is most appropriate at the climax of the national process of abandonment, not at its beginning.” He adds that criminalizing a practice before most people oppose it will be ineffective, which may suggest a cautionary message for those of us tempted to rely primarily or exclusively on legal techniques in our efforts to eliminate male circumcision in North America.

Several authors decry the unjustified conflation of various forms of FGC and an overemphasis in the literature on the less common but more drastic infibulation. A number of the book’s contributors write that in direct contradiction of feminist dogma, females tend to defend the institution of FGC more vigorously than their male counterparts. Males also speak more negatively about their own initiations relative to females. While we find FGC horrifying, as Mackie fearlessly writes, “for an insider FGC is more like dentistry than it is like violence.”

The most fascinating article comes last. Fuambai Ahmadu, born and raised in her “formative years” in Sierra Leone, has spent the majority of her life in Washington, D.C. but decide to return to her home village and undergo its excision rite. Ahmadu relates her harrowing yet fascinating tale with admirable honesty, intelligence and perspective, not to mention virtually unparalleled authority, concluding that today, in the wake of her own excision, she is “‘neutral’ in terms of continuation of the practice.”