Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics

Edited by: Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson

Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics. Edited by Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 169 pages. No price stated on book but press website gives current price as $29.95. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Technology has its benefits, and one of them is that university press books look fantastic these days. The somewhat ponderously titled Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics, edited by Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson, is no exception. Handsomely presented as it is on high quality paper, with a stylized drawing on the dust jacket of a woman of apparently African origin holding a knife, it leaves the reader hoping only that the quality of the writing holds up to the production values.

Unfortunately, with some exceptions, Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood is a disappointment. In fairness to editors James and Robertson, they are following on the heels of the magisterial Female ‘Circumcision’ in Africa: Culture, Controversy and Change, edited by Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund and a must-read for any serious follower of genital cutting issues, as well as the highly distinguished volume by Ellen Gruenbaum entitled The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. (Both of these books are reviewed elsewhere in these pages.) Once one has finished reading the Shell-Duncan/Hernlund masterwork, it is hard to imagine what can be left to say regarding the interrelation of female genital cutting (FGC) and culture and politics.

Then again, one of the big problems with Genital Cutting is its failure to acknowledge its predecessors and contextualize its perspectives with those contained in these earlier efforts. No serious work evidently positioning itself for critical and scholarly attention can afford to entirely ignore major books appearing several years previously, and yet James and Robertson do exactly that. Are they hoping the readers won’t know about the other publications? Do they consider themselves to have such original insights that the other volumes are irrelevant? If so, they are mistaken.

Activists for genital integrity may find themselves irritated when in their introduction, on page 7, the editors trot out the old throwaway statement about male circumcision being “much more minor” than female genital cuttings. As is usual with such claims, no effort is made to justify this unreferenced assertion. More surprisingly, the authors also make the unforgivable mistake of assuming that FGC only occurs in Africa.

Yet each of the slim volume’s total of five essays does have genuinely novel and useful points to make. In her opening essay, Christine J. Walley asks why FGC tends to be viewed “in either/or terms, in other words, either in terms of cultural relativism or politically informed outrage”? [italics in original] She goes on to give us something I have never read from a first-world feminist author before, an overall positive description of female ritual initiation, explaining its undeniable cultural roles in non-inflammatory terms. Regarding young Sabaot women in Uganda whose ceremonies she observed, she provocatively notes that 1) excision is both in and against the women’s interests [italics in original], and 2) at least some of the girls of both the circumcised Sabaot group and the Bukusu ethnic group, which does not practice FGC, envied those in the other group for their circumcision status! Regrettably, Walley makes an unforgivably misleading claim regarding male circumcision, when—immediately following a long discussion of different African ethnic groups’ practices regarding FGC—she suggests that male circumcision “has historically been and at present remains a potent marker of group identity in European countries.” Uninformed North American readers could easily thereby be misled to understand that, say, Italians distinguish themselves from the French based on their circumcision status; an examination of Walley’s references demonstrates that the “groups” that she is suggesting mark their identity by circumcision are the Jews, pure and simple.

While Walley’s critique of “one-size-fits-all” cultural assumptions is all well and good, she lacks self-awareness to see the similar limitations in her own perspective, e.g. regarding male circumcision. After a while one also tires of her endless critiques of others’ work, which contain scanty concrete suggestions of their own.

In her individual essay, co-editor Claire Robertson contributes some good thoughts regarding some of the miscues committed by overzealous, shortsighted North American feminist activists against FGC such as Alice Walker and Fran Hosken. Robertson’s comment is well-taken that African women are all too often viewed primarily in regards to the FGC issue. Robertson also makes a thought-provoking point that in the West men often feel they must do something to prove their manhood, and in Africa FGC is sometimes similarly seen as a prerequisite to womanhood. Appreciation for and sensitivity to these cultural analogies will no doubt prove important to the movements for genital integrity in both Africa and North America. Later Robertson makes an interesting point about how “American assumptions of a superior U.S. Civilization and African barbarity” help explain US law that criminalizes FGC but not genital procedures done by North Americans even where similar results ensue.

Walker and Hosken are perhaps easy targets and Robertson (who as a white woman focusing on Africa may perhaps feel somewhat vulnerable herself) does at times overextend her critique. She complains of misspellings of cited authors’ names while herself failing to catch her co-editor’s embarrassing citation of the Senegalese anti-FGC Tostan program as “Tolstan.” Robertson also makes some revealing errors, either misunderstanding or failing to correct government lawyers’ reported claim that the only grounds for political asylum are a woman’s need to avoid forced FGC, whereas actually African women have been granted political asylum for many other reasons. Two pages later Robertson erroneously suggests, again without a stated citation, that US courts often grant custody to a father if representations are made that the mother cannot support them. (In fact, American courts are sharply biased toward the mother in custody determinations.)

Surprisingly, in her own essay, co-editor Stanlie James is unaccountably sympathetic to Fran Hosken and Hanny Lightfoot-Klein (both of whom her fellow editor Robertson lambastes) while echoing Robertson in again taking Alice Walker to task. Regrettably, James’ analysis is flawed due to her ignorance of the hallowed human rights principle of customary law, which allows a human rights treaty to be considered legally binding even upon states that do not ratify it.

The editors save the best for last. Isabelle Gunning scores some points I haven’t seen before by pointing out the evidently complete lack of input by non-governmental organizations into the California anti-FGC law. Hearings were allegedly held but mysteriously no written or videotaped evidence of their contents is available. The official assumption that people do not need to know the content or specific language of a law, but rather should be told what they need to hear, is nicely described as “maternalistic.” In the body of her essay, while Gunning always avoids taking to the next level her analysis of parallels between FGC and male circumcision, she still provides some nice discussion. Thus it is a shame that her notes indicating an astonishingly complete lack of awareness of both the 1999 American Academy of Pediatrics position statement and the internal dynamics that led to the 1989 statement, despite the existence of a published law review article discussing in detail Edgar Schoen’s 1989 machinations.

Intersex activist Cheryl Chase’s closing essay is the book’s standout piece. Chase is a very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact writer, and yet the majesty and drama of her claims soar far above the relatively pedestrian contributions of the book’s other authors. We learn that intersex activists who asked that the federal anti-FGC law be enforced in their favor met with a stony silence. Chase skillfully integrates her own story, including a mother who was drugged whenever she asked doctors what was wrong with her child, not to mention Chase’s own self-transformation from repeat suicide attempter into intersex activist. A disturbing tale emerges of a medical world so determined to engineer reality that often intersex people undergo complex procedures free of charge and border crossings are quickly arranged to facilitate the allaying of society’s anxiety over ambiguous genitalia. Intersex activists must struggle for feminist support, Chase suggests, “because intersexuality undermines the stability of the category ‘woman’ that undergirds much first-world feminist discourse… Cutting intersex genitals becomes yet another hidden mechanism for imposing normalcy upon unruly flesh, a means of containing the potential anarchy of desires and identifications within oppressive heteronormative structures.”

Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood is a bit too sloppy for an academic book and perhaps a tad too theoretical for anyone else. Cheryl Chase and Isabelle Gunning provide the standout essays of the book, which still amply repays the attention and time of anyone who cares about the worldwide struggle to protect genital integrity. But read Female ‘Circumcision’ in Africa first!