Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives.

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Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives.

Edited by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf.P hiladelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 287 pp. "http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress". No price stated on cover but website gives price as $19.95.

review by J. Steven Svoboda

Longtime Sudanese-American activist against female genital cutting (FGC) Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf has edited Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives.  For better and for worse, this book exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of edited volumes.  Some contributions (those at the beginning and end of the book) are highly engaging and enlightening, while several of the middle chapters add little to the existing literature or to our understanding.

Things start off very promisingly indeed. Following a well-written if somewhat pro forma overview of the chapters to come written by editor Abusharaf, Egyptian-American anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi provides us with a fascinating, laudably free-thinking overview of FGC among Nubians in Egypt.  El Guindi’s title, “Had This Been Your Face, Would You Leave It As Is?” suggests her mission to re-examine practices in a manner as free of cultural biases as possible.  Her extensive experience as an activist is evident.  “Over forty years ago… [Charles] Callender and I argued for the significance of the notion of the cultural equivalence of male and female circumcision. [citation omitted]  I argue now that this cultural equivalence extends analytically as a structural equivalence: that is, the two gendered rituals play equivalent roles in the transition of male and female children to adulthood… mark[ing] a transitional phase between birth and marriage.”

El Guindi trenchantly notes that “Americans who express concern about female circumcision in other places do not campaign again [nose jobs, facelifts, and breast enlargement] with equal fervor despite the known health risks involved.”  Subsequently she expands on the analogy.  “The phenomenon deceptively called ‘breast enhancement’ could well be called ‘breast mutilation.’  Culturally, it amounts to substituting men’s sex pleasure in women’s breasts for their maternal function.”  Accordingly: “Cross-cultural discussions about these matters should employ a single standard, not apply different standards to boys and girls or to Americans and Arabs or Africans.”

El Guindi finds a lack of choice and a lack of ritual to be the two most pungent problems with MGC: 

Choice is not brought up in relation to men who undergo very severe circumcision in various parts of the world, or the male babies in America who are operated on involuntarily.  I find the cruelty of American male infant circumcision to lie in two dimensions: the absence of choice, and the absence of ritual. . . .  Why do not activist feminists care about men’s circumcision?  Their agenda is narrowly focused on women in Africa and the Middle East, who can be presented as inferior, less advanced, or more oppressed than Western women. . .  Most interventionist debate. . .  assumes that women in non-Western societies are childlike and helpless, passive victims of their men, who must be saved by Western missionaries and feminists.  This stance is arrogant and ethnocentric.

El Guindi’s conclusion is highly sympathetic to intactivism: “In considering circumcision, we must include male and female forms in the same discussion… ”

In the chapter following this extremely promising start, intactivist Swiss-Palestinian academic Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh notes “a tendency to exaggerate the harmful sexual effects of female circumcision and to underestimate those of male circumcision.”  In the end, Aldeeb finds that it comes down to human rights.  “The right to physical integrity is a principle.  We must accept or reject genital cutting in totality.  If we accept this principle, we must refrain from cutting of children’s genitals regardless of their sex, their religion, or their culture.”  I found Aldeeb’s contribution to include a rather more detailed review of religious doctrine than necessary, and yet one cannot help but welcome the perspective of the author of the excellent book Male and Female Circumcision Among Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate (Shangri-La Publications, 2001, previously reviewed in these pages).

Following this stellar beginning, we quickly and sharply decline in most of the chapters from the succeeding section on African programs to eradicate FGC.  Asha Mohamud, Samson Radeny, and Karen Ringheim address “Community-Based Efforts to End FGC in Kenya.”  This triumvirate of authors clearly never met a male foreskin they liked, and are probably the record holders (no mean feat) for number of times blithely asserting the incomparability of MGC and FGC.  Methinks they protest too much!  Moreover, reading between the lines, they are evidently twisting their respondents’ words to make them conform sufficiently with their feminist shibboleths.  

The degree to which the three authors are weighted down with dogma is ironic, given that the two principal programs they are reviewing. Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO) and Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) have helped reduce FGC while remaining culturally sensitive and retaining a balanced perspective that permits ceremonial, non-mutilating rituals to continue.  I also wonder why the three musketeers mention but fail to respond to “critics [who] questioned the priority given to eradicating FGM I light of other prevalent health problems, such as malaria.”  Most alarmingly, the authors assume that men (apparently by themselves) are forcing FGC upon girls to control their sexuality, whereas typically it tends to be mothers and grandmothers who are the primary continuers of the practice.

Amal Abdel Hadi tells a happier tale of Deir El Barsha, a Christian village in Egypt, which discontinued FGC in 1992 as a natural outgrowth of development efforts promoting women’s participation and equality.  The next two chapters, respectively by Nafissatou J. Diop and Ian Askew, and by Hamid El Bashir, are more conventional pieces that do little to advance the ongoing dialog about reconciling opposition to FGC with concerns about cultural imperialism.  Shahira Ahmed’s review of the work of Sudan’s Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies and the Eradication of Female Circumcision is even worse, uncritically parroting Muslim clerics’ attempts to justify their opposing to FGC and their simultaneous support of MGC. 

The next chapters improve greatly.  Raqiya D. Abdalla, who nearly thirty years ago published the groundbreaking book on FGC, Sisters in Affliction, concludes the section on African anti-FGC programs by providing us with several moving, heart-rending first-person accounts by women who survived infibulations.

The final section, on debates in immigrant-receiving societies, is more even-handed and engaging.  Audrey Macklin addresses attempts to use the criminal law to combat FGC in Canada, showing the potentially counterproductive outcomes of such overly paternalistic approaches.  Intriguingly, she observes that the basis for outlawing MGC was actually stronger than for the action the Canadian government took in explicitly criminalizing FGC when the practice had already been pronounced illegal under existing laws against assault: 

From a purely doctrinal perspective, it would have made more sense to create an exemption from the law of assault for male circumcision, a common cultural and religious practice in North America. . .  The fact that no one seriously fears criminal prosecution for circumcising a male child speaks to the power of dominant cultural norms to supersede the letter of the law and determine what the law is “really” about.

After lengthy investigation, Macklin discovers, to her astonishment, that the primary impetus to criminalize FGC in Canada “emanated from women in immigrant communities who inserted themselves directly into the legislative process.”  Macklin contradicts herself on at least one point, stating on p. 216 that no one has ever been charged in Canada with an FGC-related offense, and then asserting four pages later that a Sudanese couple was charged in 2002 for performing genital cutting on their daughter.

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.  I could not help but notice that this appears to simply be an earlier version of his similar article in Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund’s superlative 2007 edited volume Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context (also reviewed in these pages).  Nevertheless, Piot is so good at what he does that I enjoyed reading again his even-handed review of this woman’s fraud-filled story and of the systemic biases and crude anti-African prejudice (among the court and the public alike) that contributed to her eventual victory.

The unfailingly brilliant Nigerian-American scholar L. Amede Obiora concludes the book with an afterword ostensibly reviewing and integrating the volume’s contributions.  Much as I enjoy Obiora’s writing and her commitment to FGC scholarship that is free of groupthink and committed to balancing culture and rights, I was disappointed by her failure to even mention Sami Aldeeb’s contribution to Female Circumcision.  Despite the engaging and varying grappling with MGC in which several contributors participated, Obiora focuses exclusively on FGC.

Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives ends up as bit of a mixed bag, but a reasonably-priced book whose opening and concluding chapters amply repay the reader’s attention and financial outlay.  Recommended.

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