Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context

Edited by: Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan

Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context. Edited by Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan. Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 373 pp. No price stated on book but publisher website gives price as $34.95.

Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, the editorial team from the University of Washington that produced the superlative 2000 book Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change (published by Lynne Rienner and reviewed in these pages) have done it again. Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context marginally surpasses even Female “Circumcision” in Africa in originality, quality, and sheer page-turning interest.

The leading article by the two editors starts us off with a bang. Hernlund and Shell-Duncan have created a fantastic, far-ranging piece that shows that both culture and human rights are continuously evolving and undergoing redefinition. They 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 throughout the world. In fact, they question whether FGC is best approached as a human rights issue. Support for this query may come from the fact that the vilification of a practice that can ensue from its declaration as a human rights violation can stop scholarly inquiry.

Hernlund and Shell-Duncan note that a simple prick of the clitoris is probably illegal under US law while “much more invasive procedures” on males are entirely legal. They devote a full page to a not unsympathetic survey of intactivism (the movement to stop male circumcision) that mentions Dr. Robert Van Howe repeatedly (while getting his name wrong). Next they survey the greatly expanded interest since their last book in “designer vaginas,” cosmetic operations that developed-world women are having performed on their genitals. The authors analyze in depth the consequent ironies and double standards. Toward the end of the article, male circumcision is mentioned again, when they note that after the AAP’s 1975 statement finding “no health benefits whatsoever” to the practice, the practice was not outlawed. Instead, “deep-seated religious, aesthetic, and cultural norms” were allowed to influence a decision to instead take an educational approach.

The reliable Janice Boddy contributes a perceptive analysis of the FGC controversy in cultural perspective. “Much popular writing on female circumcision,” Boddy writes, “is polemical, preachy, advocacy driven, and endlessly self-referential.” The author asks, “Why is there no outrage [regarding male circumcision] 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 the reliably brilliant L. Amede Obiora contributes a vibrantly written analysis that usefully builds in an extended analysis of Ousmane Sembene’s wonderful film about FGC (don’t miss it!), Moolaade. “Women give into [FGC] presumably to gain something else for their lives, and there are substantial trade-offs.” Norwegian anthropologist Aud Talle contributes a study of “the anthropology of a difficult issue.” She waxes poetic in describing the plight of Somali émigré women living in London. “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 discourses regarding FGC by Somali men and women now living in Sweden. Johnsdotter notes that “an implicit and sometimes explicit moral discourse [is] attached to the issue of female circumcision,” rendering reasoned discussion virtually impossible. She comments that a symbolic pricking to satisfy Somali cultural requirements while not removing tissue “is far less invasive than what is done to male infants at Swedish hospitals during male circumcision…” Thus, “In a strictly medical sense, then, there is no reasonable motive to forbid pricking of girls’ genitalia while permitting male circumcision.”

Juliet Rogers writes a trenchant critique of Australian approaches to legislating against FGC. Women are described as “mutilated” and “represented as objects to be managed.” As do other authors in this volume, Rogers points to feminism’s focus on the clitoris as problematic.

Charles Piot checks in with a brief yet perceptive, provocative, and brave analysis of the Kasinga case in which US political asylum was granted to a Togolese woman based on 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. Kratz shows us that both cases involved substantial fraud by the immigrants applying for permission to remain in the US! Kratz asks, “Did political lobbying and media outrage short-circuit judicious reasoning?”

Michelle C. Johnson gives us an interesting case study of the interactions of culture, religion, and FGC with the Mandinga people of Guinea-Bissau and Mandinga immigrants living in Portugal. Johnson fascinatingly 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 often varied, vibrant infibulated Eritrean women in rural Eritrea and in Australia, demonstrating the great variety and unknowability of sexual response. Contrary to common belief, “[t]here is some evidence that removal of the clitoris cannot inhibit either arousal or orgasm.”

R. Elise B. Johansen writes penetratingly about Somalis and infibulation in Norway. She shows us intriguing counterpositions of views on sexual matters in Western and Somali cultures. Next is the irrepressible, brilliant iconoclast Fuambai Ahmadu. Her unique (as far as I know) status as an African-born, Western-educated academic on the topic of FGC who voluntarily returned to her homeland to be circumcised naturally gives her a unique perspective on the huge cultural prejudices that are the beams in the West’s eye. She refuses to accept her definition by ostensibly enlightened others as “mutilated,” forthrightly affirming, “I have not experienced any change, either elimination or reduction, in sexual response following my own initiation.”

For all the riches that have come before, the editors leave the best for last. Henrietta L. Moore contributes a truly awe-inspiring tour de force meditation on culture, difference and power, gender and agency, pulling all the authors who have come before her together in an integration that nevertheless transcends the FGC issue and embraces much more general topics of concern to all humanity—culture, justice, gender, understanding difference. In fact, Moore concludes, new “forms of hybridization, cosmopolitan consciousness, and emerging secularism…are everywhere accompanied by new forms of cultural fundamentalism, nationalism, and religious intolerance.” As we saw with Fuambai Ahmadu!

Regrettably, well over a score of typographical, grammatical and reference errors not present in the earlier volume crop up here. For a book of this type, this is not a level of imperfection that calls the validity of the authors’ conclusions into question, though it does indicate a certain laxness.

This masterpiece achieves what I would not have thought possible, exceeding by a nose its illustrious predecessor volume. It is highly recommend to any reader interested in genital cutting, or human rights, or anthropology, or feminism, or culture. I dare say a more important, more original, and more fascinating book was not published in 2007.