USA: A New Debate on Female Circumcision
Should African women be allowed to engage in the practice sometimes called female circumcision? Are critics of this practice, who call it female genital mutilation, justified in trying to outlaw it, or are they guilty of ignorance and cultural imperialism?
Those questions will be debated Saturday morning in Washington at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting. Representatives of international groups opposed to this procedure will be debating anthropologists with somewhat different views, including African anthropologists who have undergone the procedure themselves. As the organizers of the AAA panel note:
The panel includes for the first time, the critical “third wave” or multicultural feminist perspectives of circumcised African women scholars Wairimu Njambi, a Kenyan, and Fuambai Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonean. Both women hail from cultures where female and male initiation rituals are the norm and have written about their largely positive and contextualized experiences, creating an emergent discursive space for a hitherto “muted group” in global debates about FGC [female genital cutting].
Dr. Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, was raised in America and then went back to Sierra Leone as an adult to undergo the procedure along with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group. She has argued that the critics of the procedure exaggerate the medical dangers, misunderstand the effect on sexual pleasure, and mistakenly view the removal of parts of the clitoris as a practice that oppresses women. She has lamented that her Westernized “feminist sisters insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage.” In another essay, she writes:
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.
You can read more about this in Dr. Ahmadu’s essays or in this critique of the global campaign against female genital mutilation, written by another participant in Saturday’s discussion, Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago.
Dr. Shweder says that many Westerners trying to impose a “zero tolerance” policy don’t realize that these initiation rites are generally controlled not by men but by women who believe it is a cosmetic procedure with aesthetic benefits. He criticizes Americans and Europeans for outlawing it at the same they endorse their own forms of genital modification, like the circumcision of boys or the cosmetic surgery for women called “vaginal rejuvenation.” After surveying studies of female circumcision and comparing the data with the rhetoric about its harmfulness, Dr. Shweder concludes that “‘First World’ feminist issues and political correctness and activism have triumphed over the critical assessment of evidence.”
If I were asked to make a decision about my own daughter, I wouldn’t choose circumcision for her. But what about the question raised by these anthropologists: Should outsiders be telling African women what initiation practices are acceptable?
SOURCE: The New York Times
AUTHOR: John Tierney
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