A Compromise on Female "Circumcision"

Since I invited researchers to debate female initiation rites in Africa, we’ve heard from social scientists based in Chicago, Italy, England, Nigeria and Sweden. I’ve saved the last word in this round of essays for the anthropologist with the most direct knowledge of this topic: Fuambai Ahmadu, a native of Sierra Leone, who grew up in America and then went back to her homeland as an adult to undergo the rite along with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group.

Dr. Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, has previously published essays on the practice she calls female circumcision. In this essay, she reviews the debate here on the Lab and suggests a compromise that would protect girls and women from undergoing procedures without their consent, but she is critical of those who advocate “zero tolerance” and who refer to these surgeries as female genital mutilation:

I found some of the commentaries quite interesting and most of them unsurprising, given much of the media sensationalizing and vilification of female circumcision practices over the past thirty years. Much of the horror expressed seems to be based on erroneous presumptions about the clitoris and female sexuality. The fact is, as Dr. Catania has courageously come forward with in the publication of her research findings, that many women who have undergone varying forms and degrees of genital modification can and do experience sexual enjoyment and orgasms. Of course, some don’t. The same holds for uncircumcised women; many experience orgasms and a good number don’t. What this suggests is that (female) sexuality is as much a cultural construct as ideas about sex and gender and we need to revisit some of the received wisdom of western folk models of (female) sexual pleasure.

I also take note of readers’ concerns about consent. While I have serious issues with the concept of consent and how it is applied asymmetrically to African practices of female genital cutting, I do agree with Rick Shweder that a possible way forward would be to consider limiting certain types of genital cutting to an age of majority, for instance, the age at which a girl can consent to marriage, abortion or to cosmetic surgery. A minor procedure can be allowed for girls under the age of consent, as is the case with infant male circumcision. Defining what such a minor procedure would entail and what might be the appropriate ages of consent is an important step that must include the voices of the “silent majority” of women who are affected.

What western audiences rarely see and anti-FGM activists would prefer them not to see is the fact that many circumcised women who support their tradition are healthy (conditions of dire economic poverty, notwithstanding), lead sexually fulfilling lives and they as well their partners quite like their circumcised bodies. Then, there are some who (like some circumcised men) feel emotionally, psychologically and physically traumatized by their experiences. As Dr. Catania has pointed out and my own research among African immigrant women in Washington, D.C. confirms, it is usually the younger generation of circumcised girls and women who report experiences of sexual anxieties or dysfunction. This is due to what Catania refers to as “mental infibulation,” a provocative metaphor, as Shweder noted, which describes the feelings and experiences of shame, disfigurement and inferiority that these young women are made to endure as a result of the dehumanizing media representations and western social criticisms of their bodies and cultural practices.

The way forward is to look for solutions that would empower women (and men) to choose what to do with their own bodies. So, I will end here with a summary of some of the points I made at the 2007 public policy forum on FGC at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

My position is “pro-choice” on any form of female and male genital modifications (with the exception of minor cuts, such as circumcisions of male and female prepuce discussed above) and a complete rejection of the motto “zero-tolerance of FGM”. I am concerned that current U.S. and global polices on African forms of female genital surgeries discriminate against the bulk of circumcised women because of their social, ethnic, cultural and gender identity. This is made possible because of the high levels of illiteracy and low socio-economic status of circumcised women in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the sociopolitical disenfranchisement they face as immigrants in western countries. In particular, I am concerned about the official and exclusive reservation of the term “mutilation” to describe circumcised African women. Not only is this institutionalized discrimination but it is personally offensive to the majority of circumcised African women and to the cultures which practice female (and male) initiation.

It is possible to imagine alternative approaches, which would: 1/ validate the positive experiences of the majority of circumcised African women; 2/ recognize the rights of circumcised African women to self-determination; 3/ promote the equality of circumcised women in “underdeveloped” countries of sub-Sahara Africa with uncircumcised women in “developed” western countries; 4/ modify laws, policies and terminologies such as FGM that prejudice circumcised African women because of their social, ethnic and cultural identity, their general lack of formal western education and low socio-economic status (although, as Rick Shweder and others have pointed out, this is not the case for many infibulated women in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia who are well-educated, wealthy and hail from elite families) or in short, because of their difference and inequality vis--vis western women. I am referring here especially to western women’s cosmetic vaginal surgeries, the so-called designer vaginas and vaginal rejuvenations some of which include cutting, trimming, reducing, reshaping the clitoris, labia minorae, surgical tightening of the vagina and even restoration of the hymen!

I also call for the protection of the rights of uncircumcised women in countries where female circumcision is the norm as well as the rights of circumcised women who choose to not circumcise their daughters, to abandon or even advocate against female circumcision. Although the vast majority of circumcised African women, like myself, take great cultural pride in our initiation there are clearly those among us who, for whatever reasons and there could be a number of reasons, do not share these positive experiences. So, I give my unequivocal support to such women working collectively for change that would protect them or their choice to opt out of this cultural practice. We can and must listen to women on all sides of this issue and promote policies that ensure equality, dignity, and justice for all women whatever our differences.

What do you think of Dr. Ahmadu’s ideas? Many readers have reacted to previous essays with blanket denunciations of these initation rites, often accompanied by assertions that reveal they haven’t even bothered to read the evidence from physicians and anthropologists presented in these essays. I hope we can get beyond angry generalizations and expressions of personal revulsion. Dr. Ahmadu has suggested a policy that would protect girls without banning these practices altogether. Is this a sensible compromise?

SOURCE: The New York Times

AUTHOR: John Tierney

URL: Click here

DATE: 21/03/2008

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