Is female circumcision violence against women or a feminist act? Are critics of this practice guilty of cultural imperialism? Those questions were debated at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in Washington - among others by African anthropologists who have undergone the procedure themselves.
New York Times blogger John Tierney has written two interesting posts on the debate incl links to books and papers, among others by Fuambai Ahmadu. She has argued that the critics of circumcision 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. Ahmadu writes 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 his second post, John Tierney askes anthropologist Richard Shweder for more information about he health risks, benefits, and the actual effect of the procedure on the lives of those subject to circumcision.
Shweder reviews existing research and concludes that “the harmful practice claim has been highly exaggerated and that many of the representations in the advocacy literature and the popular press are nearly as fanciful as they are nightmarish":
The best evidence available at the moment suggests to me that the anthropologist Robert Edgerton basically had it right when he wrote about the Kenyan practice in the 1920s and 1930s as a crucible in which it is not just the courage of males but also the courage of females that gets tested:
“…most girls bore it bravely and few suffered serious infection or injury as a result. Circumcised women did not lose their ability to enjoy sexual relations, nor was their child-bearing capacity diminished. Nevertheless the practice offended Christian sensibilities”.
At the panel on “Zero Tolerance” policies held on Saturday at the American Anthropological Association meeting, one of the participants Zeinab Eyega, who runs an NGO concerned with the welfare of African immigrants in the USA, noted that these days in New York “the pain of hearing yourself described is more painful than being cut.”
Shweder thinks it is noteworthy or even astonishing that in the community of typically liberal, skeptical and critical readers of the New York Times there has been such a ready acceptance of the anti-circumcision advocacy groups’ representations of family and social life in Africa as dark, brutal, primitive, barbaric, and unquestionably beyond the pale".
More about the AAA-meeting:
Ariel Levy’s book on raunch culture is interestingly related to this topic, offering a wide perspective on the question of women empowerment/ disempowerment in a culture fixed on sex.
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