Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses

Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses

Edited by Obioma Nnaemeka. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2005. www.praeger.com. $31.95

review by J. Steven Svoboda

Indiana University Women’s Studies Professor Obioma Nnaemeka edited the 2005 book Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses. Only the rarest works, such as Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund’s superlative 2000 book, Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change (previously reviewed in these pages) can avoid the pitfalls faced by multi-author essay collections. This book raises some interesting ideas and includes a few noteworthy chapters. Nevertheless, Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge proves in the end a bit disappointing and a bit of a muddle.

Several pieces expand upon the growing literature rightfully denouncing the late Fran Hosken, founder of Women’s International Network, for her uniquely intemperate and bombastic anti-FGM books. Award-winning author Alice Walker suffers repeated (though, it must be said, richly deserved) criticism by many of the authors included here for her profoundly misconceived books and film addressing FGM. Walker assumes that being black somehow gives her the right to speak for all Africans and at the same time decides that a trip to Mexico, of all places, because it is part of the “Third World,” will offer her useful insights into the African experience of FGC.

Nnaemeka needed to take a much more forceful editorial role, as an overall unifying vision and coherence is sorely missing here. In addition to repetition, some pieces regrettably read somewhat like poor first drafts of other pieces. The same quotes from the same interviews with Walker are used in multiple articles, and even the same quotes from secondary works like a Keith Richburg newspaper article are referenced multiple times.

Francoise Lionnet regrettably attempts to insulate male circumcision from legal liability in France due to its “cultural acceptance,” a misguided attempt that has absolutely no basis in the law and represents a glaring non sequitur. Practically every citation and date she gives regarding French law on mutilation is erroneous, a downright shocking symphony of mistakes that will be difficult for non-French-speakers to deduce.

Editor Nnaemeka’s own piece carries a title rife with the sort of academic jargon that characterizes the entire book, African Women, Colonial Discourses, and Imperialist Inventions: Female Circumcision as Impetus. Nevertheless she introduces a provocative argument that human rights may have become over-inclusive in recent years: “The past decade has increasingly witnessed the tendency to herd all categories of suffering into one battlefield: human rights.” Like the book, this essay raises a number of interesting issues but fails to effectively address them. Surely there is some role for absolutes? How does one incorporate human rights into an analysis of genital cutting without ignoring the cultural role the practices play in many of the places FGM is performed?

The best articles inject fresh perspectives that are sorely missing from the other pieces, and in some cases addressing male circumcision. Kudos to longtime anti-FGC activist Nawal El-Saadawi for her forthright statement in support of keeping males intact. “I am against all types of circumcision including male circumcision, which is not as detrimental as female circumcision, but is still harmful and may cause serious complications.”

Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka succinctly notes “the arrogance and presumptuousness of mainstream American feminism for positing its experience and derivative critical theories as universal and normative.” Later she usefully points to the voyeuristic aspects of the West’s focus on African genitalia, and the seemingly “compulsive need to denigrate in their entirety the cultural values of the people that practice” FGM.

The disturbing information Vicki Kirby mentions that several African cultural groups have recently adopted FGM could teach us useful lessons regarding the proposals to introduce male circumcision into currently non-cutting African cultures.

In perhaps the book’s standout contribution, Chima Korieh addresses feminism and race in FGM discourse. She provides a fascinating insight: The clitoris has had a tremendous symbolic importance and thus has become an obsessive focus in Western feminism, particularly US feminism. Korieh observes that while the Western woman “knows” that the uncircumcised clitoris plays a critical role in her sexuality, in many African societies a woman “knows” that removal of the clitoris is essential to her proper expression of her sexuality. Moreover, in the Sudan virginity is defined socially and is subject to reversal through performance of genital surgery, whereas the Western definition of virginity treats it as “irrevocably changed by a certain specific behavior.” Korieh decries Barbara Walters’ facile rationalization of male circumcision on religious and medical grounds.

Jude G. Akudinobi analyzes two movies that address colonialism but are not centrally concerned with genital cutting. Eliose A. Briere intriguingly suggests that focusing on FGC enables the West to view itself in a positive light. Sondra Hale engagingly addresses our own clitoridectomies, mastectomies, and hysterectomies in a brief but very insightful article.

Ange-Marie Hancock writes a lackluster final chapter ranging from the overly theoretical to a superfluous survey of African women’s responses to the feminist anti-FGM movement. Most unforgivably, Hancock claims that only four African countries have outlawed FGM, whereas at least fifteen have done so. Hancock and Nnaemeka were asleep at the wheel on this one.

In the end, Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge contains a few valuable nuggets but overall the rewards are too intermittent and the errors too important for the book to merit a wholehearted recommendation. Reader beware!

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