Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

This post is a response to the increasingly heated thread at Feministe on Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Nearly every mention of FGC in our society elicits condemnation of the practices and the people who practice them as “bestial”, “barbarian”, “inhuman”, “uncivilized”, “heinous”, etc., which has a tendency to set me off. For a long time I’ve wondered about the incredible and disproportional response FGC incites in Westerners, feminists and non-feminists alike, responses which generally are very far removed from the reported responses and experiences of women who have undergone some form of FGC. Since I was obviously not able to make a meaningful intervention at Feministe, being limited by both the “sound-bite” nature of a comment thread and the increasingly furious response to my posts, I decided it would be best to bow out of that discussion before someone burst a vein (especially if that someone was me!) and build my arguments in the less-limited space of my own blog.

This post turned out to be well over 6,000 words (including footnotes and references) — for those who find reading long documents online uncomfortable, I have posted a PDF of the post (with minimal formatting) that can be downloaded and printed.

Few aspects of global women’s lives attract the kind of attention that Female Genital Cutting (FGC) 1 has in the last decade or so. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 100 – 140 million women living in 28 African nations (and a handful of women in Asia and the Middle East) have undergone some form of FGC. FGC practices include the cutting of the labia or clitoris, removal of the prepuce (clitoral hood), removal of the external part of the clitoris and/or the inner labia, and sewing up the vaginal opening, and any combination of these practices. Although often found in Muslim societies, FGC is not specifically Muslim and is looked down upon by most non-African Muslims; most likely such practices pre-date the introduction if Islam into North Africa and were carried forward with new meanings as groups converted.

Western attention on FGC has focused on two aspects: the potential health impact on women undergoing these procedures, and the potential impact on women’s ability to engage in and enjoy sexual intercourse. Because data in both areas has been scarce – the worldwide interest in FGC developed fairly recently, so long-term health trends are only now beginning to be apparent, and data on sexual enjoyment is nearly impossible to compile in any meaningful sense – FGC has proven an empty template for the projection of Western conceptions of sex and sexuality and their relation to individual identity. Most arguments against FGC see these practices as an attempt by native men to control the sexuality of “their” women, by reducing the ability of women to enjoy sex and therefore reducing the likelihood that they will engage in sex for any reason other than wifely duty. While people in some societies do describe their particular practices in such terms, this is hardly universal; women are just as likely to describe the empowerment and control they feel as a result of their procedures. Responses to FGC among the women who undergo such procedures are complex and nuanced, in a way that Western responses absolutely are not.

This piece has two aims. The first is to explore some of the ways that women who have undergone FGC talk about the practices of their own societies, both in first-person accounts and in second-hand accounts that make up the ethnographic record. The second is to look into the wide gap between the experiences recorded in the ethnographic record and the discourses that make up Western anti-FGC advocacy. What emerges is, I think, a classic example of the formulation put forth by Gayatri Spivak: “white men [and women] saving brown women from brown men” (1988). Spivak’s seminal article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, points to the willingness of the privileged to speak for and about the less privileged, generally in ways that reflect more the concerns of the privileged than anything familiar to the actual lives of the subaltern. In the case of anti-FGC advocacy, the voice of “brown women” is almost entirely absent, literally silenced by an insistence that the horrendousness of the practice precludes any possible positive evaluation, and therefore the only valid voices are those that condemn FGC. All contradictory testimony is dismissed as the result of “brainwashing”, “false consciousness”, “fear of male reprisal”, “anti-Westernism”, “ignorance”, or other forms of willful or unwillful complicity. For instance, Mary Daly wrote of women’s participation in carrying out these procedures, “Mentally castrated, these women participate in the destruction of their own kind” (1978, quoted in Walley 1997: 419).2


Since few Westerners aside from those directly involved in FGC advocacy or research are familiar with the ethnographic context in which FGC occurs, I will begin by offering short descriptions of several different procedures and the conditions under which they occur. Given the wide range of procedures involved and cultural complexes in which they are situated, this does not aim to be anything like a representative sample – there are hundreds if not thousands of culturally-unique practices that are lumped under the heading of “FGC”. Procedures can be found taking place in elaborate ritual ceremonies, generally associated with a woman’s coming of age, or they can be performed by trained midwives under pseudo-medical conditions (some would have them done in hospitals, but as FGC is illegal in nearly every country in which it occurs, this is not a possibility) to either very young girls several years off from reaching maturity or to older women well past the age of maturity. There simply is no “typical” practice.

Consider the Mende of West Africa. After the onset of menarche (first menstruation), a group of girls are taken into the wilderness for a coming-of-age ritual lasting weeks or even months. During this time, they dress in short skirts and strings of beads, their bodies smeared with a white clay mixture that is intended to protect them from malicious supernatural forces during the incredibly vulnerable transition period. The rites are led by women from the Sande, the women’s society into which the girls are being initiated, who will teach their charges the meanings and obligations of womanhood in Mende culture. The rites are characterized by a great deal of singing, dancing, story-telling, and feasting, creating a festive, celebratory atmosphere reflective of the value placed on womanhood. Surrounded by their friends and mentors, the girls undergo the removal of the external clitoris and part of the labia minora, the pain of which is meant to mimic and prepare them for the pain of childbirth. The ritual is a promise of solidarity for the Mende – as they undergo the pain of clitoridectomy surrounded by and supported by the women of their community, so shall they experience the pain of childbirth and the other sufferings that life may have in store for them. The procedure also removes the last vestige of maleness from the female body, as the male circumcision removes the last vestige of femaleness from the penis; female genitals are totally hidden and internal after the procedure, as male genitals are fully exposed and external after theirs. Upon completion of their training, the new-fledged women are bathed in a special brew of herbs and leaves, removing the magical protection, and reintroduced to their communities as women fully cognizant and in control of their sexuality (Haviland et al. 2005: 352).

Other FGC procedures occur in the virtual absence of ceremony. Among the people studied by Janice Boddy in Sudan (she calls them the “Hofriyat” to protect their identity), genital cutting procedures are performed in a relatively straight-forward, medicalized fashion, without any concurrent religious observations. The Hofriyat practice what they call “Pharaonic circumcision”, the removal of the clitoris and labia minora followed by the closing up of the vaginal opening. The procedure today is performed by a trained midwife and with the use of anesthesia, and using modern equipment; before 1969, it was practiced by elder women, without anesthesia, who used L-shaped thorns to close the vaginal opening. Boddy describes a procedure she witnessed:

A crowd of women, many of them grandmothers, has gathered outside the room, not a man in sight. A dozen hands push me forward. “You’ve got to see this up close,” says Zaineb, “it’s important.” I dare not confess my reluctance. The girl is lying on an angareeb (native bed), her body supported by several adult kinswomen. Two of these hold her legs apart. Then she is administered a local anesthetic by injection. In the silence of the next few moments, Miriam takes a pair of what look to me like children’s paper scissors and quickly cuts away the girl’s clitoris and labia minora. She tells me this is the lahme djewa (the inside flesh). I am surprised that there is so little blood. Then she takes a surgical needle from her midwife’s kit, threads it with suture, and sews together the labia majora, leaving a small opening at the vulva. After a liberal application of antiseptic, it is all over.

The young girl seems to be experiencing more shock than pain, and I wonder if the anesthetic has finally taken effect. The women briefly trill their joyous ululation and we adjourn to the courtyard for tea. While we wait, the sisters receive the ritual ornaments that will protect them from harm as they recuperate (1997: 310).

Among the Hofriyat, the performance of the Pharaonic circumcision does not transform one into a woman; it makes her marriageable, but she does not assume full womanhood until she is actually married.

Although in the vast majority of cases it is women who perform and attend FGC procedures, in some areas this is a man’s responsibility. Many people have seen the mid-90’s film produced and aired by CNN that depicts a screaming girl held down while a male barber performs the operation. Although the film was widely criticized for its lack of cultural sensitivity and contextualization, forcing CNN to defend itself against numerous lawsuits, nobody seems to deny that FGCs do occur in this manner. In other places, FGC is wholly dissociated from the transition to womanhood, sometimes occurring as early as age 4 or 5 or some time after she has assumed womanhood. The Bedouin women in Lila Abu-Lughod’s Writing Women’s Worlds suggest that infibulation might be practiced as an occasional thing, to assure a husband that his wife or wives are faithful while he’s away (1993: 106-7).


With such a wide range of practices and of meanings attached to them, one would suspect that there would be a wide range of responses by women who live in societies where FGC is practiced, and one would be correct. I do not intend here to represent the entire range of possible responses; the mainstream media is over-saturated with voices condemning FGC which, while they may represent the mainstream of Western thought, do not seem to correspond with the responses of even those native women who actively oppose FGC. My intention here is not to represent fully the complexity of the issue but rather to restore some of the complexity that is often glossed over in debates among Westerners.

Given the unremitting horror with which FGC is reported and discussed among Westerners, it may come as a surprise that many women in societies that practice FGC utterly reject the description of themselves as “victims”. In an interview with anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, a Kono woman named Leunita exclaimed:

What gets me mad, is when people say we are ‘victims’. And I say, victims of what? The women of the Bundu [cut women] are not victims! For us, the one you would have to pity is the woman who is not of the Bundu! (Burdick)

For Kono women like Leunita (and Ahmadu herself; see below), FGC is both a source of and recognition of the power women wield in the world. “The secret power we exercise — and why men fear us — is our ability to have children. Without being cut, the ancestresses will not want to release to you the powers of your own body” (Ibid.). Boddy noted a similar concern with fertility among the Hofriyat, where she reads FGC as a de-emphasis of (external) sensuality and enhancement of the (internal) reproductive capacity. Thus women are defined – define themselves – not as objects for the sexual gratification of men (or of themselves) but as “mothers of men”, men who, as she assumes eldership in the society, will “listen to” her and through which she will exercise power in her community (313-4).

Fuambai Ahmadu is an interesting spokesperson for women who perform and undergo FGC. A Kono woman herself, educated at the London School of Economics, at the age of 22 Ahmadu decided to return to Sierra Leone and complete the traditional coming-of-age ritual. In justifying her decision, Ahmadu wrote:

It is difficult for me – considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own – to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to – they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly, the authority of their mothers and grandmothers. (2000, quoted in Shweder 2003: 169).

About as widespread as beliefs about reproductivity are concerns about aesthetics. Nearly all women in societies that practice FGC describe circumcised or otherwise cut genitals as more attractive than uncut genitals. Indeed, it is for this reason that many researchers reject the term “female genital mutilation“, which is preferred by many advocates; very few women see their genitals as “mutilated” by FGC. As Sandra Lane and Robert Rubinstein note:

Among these groups, in fact, the resulting appearance is considered an improvement over female genitalia in their natural state…. In the rural Egyptian hamlet where we have conducted fieldwork some women were not familiar with groups that did not circumcise their girls. When they learned that the female researcher was not circumcised their response was disgust mixed with joking laughter. They wondered how she could have thus gotten married and questioned how her mother could have neglected such an important part of her preparation for womanhood (1996: 35).

Luanita told Ahmadu that “I think one of the most beautiful things is after a woman is cut. There can be no question that she is more beautiful that way. Very beautiful” (Burdick). The Hofriyati women in Boddy’s study described their cut genitals as clean, smooth, and pure (313), assessments which are in agreement with similar descriptions across the range of FGC-practicing societies (Shweder: 181).

Given these positive assessments of such practices, it is not surprising that an overwhelming number of women choose to have their daughters cut.

According to the Sudan Demographic and Health Survey of 1989-90 conducted in northern and central Sudan, of 3,805 women interviewed, 89 percent were circumcised. Of the women that were circumcised, 96 percent said they had or would circumcise their daughters. When asked whether they favored continuation of the practice, 90 percent of circumcised woman said they favored its continuation (Shweder: 179).

The women interviewed by Land and Rubinstein were no exceptions:

In interviews we conducted in rural and urban Egypt and in studies conducted by faculty of the High Institute of Nursing, Zagazig University, Egypt, the overwhelming majority of circumcised women planned to have the procedure performed on their daughters (35).


Although health concerns make up the public face of anti-FGC activism, it is the issue of sexuality that is the “hook” in mainstream debates. Many of the claimed health risks associated with FGC have been discredited (Obermeyer 2003) and many of those that haven’t are risks associated with a wide range of other practices that attract little or no attention. For example, any cutting of the body provides a vector for infection, but there is very little outcry about the scarification practices that often accompany or occupy the same place as FGC in coming-of-age rituals. This is not to say there are no health risks associated with FGC, but rather that the attention paid to those health risks is greater because of the salacious interest in women’s sexuality.

The root of this concern is the loss of sexual pleasure associated with damage to or removal of the clitoris. Since the release of the Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response (1966) and especially The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality (1976; excerpts in Hite 2006), the clitoris has been recognized as central to women’s ability to reach orgasm. It thus stands to reason that the loss of this organ would reduce women’s ability to have orgasm and, therefore, to enjoy sex.

Compounding the loss of the clitoris is the discomfort and even pain that may accompany intercourse for women who have undergone FGC. Most procedures leave some degree of scar tissue, which may make sex uncomfortable or painful, and infibulation greatly restricts the vaginal opening, which can cause significant pain in some women.

It may be surprising, then, that many, though by no means all, women who have experienced FGC are able to engage in and enjoy sex. In one medical study cited by Obermeyer (407), 43% of women who had some form of FGC experienced a lack of orgasms, while only 18% of those who had not undergone FGC had the same problem (another study found a 12% rate of anorgasmia; Obermeyer’s review found the methodology of both studies to be highly suspect). While this is a significant effect, it bears noting that 57% of women who had had FGCs were therefore achieving orgasm. It also bears noting that studies of American women claim that as many as 40% have never experienced orgasm (Health24).

On the other hand, many women express clear satisfaction with their sex lives. At a Swedish conference on female circumcision, a Somali woman spoke up to make her satisfaction quite clear:

A Swedish minister raised his voice during the seminar and expressed his resentment at the fact that so many women were deprived of their possibility to feel sexual pleasure. Then a Somali woman in the audience stood up, turned to this man and the rest of the audience, and talked about her own experiences. In a calm and a bit shy voice, she witnessed that she herself was infibulated, but that she had a rich and satisfying sexual life despite this state of her genitals (Johnsdotter, et al. 2004: 2.

Ellen Gruenbaum was also confronted by women who insisted that they “finished” during sex:

I pressed for a clearer description. Somewhat exasperated that I didn’t seem to understand plain Arabic, a visiting midwife named Miriam grabbed my hand, squeezed my fingers, and said, “Look, Ellen, some of us do ‘finish.’ It feels like electricity, like this . . . ” and she flicked her finger sharply and rhythmically against my constricted fingers. [2001; quoted in Gruenbaum 2006: 127]

While the capacity for sexual pleasure is to some degree affected by the extent of cutting involved, there are clear cultural factors at work as well. Fuambai Ahmadu says that many women who, like herself, had sexual experience before their excision may experience no difference or even increased sensitivity (in Bell 2005: 138), which suggests that the ability to experience sexual pleasure is learned and subject to training. Among the Sabaots studied by Christine Walley, for instance, earlier anthropologists had noticed extensive – and socially sanctioned – sex play to the point of orgasm between young men and women who had not yet experienced FGC (although penetration was explicitly forbidden) (1997: 415-6). Given the commonness of extramarital affairs among both men and women in this society, it seems likely that women continue to enjoy sex throughout their lives – and that perhaps this early development of sexual faculties helps prepare women for whatever loss of physical sensation they may experience after their initiations.

The chart reproduced from Orubuloye et al. (2000) presents an interesting comparison between the responses of urban and rural Yoruba women to their FGCs. Asked “Whether they believe their ‘circumcision’ has reduced their enjoyment of sexual activity”, 53% of rural women replied that it had increased their enjoyment of sex (with another 40% saying it had no effect either way) while only 16% of urban women answered the same (with the same number saying it had decreased their enjoyment of sex, and 63% citing no effect either way). These figures suggest a significant difference in the way rural and urban women experienced their bodily sensations in general and sex specifically.

Anthropologists have long recognized a difference (or, rather, set of differences) in the personality formation typical to, on one hand, agriculturalists and pastoralists, and on the other, urban dwellers and foragers (see, e.g. Barry et al. 1959). In societies where subsistence is dependent on long-range planning and the cooperation of their members, personality formation emphasizes obedience, solidarity, and responsibility, a complex generically referred to as “dependence training”. Dependence training is generally associated with agriculture and herding, where individual initiative or deviance from tradition can have disastrous consequences – for instance, by failing to produce an adequate harvest, or by weakening the overall quality of the herd. In societies where resources are accumulated on a day to day basis – the hunting and gathering of foragers, for instance, or the hourly wages of urban employees – the need for such interdependence is significantly weaker and individual initiative, achievement, and self-reliance are emphasized through “independence training”. There are many different practices that contribute to overall enculturation, ranging from infant feeding patterns to playtime activities to punishment regimes to the assignment of household chores; the treatment of sexuality is an important factor in how an individual will relate to the rest of their society. Where independence is important, individual desire and achievement of its satisfaction is emphasized; children are often encouraged to experiment freely with sexuality, and adults choose their own mates. Where dependence is important, on the contrary, individual sexuality is a resource of the community, and individuals are assured that their needs will be addressed by and for the community as a whole; childhood sexuality may be allowed but subject to clear rules, and marriages tend to be arranged. The potential for conflict posed by sexuality is a much greater threat in agricultural and herding communities, where the smooth interrelation of members and lineages is necessary to survival.

These differences are linked to another, related factor: the role of consumption in a society. Jonathan Ned Katz (2004) has detailed how American conceptions of the meaning and function of sex changed as the US was transformed into a largely rural, agriculture-based society to a largely-urban, industrialized one, and I think the general outline can be applied wherever such transformations have occurred or are occurring. In pre-industrial America, Katz writes, “Middle-class white Americans idealized a True Womanhood, True Manhood, and True Love, all characterized by “purity” – the freedom from sensuality…. The human body was thought of as a means toward procreation and production; penis and vagina were instruments of reproduction, not of pleasure. Human energy… was to be used in producing children and in work, not wasted in libidinous pleasures” (70). With the shift of the vast bulk of the American population into urban centers, and consequently from a lifestyle in which the bulk of their subsistence was produced and processed by themselves to an economy characterized by the consumption of goods and services produced by others, notions of sexuality changed.

The transformation of the family from producer to consumer unit resulted in a change in family members’ relation to their own bodies; from being an instrument primarily of work, the human body was integrated into a new economy, and began more commonly to be perceived as a means of consumption and pleasure (71).

It seems very likely that the way rural and urban women experience sex and perceive the effect of FGC is very different, practically incommensurable. This hypothesis is lent credence by the work of Sara Johnsdotter and Birgitta Essén with Somali, Eritrean, and Ethiopian refugees now resident in Sweden. In interviews, Johnsdotter and Essén were surprised to find that their interlocutors were quite willing to speak frankly about sex, and that many of them expressed contentment with their sex lives:

[Omar interprets the words of a Somali woman in her 50s:] – Even we who have pharaonic circumcision, we never have problems. [The three of us start laughing, since the woman with her facial expression shows that she alludes on sex.][The woman speaks again and Omar interprets:] – Maybe we are more sexual than you [everyone laughs again]… and we don’t have any problems…She says we have nothing, no problems and good sex. We are equal in that. We are like Swedish women; maybe we are more…active. And everything comes from the heart and comes from the pain you know.[Johnsdotter says:] – But…the wedding night…[Omar interprets:] – It was worst that night. It was something that you never forget, but after that it is good (2).

In their interviews, though, many of the women noted explicitly that this was not something they had ever thought about prior to coming to Sweden, and compare their experiences not with those of other refugees, with whom they claim to have never spoken of such matters, but – like the woman above – with Swedish women. For many, like the elderly Ethiopian woman quoted below, it was not until they came to Sweden that they even thought about FGC as something that had happened to them ,that they should have thoughts about:

[Johnsdotter asks:] – Do you remember when you first heard of it [female circumcision] in Sweden?[An Ethiopian woman in her 60s:] – I think it was in -’80. Maybe -’83.- What did you hear then?- There was talk about circumcision, and that it is no good, that you destroy the girl’s sexuality and all that, and that it is something bad.- What did you think when you heard that?- Well… I thought that it is probably true. In our country we were raised to… Those who come from [a district where girls are not circumcised], they are different in their behaviour towards a man or a boy. Yes… their sexuality… behaviour… well, they are sexier, you could say. They behave differently… when it comes to intercourse- Are you talking about ability to enjoy…?- Yes. If they are not circumcised.- Did you think of this while you lived in Ethiopia?- No, I never thought of it then. Nobody does.(5; bold emphasis added).


Although not all assessments of FGC are positive or even mixed (as some of the responses reported above are), the wide range of responses suggests that the terms in which much anti-FGC advocacy – and, even moreso, mainstream responses – couch their opposition to these practices are overly simplified and based not so much on the lived experiences of the Africa women on whose behalf they claim to speak but on their own, culturally-bound perceptions of these practices, what I call the “if-it-was-me” response. While I believe that it is possible to attain some degree of understanding of the experiences of people vastly different from one’s self, doing so requires an effort that very few are willing or even able to muster. However, I believe such an effort is necessary and vital where FGC is concerned, as the potential for damaging and counter-productive action is significant. Even where our actions may not impact the lives of African women, the way FGC is spoken about in Western society is often racist, ethnocentric, and disrespectful of the lives and cultures of the women who experience FGC.

This piece is not intended as a defense of FGC or even to dissuade activism intended to help women for whom FGC is a part of their daily lives. Rather, it is hoped that by complicating the over-simplified representations that make up the bulk of anti-FGC discussions, more effective action can be developed that, while it may not directly address the end of FGC, can improve the lives of women overall and indirectly address the issue at hand.

I am hardly alone or even in the lead with these concerns. African Anti-FGC activists have been bitter in their condemnation of efforts by Western “supporters” on their behalf. Nahid Toubia, founder and president of the anti-FGC group Research, Action, and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO), has argued that:

The West has acted as though they have suddenly discovered a dangerous epidemic which they then sensationalized in international women’s forums creating a backlash of over-sensitivity in the concerned communities. They have portrayed it as irrefutable evidence of the barbarism and vulgarity of underdeveloped countries… It became a conclusive vindication of the primitiveness of Arabs, Muslims and Africans all in one blow (quoted in Lane et al.: 36).

Alice Walker’s film Warrior Marks and novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, which have done so much to consolidate anti-FGC sentiments in the US, have come in for special abuse by African activists such as Seble Dawit and Salem Mekuria for portraying a village in which “the respected elder women of the village’s secret society turn into slit-eyed murderers wielding rusted weapons with which to butcher children”, to which the “heroine-savior” Walker has come to “articulate their pain” (1993; quoted in Walley: 428).

The UN Decade for Women (1975 – 85) turned into a platform for such criticism of Western feminist anti-FGC work when a group of African women threatened to walk out of the mid-decade conference in Copenhagen in 1980, objecting to both the tactics of First World anti-FGC activists and to the overall power dynamics between Western and non-Western women (Ibid.: 419). As the example of Alice Walker’s book, written over a decade later, and ongoing mainstream concern about FGC illustrate, very little has changed in Westerner’s conceptions of the problems with FGC and what should be done about it.

This criticism is not intended to convince Western women to “butt out” of issues they have no business being concerned with; rather, the issue is how Western feminists and other activists will use their power and privilege in relation to non-Western women’s lives. As Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala-Okeyo puts it, “the role of [Western] feminists is not to be in front, leading the way for other women, but to be in back supporting the other women’s struggles to bring about change” (quoted in Walley: 430). This is good advice in general; however, the complexity of FGC and its embeddedness in local cultural practices suggests that the focus on the eradication of FGC is misplaced altogether. It is not a simple matter of recognizing the importance of FGC as a “tradition”, educating natives about the potential health risks associated with it, and creating new, more acceptable alternatives; FGC is deeply imbrecated with local and global economic structures that need to be taken into account. What African women need is not the elimination of FGC; they need adequate health care and economic well-being regardless of whether FGC continues to be practiced or not.

One of the major contributing factors to the persistence of FGC, despite 30 years of intense Western opposition preceded by 70 years of colonial opposition, is the ongoing economic inequality that shapes women’s lives. As Lane and Rubinstein note (following Gruenbaum), “economic changes associated with development increased women’s economic dependency on men, which caused them to focus on maintaining ‘their marriageability and to prevent divorce by keeping husbands sexually and reproductively satisfied’. The resulting economic insecurity made it extremely unlikely that parents would risk leaving their daughters uncircumcised” (34). These economic changes also made the solidarity with other women engendered by FGC incredibly important. In places where other means of establishing women’s solidarity have been established – such as local savings circles, environmental groups, and cooperative enterprises – the practice of FGC has decreased (Walley: 418). This suggests that Western energy is likely better spent on ameliorating the effects of globalization and promoting strong local associations than in confronting FGC directly – which is often perceived by local men and women as an extension of the imperialism and global capitalism that engender resistance to anti-FGC efforts.

While the medical evidence remains cloudy or inconclusive, it seems clear that no medical benefit comes of FGC and that some degree of harm is inflicted by many of the practices. 3 Given the unlikelihood that FGC will cease in the immediate future, the resistance Western activists have posed to medicalization seems cruel and inhuman. Most of the potential medical dangers posed by FGC can be eliminated or drastically reduced by access to adequate health care, both in the performance of the procedures and in dealing with any complications that arise. While there may be some truth to the contention that allowing FGC to be performed under hospital conditions will delay its eradication, this seems a reasonable trade-off for the suffering that might be alleviated. This argument should not be foreign to Western feminists, many of whom have relied on a similar argument in defending the availability of abortion.

On an ideological level, it is imperative that Westerners, particularly Western feminists, abandon the moral condemnation in which their opposition to FGC is so frequently couched. Lane and Rubinstein write that:

[T]hese procedures… are not torture, but are arranged and paid for by loving parents who deeply believe that the surgeries are for their daughters’ welfare. Parents fear, with much justification, that leaving their daughters uncircumcised will make them unmarriageable. Parents worry about their daughters during the procedures and care for their wounds afterward to help them recover. Even if we disagree with the practice of female circumcision, we must remember that the parents who do this are not monsters, but are ordinary, decent, caring persons (38).

Feminists have long recognized the relationship between sexism, classism, and racism; challenging what many see as a sexist practice through the use of racist discourses backed by Western power and privilege cannot be taken as an adequate response to FGC.

What’s more, objections to FGC in the West may well be as sexist as they are racist. As Ahmadu notes (quoted in Bell: 138), Western anti-FGC discourses suggest a conception of both gender and sexuality that feminists have long opposed:

One… assumption is that human bodies are “complete” and that sex is “given” at birth. A second assumption is that the clitoris represents an integral aspect of femininity and has a central erotic function in women’s sexuality.

Many FGC practices are based on the explicit contention that women are made, not born – a formulation not entirely unthinkable to Western feminists. Neither gender not sexuality are fixed in the body; both are constructed from both physiological and cultural realities. The notions that the physiological function of the clitoris is the only valid part of sexual experience or that orgasm is the only measure of the pleasurableness of sex would not only be rejected by most Western feminists but are directly contradicted by the claimed experience of African women themselves.Female genital cutting represents a challenging test of Western ideals and highlights the ongoing contradiction between, on one hand, the desire to end unnecessary suffering and, on the other, the desire to respect cultural and individual autonomy. It is difficult to accept that practices that seem most clearly to demand outside intervention might be the ones we should think twice about interfering with, or that the suffering engendered by those practices might be preferable to the dangers posed by such intervention. While opposition to FGC is not necessarily bad in and of itself, it is important to remember that FGC does not exist in a vacuum, that the anti-FGC movement is just the latest in a long string of Western intervention in native practices carried out “for their own good”, and that like the proverbial bull in the china closet, the exercise of our power may well create disastrous consequences that cannot be undone.


1. The language used to describe these procedures is a tricky and sensitive area. While the WHO uses the term “Female Genital Mutilation”, for an anthropologist this feels like the worst sort of ethnocentrism, implying an aesthetic and moral valuation that is directly at odds with the values of the people who practice these procedures, most of whom describe the procedures as making their genitals cleaner, better, or more attractive. While “FGM” is a popular term among advocacy groups, it has little currency among researchers, who are very aware of the way that language can bias their outcomes. I have chosen to use the relatively neutral term “cutting” (from several alternatives in use among researchers: “alteration”, “surgeries”, “modification”) as it seems to be the most widespread usage and the most plainly descriptive. [BACK]2. I am, of course, aware of the irony in my stepping forward as a spokesperson for the subaltern; yet again, the subaltern cannot speak, and we must speak for her. As much as possible, I intend to rely on the recorded comments of women who are affected by FGC, and barring that the second-hand accounts by those who have worked directly with them, but ultimately I recognize that my own privilege must necessarily mediate their voices. It is my hope, though, that if a crack in the wall of anti-FGC advocacy can be opened, it may help to create a space for more first-hand voices. [BACK]3. I have ignored here the medical research on the harm posed by FGC, for two reasons. First, as Obermeyer (2003) has shown, much of the medical research is based on faulty premises, defective methodology, and misanalysis of evidence (when it’s based on evidence at all). Second, arguments about medical issues caused by FGC seem too often to be a smokescreen for moral arguments; as noted in this paper, very few practices that pose risks as great as or greater than FGC go uncommented by anti-FGC advocates and the Western mainstream alike. [BACK]

Work Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila.

1993. Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Barry, Herbert, III, Irvin L. Child, and Margaret K. Bacon.

1959. Relation of Child Training to Subsistence Economy. American Anthropologist 61(1): 51-63.

Bell, Kirsten.

2005. Genital Cutting and Western Discourses on Sexuality. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 19 (2): 125-148. Available online at http://www.cirp.org/library/anthropology/bell1/.

Boddy, Janice.

1997. Womb as Oasis: The Symbolic Context of Pharaonic Circumcision in Rural Northern Sudan.InThe Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy. Roger N. Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo, eds. New York: Routledge. 309-324.

Burdick, John.

2000. Female Genital Cutting in Africa: A Second Layer of Cultural Meanings. PowerPoint Presentation. Available online at http://www.health24.com/sex/Problems/1253-1264,22052.asp.

Hite, Shere.

2006. The Shere Hite Reader: New and Selected Writings on Sex, Globalization, and Private Life. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Johnsdotter, Sara, and Birgitta Essén.

2004. Conference Presentation: Sexual Health among Young Somali Women in Sweden:Living With Conflicting Culturally Determined Sexual Ideologies. Advancing Knowledge on Psycho-Sexual Effects of FGM/C: Assessing the Evidence. Alexandria, Egypt. 10-12 October, 2004. Available online at http://ask.lub.lu.se/archive/00018019/01/Alexandria2004.pdf. [PDF]

Katz, Jonathan Ned.

2004. The Invention of Heterosexuality. InRace, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, 6th ed.. Paula S. Rothenberg, ed. New York: Worth Publishers. 69-80.

Lane, Sandra D. and Robert A. Rubinstein.

1996. Judging the Other. Responding to Traditional Female Genital Surgeries. Hastings Center Report 26(3): 31-40. Available online at http://faculty.maxwell.syr.edu/rar/Papers/1996%20Judging%20the%20other–Responding.pdf.

Masters, W.H. and V.E Johnson.

1966. Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown.

Obermeyer, Carla Makhlouf.

2003. The Health Consequences of FemaleCircumcision: Science, Advocacy, and Standards of Evidence. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17(3): 394-412. Available online at http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/articles/MAQ%20Jul%2003.pdf [PDF]

Orubuloye, I. O., Pat Caldwell, and John C. Caldwell

2000. Female “Circumcision” Among the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria: The Beginning of Change. In Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change. Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, eds. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner. 73-94.

Shweder, Richard A.

2003. Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri.

1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. 271-313.

Walley, Christine J.

1997. Searching for “Voices”: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations. Cultural Anthropology 12(3): 405-438.

24 comments to Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

  • Anonymous

    I find it ironic that western women are hysterectomized routinely, which causes great physical , emotional trauma yet there is little or no outcry against it. In fact I believe this causes greater measurable harm than the mutilation of the clitoris. This is especially true when the ovaries are destroed or the blood supply is cut off, causing hormonal shock which is often debilitating. Injury to the bladder, bowel and urogenital track. Women are coerced into this operation routinely. 1 in 3 American women is hysterectomized by age 60/ If this isn’t a cultural phenomenon, 650,000 unnecessary hysterectomies each and every year what is?

  • Anonymous

    Kate, I agree, and this point raises one of the issues I have with recommending medicalization (though the downsides in the case of FGC are ultimately outweighed by the benefits, I think). We practice an awful lot of unnecessary and often potentially harmful surgery on women, often for the same reasons African women cut their genitals: to have more attractive genitals, to look clean and pure, to enhance our sexualities, etc. One interesting thing I came across in my research is a sub-set of the S&M community that seeks female circumcision, claiming it enhances sexual response (this is separate from the similar group of piercers). A woman on “Dr 90210” (the only time I ever watched it; I assume this is pretty common) had a labioplasty to “smooth” out her genitals after childbirth; the dr. went her one further and injected fat into her outer labia to “plump things up” in his words. Now, most feminists oppose these practices, from cosmetic surgery to unnecessary c-sections to unnecessary hysterectomies nad masectomies, but what I find interesting is the level of complexity and subtlety that arguments about these procedures are capable of, and how absent that same capacity is in arguments about FGC, which are just unmitigatedly Bad. I’ve seen blog posts with hundreds of thoughtful comments on whether feminists can wear make-up or high heels or whether Paris Hilton deserves to be mocked by Pink, but the same senstitivity is denied the families and societies of the 100+ million women who practice FGC.

  • Anonymous

    […] I don’t normally cross-post here from my research blog, but I thought my recent post on female genital cutting (FGC) might interest some of Savage Minds’ readers. Drawing on anthropological research and first-hand testimony reported across the literature, I’ve tried to counter a lot of the ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism that characterizes anti-FGC arguments, especially in the mainstream. This is not an argument for FGC, by any means, but rather, in the spirit of Geertz, “anti-anti-FGC”.   […]

  • Anonymous

    Well articulated and interesting piece here–thank you for the references which I am now off to peruse through. You allude to a shoddy state of affairs in the literature in terms of careful research; that’s wholly disappointing.

    I understand what you’re trying to counter here with an “anti-anti-FGC” perspective, but I suspect that the subtlety of that distinction might be lost on all but the most anthropologically informed observers, and it is those observers who are the least likely to be using moral/racist/ethnocentric terms in their discourse anyhow. I had my hackles up reading the first few paragraphs, thinking “but I’m a *good* cultural relativist! I don’t need to be told off for realising that women in cultures that practise FGC have their own perspectives!”

    However. I think it is possible to recognise these alternative perspectives, to realise that FGC is deeply embedded in the symbolic and social organisation of cultures that practise it, that for many women it is a requirement to become marriageable and that if one is not marriageable one’s future is very bleak–and yet still to see it as undesirable for individual women, and something . I was intrigued by your discussion of the Sabaots, with the conclusion that FGC might stimulate (pardon the pun) women’s sexual agency and initiative in some way. A ripe topic for careful research for certain. I don’t think you were arguing this as a benefit for FGC, but I could see it being construed as such, and what an impoverished compensation that seems to me.

    Getting these contradictions through to the mainstream without diluting the message looks to me like a dreadfully difficult task. I’m not entirely certain what the “disastrous consequences that can’t be undone” in your final paragraph refer to, and would definitely prefer not to see modern feminist advocacies lumped in with 19th century colonialism, but thanks for the thought provoking piece.

  • Anonymous

    Er, that unfinished sentence should read:

    … and something feminists might advocate the end of.

    Oops, sorry.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comments Fiona — I plan to revise and expand this when I have the time, and I’ll keep this in mind. While I agree that some of the issues I’m raising may be very subtle, I think they can be expressed in a way that engages non-anthros, but it may take a lot of work to make that argument without losing that subtlety. But I think it’s important, because I think a lot of the way FGC is discussed in the West actively hurts women in Africa and elsewhere that practice this, both by adding yet another negative stereotype to our storehouse of false images of Muslims (which FGC is generally perceived as being) and by guiding foreign aid policies that withhold aid from some of the populations that could benefit most from it.

  • Anonymous

    […] Dustin Wax’s response to the Feministe article (in his research blog), cross-posted to Savage Minds. (You’ll need to read both for the full discussion.) […]

  • Anonymous

    please remove my name and e-mail address from your blog-thanks

  • Anonymous

    Kate, as you can see, your email address isn’t posted here. I stripped your last name from your comments, though I don’t see what purpose that serves. Actually, the whole comment is kind of a headscratcher…

  • Anonymous

    In terms of your arguments being overly subtle for a wider public to appreciate, I would just contribute that as an anthropologist and an africanist, I have successfully taught my (community!) college students the balanced perspective for which your piece argues. I have even been able to get them to share a, no-doubt twisted, laugh at the image of Calista Flockhart chastising west African women for “FGM”. However, when one of my students requested I speak to one of our psychologists teaching the Human Sexuality class to discuss with her our different perspectives (she, apparently favoring the FGM as moral atrocity argument), I was greeted with open hostility. Righteous indignation is a ‘”safe” place for many in our culture. I share your concern that our wider society might do well to listen thoughtfully to the lived experiences of others and put down that heavy bat of righteousness.

    I am curious as to why you did not bring into your discussion the whole complexity of male circumcision practices. Saving that for another day? Or was that a previous topic which I missed?

  • Anonymous

    Pamela, thanks for sharing your experience — I’ve actually had similar experiences with my community college students. Though none of them fully embrace FGC, for the most part I think they recognize how bound up their responses are with their own experiences. Which, at the introductory level I teach at, is pretty much the whole point.

    This post began as a response to the Feministe post I linked to in the preface, whose author explicitly asked that male genital cutting not be brought into the discussion. Kristen Bell’s piece, linked to in the bibliography above, is an excellent discussion of the different (and sexist) assumptions that frame our understandings of FGC and (I suppose I can call it) MGC — and why many anti-FGC advocates go apeshit when any consideration of their commensurability is raised. I’m not sure I’d have much to add to that, but maybe I’ll take a crack at it someday down the road, when I feel like immersing myself in this material again.

  • Anonymous

    I got your point, you got the nuance across (English Lit. grad student, no anthro anywhere), and while I understand the anthropological significance of the cultural POV….you haven’t said anything that feminists haven’t been discussing for ages, really.

    So women find “empowerment” in practices that actually hurt women?! How suprising, becuase Western women are NEVER religious fundamentalists who submit to their husbands no matter what, and preach to other women how they are “empowered in submission.”. Women NEVER giggle, and simper, and “act dumb” to “snag a man,” and then tell their daughters to do the same. Women NEVER attack other women or having a career and not staying at home (or vice versa). Women NEVER promote porn or stripping. Women….

    You get the point. Women often have and will continue to cooperate and perpetuate the power structure that firmly oppresses them. IT’s called “survival tactics,” which means getting whatever power men give them and working it for all it’s worth.

    Also – note how the empowerment focuses on making the woman a “bearer of children,” a mother – in other words, a receptacle for other people. A conduit. Sexuality is one of the few places where we learn that being selfish can be good, that we have a right to our bodies and to our pleasure…The “empowerment” these women talk about is the “power” men give women in a patriarchal society – the power to “work through” their men and (male) children. It’s like the “power” a stripper – or just generally, a pretty woman has – the temporary power that men agre to give her, because she’s complying with what the patriarchal culture wants her to do/be.

    And I’m not blaming them – far be it from me to blame a sister for what she has to do in a society that really won’t leave her much choice (it’s going to happen, dear – might as well lie back and feel empowered). But be aware that your “nuanced” look is simply an understanding that these women, like women everywhere, cope with oppression by finding whatever room for dignity and power they can.

    Also – the whole “women are made” thingie is old, old old. Read Namoi Wolfe’s “The Beauty Myth.” It has a nice chapter or two about how female attractiveness is always something to be worked for, and paid for in time – and usually in pain. Women are made, not born – made by their constant struggle to fit into some “female” social mould that usually entails wearing something uncomfortable (bra, corsest, tight jeans), or doing somthing uncofmortable to your body (foot-binding, breast implantation, FMG).

    And btw- read what some Chinese women wrote about their “Lotus Feet,” and how wonderful and feminine and graceful and empowered they made them feel.

  • Anonymous


    I feel that if you actually read the literature here cited that you might understand why we are making the point that we are. You are making the assumption that there is pain, oppression, and degradation in all the behavior that is lumped together under the category of FGM. The work of Obermeyer and others is questioning that this is, in fact, (in your words) “uncomfortable” behavior. When I made reference to nuanced behavior I was not referring to the interpretations of the women themselves. I am not so naive as to misunderstand the way that women participate in their own subordination. (I teach female students regularly who proudly wear their Hooters t-shirts.) I was referring to the nuances of the procedures and behavior that constitute the reality of what is FGM. Not all FGM is infibulation. Obemeyer’s work asks us to reexamine our assumptions about the supposed dimunition of sexual pleasure and health consequences of various forms of clitoridectomy. Do we have the right to jump to the tremendous package of condemnation you have laid down without truly examining the health and sexual consequences of the variety of medical procedures which are being pursued? I have no answer because I believe the data and the verdict are still out. To use your analogy, I do not know if this is the equivalent of foot binding or Birkenstock wearing. Should the medical data support the idea that all forms of modification of female genitals as practiced in the lived experiences of humans bear significant medical consequences, I will be right up on the front lines of righteous indignation with you. But as of now, I prefer a more scholarly analysis.

  • Anonymous

    FGC or FGM is routinely practised in western countries also – also marketed to women as being for our own good. I tell you that nothing, NOTHING matched the burning fires of pain I felt during sex for many years after the “routine” (and unnecessary) episiotomy the doctor gave me during childbirth.

  • Anonymous


    To use your analogy, I do not know if this is the equivalent of foot binding or Birkenstock wearing

    Hmmm…then what you’re talking about isn’t the cultural and anthropological reading of FGM – it’s the physical and medical aspects of the various processes that come under the term. What you seem to be saying (“seem” because I’m trying to ascertain if my reading is correct, no patronization intended…) is that due to OUR OWN cultural and social conditioning, we refuse to listen to women who underwent FGM and might be telling us something we don’t want to hear (“I still enjoy sex” and such).

    Maybe. But when considering this we also have to understand the social and cultural pressures that might lead those women to interpret and relay those experiences and not necessarily negative (again – Chinese footbinding and 19th century corsets come to mind. Not to mention “empowering” surgical enhancements that leave women looking like starved barbies…). Of course, that way lies the precise cultural arrogance you were worried about – via which we discount the authentic experience in favour of our own reading of it.

    A difficult position. One which I, as a feminist, would resolve by saying that we should rpovide these women with the information and freedom and choices to decide if they want to undergo FGM….and THEN see how many opt for the various genital modifications that we call FGM.

    That is not a trite dismissal, btw – consider the issue of MALE genital mutilation (circumcision), which while less damaging then many forms of FGM is still genital modification. In free, Western societies, in which males could hardly said to be oppresses (other then in the usual “Patriarchy Hurts Men Too” sense), a surprising number of parents choose to so mutilate their sons for cultural, aesthetic, or religious reasons.

  • Anonymous

    Tefnut wrote:

    we should rpovide these women with the information and freedom and choices to decide if they want to undergo FGM

  • Anonymous

    Part of the problem sorting this out for me came after I saw the article written by Lori Leonard, which can be viewed here:


    (if the link posts)

    What does one do with the moral judgement when girls themselves are using the discourse of Femal Gential Cutting as their own declaration of independence? And if one follow’s the suggestion of the article and uses the standards of Amartya Sen–does the woman have the ways and means within the political/economic position in her society to pursue “free choice”–then one is back to breast implants as a free choice. What does one do with he real knowledge that no choice is free when culturally conditioned–as I tell my students no woman should have to be faced with the message that her breasts are inadequate. So I end up falling back on the need for truly measuring the consequences–which Lori Leonard argues against–but somehow I remain unconvinced. How will anyone pursue an argument of the “badness” of a practice without strong empirically verifiable evidence on which to draw without as dwax says reverting back to imperialist doctrine?

  • Anonymous

    While no choice may be free when culturally conditioned, it is also true that no choice is, has been, or ever could be without cultural conditioning. Culture is not the enemy here.

    One of the reasons I’ve pursued this topic is becuase I am interested in knowing why there is such a deep need to pronounce on the “badness” of this or any other practices. What does it satisfy in us? On Feministe, I called this “righteousness porn”, which is probably too harsh a phrase, but which gets at least somewhat at our motivations for being concerned about other people’s cultural practices, particularly when those practices concern their genitals. I might ask further why there is a need to “pursue an argument of the ‘badness’ of a practice without strong empirical evidence” — you’re talking about interfering very deeply in someone’s culture and identity, don’t you think there should be some pretty strong empirical evidence to justify that? My answer is, from what I’ve seen of the activist mindset involved in anti-FGC work, “no” — anti-FGC work satisfies needs that have little to do with women’s health or, more importantly, freedom.

    That said, this post does not argue that we should sit back and do nothing — it argues that, if as feminists our goal is to help women to make free choices (or freer choices) then we should be, in fact, helping to create social contexts in which freer choices can be made, *not* working to wrest control over African women’s genitals away from those women themselves, or even away from the men that make up those women’s communities (it should be clear that I don’t find the “male control over female sexuality” argument very convincing, nor very respectful of the women or cultures under discussion, but even if I did, I’d still find the tactics of anti-FGC activism wrong-headed). I argue also that if as feminists our goal is to help women to gain a greater voice in the way their lives are shaped, then we had better shut up and let them talk, and even *listen* to what they’re saying, something I see very little of in the activist literature.

    Now, maybe that’s disheartening — it’s not easy, and there’s no clear end in sight, and it’s probably hard to get funded, and let’s face it we live in a world that thrives on the exploitation of the poor and I’m pretty much demanding that we change that world. I can see the comfort in the argument that, well, we cannot end these women’s suffering altogehter but we can certainly work to put an end to at least one little piece of it, the unnecessary and brutal and rilly rilly bad stuff “they” do to women’s genitals. I think that’s false comfort, and I think that, in the Big Picture, it’s counter-productive, even anti-feminist.

  • Anonymous

    Pamela, I just noticed I misunderstood part of your comment, about the lack of strong empirical evidence. I think may response is still correct, but it doesn’t really apply to what you said — you were advocating for *stronger* evidence standrards, while my response is really to so many who are willing to ignore a lot of evidence because the practice is so clearly “icky”. Sorry about that.

  • Anonymous

    In any case, I am most certainly not disagreeing with anything you are posting.

  • Anonymous

    Or perhaps I should have said “you have posted–so far”. :-)

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post! I do have some criticism, which is intended as constructive and not dismissive; I hope you’ll take it that way.

    I don’t think your decision to omit (nearly) all non-western voices disagreeing with FGC was a good one. The impact of this piece – focusing as it does so much on the exclusive presentation of pro-FGC voices, with the exception of Western feminists who you usually present as ignorant racists – is a strong defense of FGC practices. I realize this is not your intention, but I think the author’s intent and the actual impact of this essay are somewhat at odds.

    Similarly, you say in comments that you are “not so naive as to misunderstand the way that women participate in their own subordination. (I teach female students regularly who proudly wear their Hooters t-shirts.)” But your awareness of this issue is barely evident in the essay itself, which routinely puts forward evidence that women are pleased with FGC, without any skepticism or more complex interpretation suggested. Nearly the entire section labeled “responses” has this omission, for example.

    That said, I do find your argument regarding trying to facilitate (but not lead or force) large-scale economic change to empower women to make their own choices, rather than attempting micromanage specific issues, excellent. And I entirely agree. I also think you’re very persuasive regarding the medicalizing of FGC procedures.

    Finally, doesn’t this passage:

    One of the major contributing factors to the persistence of FGC, despite 30 years of intense Western opposition preceded by 70 years of colonial opposition, is the ongoing economic inequality that shapes women

  • Anonymous


    Thanks for the comments. I would hope that my argument here reads as a defense not of FGC but of the men and women who *practice* it, but that’s such a subtle distinction that I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t make it well. In the Big Picture I agree that the one-sidedness is a problem — I hope to expand this for publication some day, and there I would want to cover a much wider spectrum of responses; there is of course a vast body of work by native anti-FGC’ers that I barely touch on, and when I do touch on it I give their reasons for opposing Western Anti-FGC activists and not their reasons for their *own* positions. But here, in a blog post, however formal? And particularly one intended as a response to a very particular discussion on another blog? Those other perspectives are pretty well-represented out there! I’d say, as a stand-alone piece, this probably isn’t adequate, as you say, but as a part of a larger conversation it accomplishes at least what I wanted it to.

    I don’t know if the desire for FGC procedures to better ones chances of marriage is *necessarily* oppressive and anti-woman, but that’s a gray area (and debatable in many more contexts than just FGC). I would say that FGC is a practice that interlocks with a variety of practices within an oppressive situation. The act itself is not inherently oppressive (after all, lots of people in the West cut their genitals as an act of resistance), but the practice may well become so within a particular socioeconomic context. What’s missing from much of the debate is the context, because frankly most Westerners don’t know a single thing about these women or their cultures except that the cut their genitals. That’s where the pornographic impulse comes in — if pornography is the objectification of women and their reduction to their sexuality (a definition that I wouldn’t necessarily apply to actual pornography, but whatever…) then much (not all) anti-FGC talk in our society represents a textbook case.

    Let me domonstrate: Consider the Kono mentioned above. Are they: a) foragers, b) animal herders, c) horticulturalists, or d) agriculturalists? What is their colonial history? How do they celebrate the birth of a child? Who exercises authority in the family, and how? What games do they play as children? What food would a Kono living in the US be particularly homesick for?

    I’m not saying that any discussion of FGC has to be grounded in this kind of information, but that in the absence of *any* information about actual women’s lives — or actual men’s lives, for that matter — in these cultural contexts, the whole debate seems a little suspect. That’s why the “if-it-was-me” response becomes the only gauge we can even imagine — look a tthe thread on Feministe: I received a good half-dozen responses telling me what some woman would do if I tried to cut off *her* clitoris. I don’t want to discourage solidarity, but I think this is a particularly empty type of it.

    One more thing: I don’t want to give the impression that women are simply pleased with FGC — I think that’s too simple a take. For many, maybe most, it’s like castor oil — you hate it but you do it because you have to and because it’s for the best and maybe you look back thankfully. The problem here, as with so many other topics, is how do we walk the tight-rope between false consciousness and empowerment? What weight do we attach to first-hand testimony, both pro and con? I do think I need to consider this more fully — there is no simple “this is good for women”/”this is bad for women” answer, that I know,but how to understand and, more to the point here, explain that?

    I don’t know that anyone’s figured that out yet, but it is something to work for, definitely.

  • Anne

    A question which has not been talked much about when it comes to fgm is heteronormativity. Even though women may enjoy vaginal sex after excision, oral sex would be pretty pointless. In other words, the bodily modification of fgm (unlike labioplasty) limits a woman’s sexual repertoire. Given the emphasis on fgm as “correcting” a natural gender ambiguity (As even an advocate for ftm such as Ahmadu stresses)I think it could be interesting to look into the relation between fgm justification and heteronormativity. As is well known, clitorectomy was used as a surgical treatment in Victorian England and the US for masturbation, hysteria and lesbianism. As this charming man suggests:

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