Is it a good idea to fight against female circumcision? Not neccesarily according to Sierra Leonean-American anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu.
In an interview in Anthropology Today (available free as pdf here), she attacks Western feminists, media and anti-Female Genital Mutilation campaigns and accuses them for presenting a one-sided, ethnocentric picture of female circumcision.
A great deal of what is regarded as facts is not true, she explains. Many people think circumcision is a “barbaric tradition” and “violence against women". But Ahmadu does not see circumcision as mutilation. Circumcision is no notable negative effects on your health and does not inhibit female sexual desire either.
The problem with the representation of various forms of female circumcision as ‘mutilation’ is that the term, among other things, presupposes some irreversible and serious harm. This is not supported by current medical research on female circumcision.
But this research (Obermeyer, Morison etc) has not received any attention in Western media:
However, neither Obermeyer’s reviews nor the Morison et al. study have been mentioned in any major Western press, despite their startling and counter-intuitive findings on female circumcision and health. This is in contrast to the highly publicized Lancet report by the WHO Study Group on FGM, released in June 2006, which received widespread, immediate and sensationalized press coverage highlighting claims about infant and maternal mortality during hospital birth.
Supporters of female circumcision justify the practice on much of the same grounds that they support male circumcision, she says:
The uncircumcised clitoris and penis are considered homologous aesthetically and hygienically: Just as the male foreskin covers the head of the penis, the female foreskin covers the clitoral glans. Both, they argue, lead to build-up of smegma and bacteria in the layers of skin between the hood and glans. This accumulation is thought of as odorous, susceptible to infection and a nuisance to keep clean on a daily basis. Further, circumcised women point to the risks of painful clitoral adhesions that occur in girls and women who do not cleanse properly, and to the requirement of excision as a treatment for these extreme cases. Supporters of female circumcision also point to the risk of clitoral hypertrophy or an enlarged clitoris that resembles a small penis.
For these reasons many circumcised women view the decision to circumcise their daughters as something as obvious as the decision to circumcise sons: why, one woman asked, would any reasonable mother want to burden her daughter with excess clitoral and labial tissue that is unhygienic, unsightly and interferes with sexual penetration, especially if the same mother would choose circumcision to ensure healthy and aesthetically appealing genitalia for her son?
It is important to remove the stigma around circumcision, Ahmadu stresses:
It is my opinion that we need to remove the stigma of mutilation and let all girls know they are beautiful and accepted, no matter what the appearance of their genitalia or their cultural background, lest the myth of sexual dysfunction in circumcised women become a true self-fulfilling prophecy, as Catania and others are increasingly witnessing in their care of circumcised African girls and women.
In an article in The Patriotic Vanguard, she describes the term Female Genital Mutilation as “offensive, divisive, demeaning, inflammatory and absolutely unnecessary":
As black Africans most of us would never permit anyone to call us by the term “nigger” or “kaffir” in reference to our second-class racial status or in attempts to redress racial inequalities, so initiated Sierra Leonean women (and all circumcised women for that matter) must reject the use of the term “mutilation” to define us and demean our bodies, even as some of us are or fight against the practice.
Anthropologist Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin comments Ahmadu’s talk in Anthropology Today and criticizes his colleagues:
My own sense, after listening to Ahmadu, is that many Euroamericans’ reactions to the removal of any genital flesh is shaped by parochial understandings and perfectly contestable biases and values concerning bodies, gender, sex and pain.
Many anthropologists, reacting against collectivist social theories and some of the less felicitous entailments of cultural relativism, have joined in the condemnation of female circumcision without first taking counsel from our discipline’s methodological requirement actually to pay attention to what the people we write about say and do about this or that, over an extended period. Listening to Ahmadu, I can no longer condemn the practices of genital cutting in general, nor would I be willing to sign a zero-tolerance petition.
>> Disputing the myth of the sexual dysfunction of circumcised women. An interview with Fuambai S. Ahmadu by Richard A. Shweder (incl. comment by Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin)
SEE EARLIER POSTS ON THIS TOPIC:
Just a few comments to kick off a discussion:
“A great deal of what is regarded as facts is not true, she explains.”
Dr Ahmadu is applying a double standard, since a great deal of what she presents as fact is not true either.
“The problem with the representation of various forms of female circumcision as ‘mutilation’ is that the term, among other things, presupposes some irreversible and serious harm. This is not supported by current medical research on female circumcision.”
The type of circumcision which Dr Ahmadu defends, and which she herself has undergone, ie. excision – removal of the clitoris and labia, is indeed irreversible. And the dictionary definition of mutilation is the removal of a limb or organ, therefore removal of the clitoris is mutilation, whatever spin one may want to put on it.
“The uncircumcised clitoris and penis are considered homologous aesthetically and hygienically: Just as the male foreskin covers the head of the penis, the female foreskin covers the clitoral glans.”
It follows logically that the only type of female circumcision comparable to male circumcision would be the removal of the clitoral hood.
“Further, circumcised women point to the risks of painful clitoral adhesions that occur in girls and women who do not cleanse properly, and to the requirement of excision as a treatment for these extreme cases.”
Clitoral adhesions are very rare and easily prevented by proper hygiene. However, more importantly, the treatment of clitoral adhesions involves bathing, applying creams, massaging – and not, I repeat: not, the removal of the clitoris.
“Supporters of female circumcision also point to the risk of clitoral hypertrophy or an enlarged clitoris that resembles a small penis.”
Another very rare condition, in which the treatment may be an operation to reduce the clitoris in size, not to remove it.
“why, one woman asked, would any reasonable mother want to burden her daughter with excess clitoral and labial tissue that is unhygienic, unsightly and interferes with sexual penetration,”
Unhygienic? It’s easy enough to wash one’s private parts. Unsightly? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “Interferes with sexual penetration” – something I simply cannot picture. I hope it is not Dr Ahmadu herself who is displaying such woeful ignorance in anatomical matters, but the hypothetical woman she is quoting.
“It is my opinion that we need to remove the stigma of mutilation and let all girls know they are beautiful and accepted, no matter what the appearance of their genitalia”
Well said. I hope this implies that Dr Ahmadu will now tell her Kono sisters that uncircumcised girls are beautiful and accepted, and that excision is therefore completely unnecessary.
So someone that’s been circumcised is telling us there’s nothing wrong with it. No surprise there - circumcised men do it all the time.
Everyone, male or female, should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they have parts of their genitals cut off.
Thanks for your comments. True or not true, the reality is more complex as it is represented, and female circumcision is no exception. Fuambai Ahmadu does not tell us something that is based on her personal experience alone, but by research. As she explains in the interview, there is a great amount of research that does not support the claims made by anti-FGM activists. That’s interesting and should be discussed further. “There are different and contested views and experiences", she says. “No one is more right than the other.”
If Fuambai Ahmadu were speaking only of her and her peers’ decisions to have themselves circumcised, there would be no gainsaying her and all the cultural relativist arguments would hold. But the moment she says “circumcise her daughters” those bets are off. Human rights inhere to all humans, regardless of their culture. We don’t say slavery or child labour, forced marriage, suttee, honour killing or bride-burning are wrong for us or right for some other culture, they’re just wrong.
Anthropologists can discuss the underpinnings of those in a culturally neutral way and be silent on value judgement if they want, especially if they do better anthropology that way. But life is not just anthropology, and if the world is to become a better world, such practices must end - in a culturally sensitive way if that will end them more efficiently.
What seems to be sticking in some people’s throats is the comparison Ahmadu draws with male genital cutting. Well that’s easily solved. It’s wrong too (lacking pressing medical need). Westerners (especially in the US) may find this a novel concept, but a widespread custom that may have been done to them can also be a human rights abuse. (Less damaging perhaps, but not when you compare apples with apples, tribal with tribal: 80 boys died from tribal circumcision in Eastern Cape Province alone last year, and they’re just as dead as all the girls who’ve died from FGC.)
I also read the AT feature, though I’ve not read the other piece you’ve referenced Lorenz, thanks for your excellent summary and quotes.
To me, Ahmadu makes valid points, debunking the ambiguity regarding existing health records and unpacking the complex symbolic construct which has come to surround even the mere mention of female circumcision in some feminist circles in both Europe and Africa today (similar things could be said about the hijab). Ahmadu is right to point these things out.
I’m ok with much of her analysis. What did not quite sit with me was the way that she did all this, it sounded rather partisan to me.
I’ll start with a concept she relies on in her critique : the term “euroamerican”. Now, that is one absolutely nonsensical concept, at least from an anthropological point of view. I have an idea of what she was trying to say here, but this “euroamerican” word is unsatisfying and I’m not comfortable with the racial opposition that is potentially euphemised here either. In any case, her arguments suggest that she does not understand how the issue is perceived in different parts of Europe. That’s fine, nobody’s saying that she should be familiar with the perception of FC everywhere in the world, but it would have been easy enough to simply state which exact cultures she was referring to.
Which brings me to my second point, I’m surprised to read that so “many anthropologists” are guilty of the bias regarding FC. It seems anthropologists and anti FGM activists were confused here, but in practice anthropologists are often the ones testifying against FGM activists in court cases relating to female circumcision. At least in France they do (I don’t know what the situation is like in “euroamerica” though ☺ ). As anthropologists, we commit to at least a minimal degree of cultural relativism, and we are divided regarding FC precisely because it asks us what that degree should be. But anthropologists have a much more balanced understanding of FC than what she describes (here in France the subject is a common undergraduate case study). I felt she was going after the wrong guys here.
Also, I agree with one point from the comments regarding her comparison of male and female circumcision being wrong. FC has many features (and associated beliefs) which MC does not have. By the way, again, when she uses MC as an example of an accepted practice, regarded as a perfectly normal procedure, related to beliefs about greater health and a better life… well, again, this may be true in the USA (which incidentally has an even greater incidence of MC than Israel) but many people in Europe would regard male circumcision as mildly barbaric and potentially harmful, so it does not make sense to use it as a contrasting example (unless you live in “euroamerica” of course).
I also very much disliked the quote you published from her other article where she compares the FGM term to calling a black person a nigger, for this is simply a partisan statement (just as partisan as some anti FGM rhetorics to me)
These things made me uncomfortable. But despite all these issues with her argumentation, I agree with much of her final points and particularly concerning the need to address the stigma and promote appropriate medical awareness and care where FC is practiced.
Thanks a lot Sarah, very interesting comment!
I’ve also begun thinking along those lines. We see some identity politics in her argumentation (as also the case with the “other side” of course), and a comparison with the hijab might be fruitful. I’m no fan of this us-and-them-thinking either, but it is understandable in the current situation, you find “partisan” retoric everywhere among rightwing or leftwing activists, indigenous or women movements etc
Here in Scandinavia I haven’t heard of any anthropologists with statements like hers in the public, good to hear that it’s different in France!
Thanks for your reply Lorenz, your comment about anthro in Scandinavia is interesting, any idea about why that is the case ?
Here are 2 references off the top of my head for anyone who might be interested :
First, a critical article looking at power and discourses in contemporary transnational feminist debates regarding FC published ten years ago by anthropologist C. Gosselin (in English) http://www.anthropologica.ca/past_issues/vol42-1.html. This article also pointed at one important thing which Ahmadu did not mention (at least not in her AT article), the fact that women are very much aware of the existence of these debates and that this results in people taking sides as pro-FC or anti-FC (referred to as anti-FGM by Ahmadu). I think that Ahmadu’s account could potentially be questioned on that ground; underlying identity processes are likely also at work when these women state that they are 100% satisfied with their FC, FC being a part of their female initiation, and it would be a very interesting research angle to look into how the on-going debate impacts on these identity processes and claims - it’s an angle that would not fit within a partisan agenda but I think it would have been more anthropologically sound.
I can also mention this more recent and GREAT work on FC by medical anthropologist C. Bella Cabane, published in 2008 (in French) http://amades.hypotheses.org/293 - this is not an ethnography per se although it does rely on extensive fieldwork conducted in both Mali and among Malian communities in France. The author shares her own intellectual journey, how she started out as a general practitioner and was taught certain things about health and the body at medical school (and more generally in French society, through the media etc) and how her views gradually evolved by being in daily contact with African patients. Her work with women who had undergone FC forever changed her and to better make sense of it she retrained in anthropology and started researching FC in Mali and later in France. The book addresses another aspect not found in Ahmadu work, that of French females of Malian descent who undergo the procedure. These girls were born and raised in France by Malian parents. Again, there is a very exciting identity-related research angle here and I found it to be really missing from Ahmadu’s account, particularly because I wonder whether she is not herself in that very situation. Her short bio in AT stated that “she went back to her parents’ native Sierra Leone…". I noticed the (contradictory) use of the words “back” and “native” but this does not give me too many clues as to what her story is, other than she was not born in SL. It would be interesting to compare the two cases, the experiences of females undergoing full initiation including FC based on whether they are locals or diaspora-kids born and raised in countries where FC is uncommon and indeed potentially considered as deviant. Other than being interesting, I also feel it would be necessary, from an anthropological point of view, to specify which FC situation one is researching and discussing.
I know I sound very critical of Ahmadu, and on some level I am, but it’s really more the style of scholarship that does not fully resonate with me, and that does not deter me from agreeing with much of her conclusions and respecting her work. I find her research into women’s sexual experience and satisfaction most original and a real contribution. Also, I would very much like to see her film.
I forgot “Wombs and Alien Spirits” (part of which is available on Google books), a medical anthropology classic from 1989 by J.Boddy. It looks more into Zar possession cult but FC are the various female rituals marking the life cycle are addressed as well. It’s a fabulous ethnography !
Here is an interesting news item
relevant to this very absorbing discussion
Comments will be welcome. Iris
Many apologies for an error to the site
referred to in my previous comment.
It should have read:-
Also I am a member, not a visitor. Iris
Female circumcision is WRONG! Just WRONG! It it comperable to cutting off a man’s penis. Would THEY like it? NO. The practice should be BANNED worldwide….
I find a lot of weakly supported arguments here by Ahmadu, chiefly that the practices of removing genital tissue (whatever name you want to give them) do not impact sexual *desire*.
This seems to me almost a redefinition of the purpose of these practices. According to the literature I’ve read in anthropology classes (it’s been years - I’m sorry I can’t refer to particular authors) one of the main objects is to control womens’ sexual behaviour. It’s eye-opening that Ahmadu refutes that on one level.
But on another level these practices do unequivocally reduce sexual *function*, which is a separate matter from sexual *desire*. Excising the labia and clitoris removes many, though not all, of the nerve endings of the female genitals and certainly most of the external ones. Comparing these practices anatomically to male circumcision is falsely equivalent; the equivalent to removing the clitoris in men would be to cut off the glans penis entirely. I am sure that for many women there is no dysfunction in the way that they understand their bodies and in how women’s sexuality is socially constructed in societies where these practices are common. But if we are to refer to the great range of physical functionality that is naturally available to women, certainly functionality is destroyed, particularly the functionalities related to women’s pleasure. What should have been unpacked more here is how “dysfunction” is viewed and how “function” is defined.
Something I’ve always wondered about - but haven’t read a single thing about - is how women who have sex with women in societies where this is prevalent respond to it.
Female Circumcision Prevents HIV/AIDS
Stallings et al. (2009) reported that, in Tanzanian women, the risk of HIV among women who had undergone Female Circumcision was roughly half that of women who had not; the association remained significant after adjusting for region, household wealth, age, lifetime partners, and union status.
Female circumcision and HIV infection in Tanzania:
For better or for worse?
(3rd IAS conference on HIV pathogenesis and treatment)
International AIDS Society
Kanki et al. reported that, in Senegalese prostitutes, women who had undergone Female Circumcision had a significantly decreased risk of HIV-2 infection when compared to those who had not.
Kanki P, M’Boup S, Marlink R, et al. “Prevalence and risk determinants of human immunodeficiency virus type 2 (HIV-2) and human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) in west African female prostitutes
Am. J. Epidemiol. 136 (7): 895-907. PMID
If female circumcision is so damaging, where’s the universal outcry from the millions of circumcised women? It’s white people in western countries - who have no problem amputating sexual tissue from little boys, even though male circumcision is not as severe - who generate the hoopla. In western countries, clitoral reduction surgery is now a popular cosmetic surgery *chosen* by women. Shouldn’t it be done during infancy when the pain won’t be remembered? There simply is no medical study proving the uncircumcised women have more sexual pleasure. It’s a parental right to circumcise your children - male or female.
According to “S” – “It’s a parental right to circumcise your children - male or female.” – What an outrageous statement. What on earth can be a justification for parents to cut pieces off their children’s bodies, or pay others to do it for them?
And as regards “white people in western countries - who have no problem amputating sexual tissue from little boys,” this is a commonly expressed view, but is rather misleading. “Western countries”? It really only applies to the USA, where more than half of male babies are still routinely circumcised. But last time I looked, the USA was only one of many “Western” countries, and in this respect is an exception. Male circumcision is rare in Latin America and in Europe, whose combined population is many times that of the USA.
i believe a girls circumcision can be right if she chooses to deny her own sexual pleasure and concentrate only on her partners pleasure
i did have a look at a type II circumcidion of a girl in a BDSM relationship.. i must say it looked great..
statistics say that in the south of Ghana only 5% of the women are circumcised.. yet a majority of female and male consider a woman only fully woman if circumcised as type II.. i personally financed a penpal girlfriend and another who asked me for a circumcision.. both are happy and grateful eversince.. bonus is that the news of their circumcision is spread and they are getting lots of marriage proposals now.. since circumsision is quite expensive i think abandance of circumcision is due to financial reasons.. although i must admit circumcision is not done in the south.. girls must travel to the north where circumcision is up to 90%
for people against circumcision.. what to say about a girl who wants circumcision by her free will?..
is she just ignorant?..
SUPPOSE a physician is asked to perform a procedure that has no recognized medical value and may harm the person who undergoes it. Suppose that the person requesting it is doing so not on her own behalf, but for her young daughter. How should the physician respond?
The answer is easy. The doctor will probably say that medical ethics forbids undertaking any procedure that is potentially harmful and has no therapeutic value.
I disagree with the statement by S(visitor) who said that it is only white women in western countries that campaign against female circumcision. There is a strong campaign in Britain against FGM. Many of the women involved in this campaign are from countries where FGM is practiced. I agree that people from western countries are limited in our ability to change culture and tradition in countries where FGM is practiced but we can certainly campaign against it being practiced in the UK. We are citizens with the right to care about what goes on in this country and if there is enough medical research to back the fact that FGM is harmful to women then we have the right to campaign against this. FGM seems to usually be practiced in countries where women are quite repressed, both socially and economically. Many women seeking asylum in the UK can confirm this and see FGM as a psrt of this overall repression. Personally I think that the UK may not be perfect in as far as women are totally equal yet but it is far better in this respect than countries where FGM is common. I believe in equality and am not comfortable with traditions that undermine equality being practiced here just for the sake of ‘cultutal sensitivity.’ This may be a ‘eurocentric attitude’ but I believe I have the right to be ‘eurocentric’ in Europe.
you may not agree on my opinion, Rebecca.. about eurocentric viewing.. i know some european women are getting circumcised voluntarely
Let people live how they want. Its nobodies business what others do… I’m neither for it or against it.
Im sick of people in the west pushing their belief systems onto other people… it is so arrogant. Allow people to live their lives.
And I am tired of the term mutilation - just live your lives people and get over yourselves… It is other peoples choices to live how they wish and they have nothing to do with you.
Well, actually hermine, that is how it is done here in Sweden, and other countries as well. Licensed medical doctors use sterilized equipment in sanitized environments to perform these markers of cultural identity.
It’s done in other cases as well, like plastic surgery/reconstructive surgery. Not to mention sex-change operations, and other similar procedures.
I’m thinking here, that Mary Douglas would have a field day on this whole debate. It’s like instead of a mouth and orientalists vs occidentalists, you have genitals and feminists vs people. It’s about identity for them, it’s about identity for us, and we’re using our genitals as a symbolic boundary to draw the line between Us and Them. No wonder people get so defensive and scream out “It’s wrong!", they’re feeling out of control in their existential life-worlds…
To ‘S’s question - where is the outcry from circumcised women? - There is a directly negative correlation between women’s economic power and autonomy, and FGM. This is a highly marginalized section of society who, if they do not conform to societal norms, will likely be ostracized, will not be considered for marriage in their culture and will be denied opportunities for a secure life.
Also you don’t think female circumcision is “all that damaging” yet seem to take issue with white westerners propensity for male circumcision which you agree is LESS severe.
May I ask where are you getting your information about clitoral reduction becoming so popular in the west? I can’t even fathom the motivation behind such a “common” surgery outside of some sort of malformation. And even if it was so popular, you yourself highlight the fact that it is *chosen* which I think, since everyone (I would guess the majority) does not choose this, shows that women are better off having that option available to them when they are able to consent.
Both male and female genital mutilation must be banned. What this Fuambai is saying shows the extend to which cultual impositions can affect individuals, educated or not. She either has been made to believe that mutilation is good, or she is just trying to justify the bad that was dont to her by encouraging it for other girls. Does she not have evidence of several girls who died during or after circumcision? She surely does have it, but she wouldn’t want to talk about it. Pathetic.
An extract from “Feminism and sexual mutilation” (http://circabolition.multiply.com/journal/item/347/Feminism_and_sexual_mutilation):
“Western women hijack African women’s struggle against excision and make it a discriminative practice of African men against their wives. Against this politic of division, black women have risen by protesting against “white women’s maternalism” and creating their own concept of struggle that takes into account women first in what constitutes their essence and their complementarities with men. This is “Africana Womanism", invented by an African-American, which is different of the concept of European feminism that has a posture of fight and opposition between men and women…
Yes, excision is harmful to the health or our women. It must be eradicated. We contrive to do it as fast as possible but in the spirit of preservation of peace and social cohesion and not in the spirit of opposition between men and women by insinuating that it is a discriminative practice against our women. There where it appears so, it is due to the exterior contribution of Islamic religion that grants woman a subordinate position.”
What kind of rubbish is this. There are a lot of body parts which need to cleaned daily (but which many dont). that is not a reason to remove it. you cant cut off a girls ears because she might forget to clean behing them. FGM is cruel, horrid, demeaning. these people are brainwashed thoroughly and completely.
what the fuck is wrong with this women. why doesn’t she get her genitals cut off with out any general anaesthetics why being held down, then having he opening sown shut,except for a tiny hole to let out pee, and see how she likes it
Sometimes the holes not big enough to let menstrual blood out and it just stays in your body and if not immediately fixed it can cause infertility
Im Mary ;both male and female genital mutilation must be banned. What this Fuambai is saying shows the extend to which cultual impositions can affect individuals, educated or not. She either has been made to believe that mutilation is good, or she is just trying to justify the bad that was dont to her by encouraging it for other girls. Does she not have evidence of several girls who died during or after circumcision? She surely does have it, but she wouldn’t want to talk about it. Pathetic.
I think Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu is insane. I think she is the victim of a Stockholm-Syndrome-like empathy with the culture that gouged her clitoris out, and rather than face the horror of what was done to her and her own crime against humanity in defending it, she continues to do so. When someone has so much of themselves built upon an irrational belief, they will do anything to keep it shored up.
(This is how I feel also, towards any other woman who shares her views, and every man who will say in defense of circumcision, “I don’t see what the big deal is.")
From Personal experience with a fully circumcised Coptic Egyptian woman I felt she had no sexual pleasure at all. She was like a dole they sell at sex shops. I felt so sorry for her and call on abolishing this practice. Isn’t this castration?
What a lot of people are missing is that FGM, FC, chastity belts and other practices used to regulate female sexuality were just as common in Europe and many, many other cultures for millennia. FC and FGM are not unique to whatever cultures practice it today. European and American ("euroamerican"?) doctors performed excisions to treat female mental illness up intil the early 20th century. However, getting rid of an old practice that was once almost ubiquitous in the Western and Middle Eastern worlds doesn’t “westernize” a country any more than instituting a government-sponsored public vaccine program.