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:
Have you been in an anthropology class / course with more men then women? I haven’t. In both Norway, Germany and Switzerland (pluss many other places incl South Africa, I heard), the gender balance between men and women is around 25-75. Eli Thorkelson, graduate student in cultural anthropology in Chicago, gives us some statistics from American universities that present a similar picture. But as he shows, it hasn’t always been like this. And according to him, we witness both an increasing feminization of anthropology and an ongoing masculine bias.
Here are some of his comments:
- The number of doctorates awarded to women has been greater than the number of doctorates awarded to men since 1992. Males were demographically dominant in the production of doctorates until 1984, after which there were eight years of approximate equality followed by divergence.
- The number of men enrolled has been falling slightly since 1995, while the number of women enrolled has continued to increase.
- While men are no longer demographically dominant, and are even a minority (remarkably so at the undergraduate level, where women receive nearly 70% of anthropology degrees), there are still gendered principles of selection at work in the field.
Nevertheless, the most demographically striking thing here is in his opinion the overall population growth of anthropology, hundreds of percent over the decades.
There are by the way many other interesting posts in his blog about academic culture and on the anthropology of anthropology!
How do you study wrestling as an anthropologist? By becoming a wrestler yourself! Heather Levi’s book The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity is featured in the new issue of American Ethnography on Lucha libre - Mexican wrestling.
A long excerpt from the second chapter can be read there - an example of good anthropological writing and according to Martin Høyem, editor of American Ethnography, the best ethnography of 2008.
I found some reviews of the book. According to the Los Angeles Times the book is actually “entertaining". And it places wrestling in a political context:
“The success of figures like Superbarrio lay in the capacity of lucha libre to invoke a series of connections between sometimes contradictory domains: rural and urban, tradition and modernity, ritual and parody, machismo and feminism, politics and spectacle,” she writes. And in that tight sentence, Levi nails the appeal lucha libre has had among working-class Mexicans for decades. The various intersections she describes – class, sexuality, gender, xenophobia – are frequently lost on American audiences but make the sport so enjoyable.
“The World of Lucha Libre is one of the most interesting cultural studies of a key pastime in Mexico for many years” according to the Latin American Review of Books, while the Seattle newspaper The Stranger insists that “the first few chapters are pretty dry". But this is to be expected: “Most anthropological writing simply isn’t for general audiences".
But the academic nature of the text is something to be overcome:
Levi lays the entire world of lucha libre at the reader’s feet, from the adulation of the crowd to the metallic smell of blood in the ring, and the act of creativity, installing the personal narrative, is the reader’s job. This is excellent reportage on an endlessly fascinating subject, and Levi should be commended for standing back and letting the luchadores take center stage.
As in previous issues, American Ethnography is really interdisciplinary: It includes images from the Bolivian Lucha Libre scene, a review of a book by photographer Lourdes Grobet on the Mexican wrestling scene and a glimpse into American wrestling magazines from the 1970’s on “apartment wrestling", where women - according to the magazine Sports Review Wrestling in 1978 “clash with the fury of primitive savages fighting for their gods!”
What is it like being veiled and working in Australian companies? Anthropologist Siham Ouazzif sent me her thesis “Veiled Muslim Women in Australian Public Space: How do Veiled Women Express their Presence and Interact in the Workplace?”
Siham Ouazzif conducted 16 in-depth interviews with Australian veiled women. They were well educated and held different professions from professors, psychologists, teachers to marketing managers.
Hijab and veiling are highly polarized issues today. So maybe it was no big surprise that her potential informants were sceptical in the beginning:
In the beginning of my research I soon realized that among my informants there was a feeling of scepticism at being part of a study that explored Muslim women’s issues. However as they came to know that I too was from a Muslim background I sensed they felt more at ease. Nearly all of the women expressed a sense of frustration at having been misrepresented in both the media and in other academic studies. They did not want to be part of a study that reinforced an image of veiled Muslim women as oppressed, backwards or limited.
The anthropologist concludes:
In general they understood the hijab to be empowering and many concluded that being veiled and an active professional proved that wearing the hijab did not hinder women from achieving what they want.
The veil signified respect and control over public space. Most women gave the impression that the veil made them feel stronger as feminists in public, she writes.
Hadda who worked at a Microsoft company said:
When I started wearing the veil, I felt more in control and protected, men didn’t look at me in a sexual way, I felt respected and that made me feel more comfortable working with men.
But their muslim identity at the same time limited their relationships with their colleagues - especially outside the work place:
The women emphasized that their Islamic commitment was incompatible with non-Muslims way of socializing, especially because it involved alcohol. However, most of the women felt that co-workers treated them with respect and inclusion.
(M)ost women simply explained that, “In Islam I am not allowed to shake the hand of a man I am not related to,” although a few avoided explaining this to their male colleagues for fear of being impolite. In this way the veil transformed into a physical separation between male co-workers and the women. But most of the women also said they felt more comfortable in their interaction with men, because the hijab restrained sexual flirtation or the sharing of inappropriate jokes.
Of course, stereotypes about suppressed muslim women in the media that were also shared by some colleagues, made the women frustrated and angry. However the majority of women believed strongly that positive changes would appear in time:
Most believed that the increasing number of Muslim women actively interacting and engaging in the Australian society would change people’s stereotypes.
For the women, wearing a hijab is like bearing the flag of islam:
Amongst my informants veiling was far from extremism or an experience of oppression but rather a public statement and as some women confirmed explicitly, wearing the veil is like bearing the flag of Islam, an identity they wished to preserve.
Motivations for veiling seemed to transform in meaning: sometimes it was related to religious identity, sometimes to a gendered political resistance. The interesting response was not so much their explicit answer for why they veiled or what the veil signified to them in a non-Muslim society, but rather how they understood the concept of veiling in Australia where they constitute a minority.
Veiling as a form of protest or resistance was present in the women statements. For some of these women veiling was used as a symbol to make a public statement to support the Muslim world. However most women seemed to think that it is was not political but more as an identity.
Interestingly, of all the fifteen women she spoke with only three knew which verses in the Koran mentions the head cover. Nevertheless all confirmed that the veil was compulsory in Islam.
Siham Ouazzif has also written the article (Norwegian only) Hijab i vesten og de mange motiver (Kvinner sammen 2/2007)
Anthropology student Lykke Bjørnøy sent me an article on homosexuality and islam that she wrote as part of her studies at the University of Cairo. She tries to understand why homosexuality often is demonized. Not only in Islam, but also in Christianity (and other religions I suppose), homosexuality is a touchy subject.
It is (as always) work in progress and Lykke Bjørnøy is interested in getting feedback and comments:
Are homosexuals impure according to Sunni Islam?
Written by Lykke V. Bjørnøy
Last year I lived in the noisy metropolitan city of Cairo. Living there as a western, blond girl, my thoughts about discrimination and womens’ rights was flourishing in my head. I have never been so visible in my life and I wondered: Are there other groups that are invisible, but feel even more visible than I did? I looked different than all the others. However, I didn’t feel different.
Almost every religion has an opinion about homosexuals, or at least a view on sodomy. In Christianity sodomy is considered as “a sin against nature” and it’s the same in Judaism where it’s written in Leviticus: “[A man] shall not lie with another man as with a woman” Leviticus 18:22), both Christians and Jews are referring to this particular verse when the issue about homosexuality is questioned.
Islam doesn’t have the same clear restrictions on this subject, like other religions, but there are several hadiths and views on the topic. Islam contains much more written and boundary filled sexuality than Christianity. The Qur’an for instance is filled with restrictions according to sex, how it’s done, who it’s ought to perform and what time it should be done. One of the reasons for this can be the prophet Muhammad behavior, he was a sexual man in a contrast to Jesus. For the Prophet to cope with all the difficulties that could appear concerning sexual actions and the interaction with all his wives, he made restrictions and rules that would help the participants to deal with the conflicts that could emerge.
However, rules that are related to the control and restrictions against sodomy and sex in general is not just special for Islam, but all the religions, there is a set of laws in most holy texts, especially about the outsiders and the un-traditional actions that can take place in a society. The religion creates boundaries for the participants hence; it’s a way to deal with elements that need restriction or are considered unusual. Homosexuals have a different position and status than the mainstream in a society, and sometimes they are not even acknowledged. The president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, said on Fox News that they didn’t have a problem with homosexuals because they didn’t exist. Even though Ahmadinejad is seen as a Shi’a, his point still stands, his impression of homosexuality is just another act of sodomy which is not prohibited.
In order to understand the reasons why homosexuals often are considered as heathens, and why they are frequently demonized, it is therefore necessary to examine the basis of the condemnation. Demonization is often related to sickness and disturbances and these themes will be discussed further as we go along.
Homosexuality as a sickness
If you ask any religious scholar about homosexuals you get many different answers. One of the issues that are frequently discussed is the linkage between homosexuality as a disease. And if it is a sickness is it curable? There are scientists who do research on this matter right now; the internet is loaded with organizations and pages that discuss this issue (www.narth.com). So why do some people have the cravings to solve the “un-normalities” in the society and why is it so frowned upon?
What is it about the homosexuals that are so obviously wrong that needs to be solved? One argument that has been questioned is the fact that homosexuals have no function in the society and in the world in general, hence there has to be something wrong with them. The lion eats the zebra, the zebra eats grass; the circle of life. With homosexuals the circle of life is not being fulfilled.
Mary Douglas argues in her book “Purity and danger” that every human has a certain feeling of order. That objects or people are seen as impure if they don’t fit in a specific system. If homosexuals don’t fit in circle of life, they cannot reproduce, for this reason they are seen as impure according to Douglas. Several imams states that “if everyone was a homosexual, the world would go under”, which is true in the long term, because there would be no reproduction. Or as I see it a perfect solution to solve the global problem of constant increasing world population.
Levi-Strauss’ argument about impurity builds around the imam’s statement. For him, impurity is often linked to progress and logic. He proves this by looking at why incest is prohibited in most societies. He claims that one of the reasons that incest is prohibited is because it only reproduces defected human beings, which in the long term would lead to the extinction of human kind. If homosexuality is seen as impure because of their lack of reproducing skills, then why would God created them?
Most religious scholars reject the fact that it’s biological, by that I mean that homosexuality is something one is born with or can inherit. This is often stated because God doesn’t differentiate between people, we are all children of Adam according to the Sunni tradition. The hollowness in our stomachs, the lack of control, these are all factors that make us all similar (Katz, 2002:177.) In spite the fact that we all are made from the same foundation, Adam lost his purity in the Garden of Eden because apparently - no man is perfect. Since humans are not faultless there are stories in the Qur’an and in the Bible about what happens to people that don’t behave themselves, commit sins or disobey God.
The most famous one is the story about “The People of Lot” that exist both in the Quran and in the Bible. “The people of Lot” commits sins, like sodomy. The word homosexuality is of course not mentioned in the Qur’an or the Bible because it’s a modern expression. We can’t find an expression that is even comparable with the English term that was first used in the early 19th century, but the closest we get to homosexuality in is the act of sodomy (Qur’an:302).
The People of Lot got punished by God for their behavior and their towns were “turned upside down, and rained on them stones of backed clay, in a well arranged manner one after another” (Quran: 82) Apparently, these cities were in Palestine which today is the Dead Sea. This is the only punishment mentioned towards sodomy, however it’s pretty brutal. There are discussions about how sodomy ought to be punished today in some countries especially the Arab world, some scholars say that they should be stoned to death and get the same treatment as those who commit adultery, on the other hand this interpretation of the Qur’an has been created after the time of the Prophet Mohammed and has its origins from the hadiths and not the Holy script itself.
In the legal sources there has been differentiated between a grand and a petty sodomy. The grand sodomy is the action that takes place between two men and requires death of both participants (Wright & Rawson 1997:116) according to legal sources. A petty sodomy is anal sex between a man and a woman, although sexual intercourse with the opposite sex is” legal” this action is also forbidden by the Sunni tradition (Ibid). Since the Qur’an doesn’t differentiate between peoples’ feelings for the same sex and the actions of sodomy, means that the acts of sexual intercourse is the factor that makes sodomy impure and forbidden, not the homosexuals themselves.
As I mentioned in the introduction, sexuality has been an important part of literature and has played a much bigger part in Islam rather than it has in Christian societies. The grand example of this sort of literature is “One Thousand and One Nights” that were written in the early 1900’s and is filled with stories which all have elements of sexual actions, including sodomy. The simplicity of the sexual actions that were taken place in these stories say that sexual actions were not frowned upon, but rather appreciated. Why sodomy has the status of being “The Sin” contains an arsenal of meanings. The sexual act of sodomy is seen as animalistic, and naturally the sexual image of dog sex may have it’s similarities to sodomy, since the modern term of anal sex is called “doggy-style” is not taken out of the blue.
Islam has its restrictions and guidelines toward sexual actions and distinguishes between minor and major ahdaths. One example of a major ahdath can be regular sexual intercourse. Reinhart argues in is article “Impurity no Danger” that there is no danger in being in an impure state as an answer to Douglas’ article. He argues that there is a lack of control that makes something impure, not that an object is out of place. Reinhart says that Douglas’s argument don’t stand because semen, tears and mothers milk is not seen as impure objects in Islam. So it’s the action of ejaculation that is seen as a lack of control and therefore gains the same status a laughter break-out during prayer.
On the other hand another anthropologist named Julie Marcus agrees with Douglas and says that the fluid of sexual liquid across the body boundaries is seen as crucial (Marcus 1992:78). In other words the only solution to prevent oneself from getting in a position of impurity, is control. Therefore, if one compares adultery with sodomy as comparable sizes the only way the actor cannot become impure, is restriction. And in fact if you resist your desires you get paid in heaven according to the Qur’an (Qur’an:200).
The social sexual hierarchy in Islam
One of the foundations in Islam are that women and men are ought to be treated equally since they are both made from the same soul (Qur’an:7.189). Men and women are different biologically and Islam has rules on how the sexes cooperate with their biologically differences towards Islam. There are restrictions on menstruation, childbirth, sexual actions etc. and these are all considered major ahdath so they require major ablution before entering a mosque or pray.
Marcus argues in is article “Islam, Gender and hierarchy” that there do exist a basic social hierarchy in Islam. She says that women are naturally under men in the social hierarchy. She claims that since women menstruate and give birth they are considered below men in the social hierarchy. The lack of control concerning menstruation places women in an impure position regularly, without the possibility to change her status. She continues in her article “hierarchy is achieved at the point at which women are constructed as uncontrolled (…)”(Marcus 1992: 88.). By this statement she says implicit that men have a way to control their impurity, hence achieve then the higher rank in the hierarchy.
I will take Marcus’ theory a little bit further and make the comparison with homosexuals. Where do they fit in Marcus’s theory? If we state Marcus theory as a fact, man to man sex doesn’t fit into the system. If the regular dichotomy doesn’t hold its normal position, the factor is then according to Douglas’s theory impure, because it’s a matter out of place, in other words it’s un-placeable. If the natural order in the sexual hierarchy is not maintained and when the inferior is changed with the superior we end up with two sizes that are exactly the same.
This theory still stands if one just discusses sodomy which could happen between the same sex and the opposite sex. It is honorable to be the penetrator and it’s a disgrace to be the one’s being penetrated (Wright & Rowson 1997:199). The ones who is the penetrator has the power and the ones receiving are the inferior and when the action is between two men the action itself creates a hierarchy not the actors themselves.
The concept of same-sex sexual interactions has a tendency to disgust religious scholars and an attempt of legalizing homosexuals’ rights is seen as another “Western influence". One of the reasons why religious scholars don’t acknowledge homosexuals is that it is not written implicit in the Qur’an how to handle them, just the actions of sodomy. Homosexuality is “The Sin” in Islam; the causes are that the well-known and “normal” social hierarchy that is presented in the holy scripts and in nature as we know it, is being tampered with.
A meddled system always creates chaos, and at the same time destructs the natural order as well as creating impurity. Since the impurity is characterized by actions that are located in social hierarchies, the status of a homosexual is not seen as impure.
The fact that there are two masculine human beings having sexual intercourse Marcus’ hierarchy is not being fulfilled, where there ought to be one superior and one being the inferior. When the sexual hierarchy is in chaos, who is then there to help us get the system back on track, when religion is the one factor, according to Durkheim that creates a system in chaos. Since the sexual actions between two men create an unbalance, will there ever be a system that accepts the interactions between homosexuals?
Douglas, Mary “Purity and Danger” 1966
Marcus, Julie, “A world of difference. Islam and gender hierarchy in Turkey”, Sydney 1992
Katz, Marion Holmes, “Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity”
Ithaca, New York, U.S.A.: State Univ of New York Pr 2002,
Reinhart, Kevin “Impurity / No Danger” University of Chicago;1990
Wright, W Jr. & Everett K. Rowsen “Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Litterature” Colombia University Press: 1997
Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali & Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan “Al-Quran” Islamic University, al-Medinah al-Munawwarah
How do middle-class women in Calcutta understand and experience economic change? What impact is globalization having on the new middle-classes in Asia? Our reviewer Tereza Kuldova has again been lucky with her choice of books. For antropologi.info, she reviewes Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-Class Identity in Contemporary India by Henrike Donner:
Donner, Henrike. (2008). Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-Class Identity in Contemporary India. Ashgate. 230 pages. Price: £55.00.
Review by Tereza Kuldova
This anthropologically rich study based on an extensive ethnographic fieldwork brings us to the contemporary Calcutta and the homes of its middle-classes. It draws us convincingly right into the everyday domestic lifeworlds of the Bengali middle-class women, with all their concerns, ideas and ideals, sorrows, anxieties and joys.
This fresh study in urban anthropology undoubtedly fills a gap in the discussions on the Indian middle-class and modernity. Through identifying and establishing the domestic sphere as the key site of the remaking of the Indian middle-class in the contexts of globalization, post-liberalization and neo-liberal ideologies this book provides a novel rethinking of the wider transformations within the Indian society.
Analyzing the middle-class women’s narratives, Henrike Donner explores the shifts in the meanings and lived experiences of marriage, motherhood, conjugal relationships and family values. Focusing on the roles the women play as wives, mothers and homemakers, she examines the various ways in which the Indian urban middle-class is produced and reproduced - be it through seemingly unsubstantial lunch boxes of the middle-class children or the preference of caesarean section among the middle-class women. She analyses the ways in which the discourses on class, family and marriage, which commonly favour the role of the housewife and stay-at-home mother in order to produce a perfect family, shape the lives of these women; and how these women in turn shape the contemporary Indian society through their daily practices and ideas.
In her own words this “study is a reminder that the conflicts over the meaning of economic reform are not played out on the public stage of electoral politics alone, but also within families, between generations and in the embodied experiences of citizens. If neo-liberalism is not seen purely as an ideology but as a set of institutions, ideologies and technologies that bring about specific discourses, my research shows how it reshapes the Indian middle-class family, and with it motherhood” (180).
The Introduction gives us an idea about the background of the study, its location and reflections on fieldwork method. The part discussing the positioning of the anthropologist - a white woman from the “West” - and the power relationships between the fieldworker and her subjects evolving on the basis of this categorization are particularly interesting and give us closer insight in how relations are negotiated and how they evolve through time.
The first chapter on Middle-Class Domesticities and Maternities presents absorbing theoretical discussion of motherhood, kinship and reproduction. In her theoretical discussion on and analysis of how motherhood is constructed and discussed by women and the ways in which it dominates and orders their lives, Henrike Donner continually reflects on how these discourses and practices surrounding motherhood relate to power relations in the society, how they reflect the hegemonic processes of change, the ideas about modernity, the Hindu nationalist thought and the socio-economic relations. Motherhood is thus turned into the institution par excellence through which the historical change is studied. This continual linking between the wider transformations in the society and the rich ethnographic detail through a modified lens is, I believe, the greatest contribution of the study.
The second chapter Of Love, Marriage and Intimacy brings us at the core of the middle-class obsession with the discussions of love and marriages, which centre on the topics of, arranged and love marriages, suitable spouses, arranging matches and weddings and much more. Again these discussions and rich ethnographic material is set within the context and framework of the wider discursive formations and collective histories, contextualizing for example metropolitan ideas of what makes a good match through wider analysis of changing relationships between women and men, daughters and parents, in-laws and their son`s wives. The empirical data and cases are used actively in a combination with theory in a balanced manner, and the presence of the anthropologist throughout the whole book makes the text more readable and interesting. Viewing marriage in terms of process, which changes its meanings and the ways it is perceived over the lifecycle and across gender is also one of the strengths of Donner’s approach.
The third chapter concerned with The Place of Birth, i.e. basically the medicalization of childbirth, the availability of health services and changing birthing practices, opens up in front of us the world of parenthood as understood by the urban Bengali middle-class women. It discusses parenthood as a public prove of sexual prowess, fertility and reproduction being crucial in making and expanding the social significance of marriage as well as in making and reproduction of the middle-class. Infertility on the other hand carries a great social stigma, the infertile couple not only symbolizes “sexuality without a purpose, ‘coupledom’ without a future, and personal loss” but also challenges “generally held ideas about marriage and the Indian middle-class family” (92).
Discussing several cases Donner analyses the changing birthing practices, the interesting popularity of the self-elected caesarean sections, and the domestic relations at the time of the women’s pregnancy and much more. Particularly the analysis of the popularity of the caesarean deliveries is very enlightening, bringing in the notions of class, pollution, social status and middleclassness. The caesarean deliveries distinguish the middle class from the low class woman, they are markers of class and affluence, they are “clean” and the convalescence takes a considerable amount of time, which the low class woman in opposition to the middle class one does not have. Caesarean sections thus manage status as well as pain, pollution and embarrassment during the birth.
The fourth chapter on Education and the Making of Middle-Class Mothers is concerned with schooling during the early years of childhood and “the way parenting is implied in institutional practices and the way intimate relationships between mothers and their children are informed by wider socio-economic transformations” (123). This chapter thus discusses a rarely investigated topic of contemporary parenting in India and the role of mothers. The analysis shows how the mothers reproduce the middle-class ideals and tastes through active parenting strategies and how the children actually become subjects of multiple practices resulting from the liberalization policies and processes.
The fifth chapter with the title Motherhood, Food and the Body explores the middle-class woman’s agency as a consumer and relates the analysis of consumption to that of gendered bodies and (re)production of middle-class through consumption patterns. She particularly focuses on the wave of “new” vegetarianism and the various meanings it has, from control of the woman’s sexuality to idioms of purity.
This study shows clearly that even thought there is an increasing number of nuclear families, love marriages and divorces in urban India, which are commonly seen as indications of the post-liberalization changes, “the patrilocal residence, arranged marriages and lifelong unions still constitute normative discourses, and are often reinvigorated” (181). But at the same time “the increased significance of privacy, conjugality and individualism among urbanites supports new socialities and gendered identities” (182).
the ambiguous and surprising outcomes of the processes leading to the new middle-class lifestyles, which oscillate somewhere in between ideologies of individualism and media representations of family ideologies, which depict the Indian middle-class as consumption- and family oriented, as well as thoroughly nationalist.
One of the shortcuts of the study, I believe, is that it is thoroughly restricted to the domestic sphere and the middle-class household and does not take into account how the production and reproduction of the middle-class through the work of women is staged in the public sphere; how it is played out in the daily interactions outside the home and how these interactions actually shape and bring into being the lived social hierarchies. The discussion of relationships with men and the men’s views is certainly a missing link in the broader connections, too, though maybe intentionally omitted; such a discussion and focus would give the analysis more depth.
This book is without any doubt a great contribution to current anthropological discussions on how globalization and consumer oriented economies change and influence the kinship and marriage systems, as well as on how the class hierarchies are produced and reproduced in the urban setting. It is a must read for any anthropologist or a student of anthropology concerned with the modernity in developing countries, globalization and kinship. But the clarity of the language, interesting issues raised and richness of the ethnographic detail will surely draw the attention of a much broader specter of readers.
I haven’t found much material about or by Henrike Donner online. But on this page you’ll find links to papers she has put online: Committed mothers and well-adjusted children: privatisation, early-years education and motherhood in Calcutta and The significance of Naxalbari: accounts of personal involvement and politics in West Bengal
How does everyday life change when electricity becomes available to people in a village in Zanzibar, East Africa, for the first time? Anthropologist Tanja Winther answers this question in her new book The Impact of Electricity. Development, Desires and Dilemmas.
The book is based on her doctoral dissertation and was also published in Swahili. “I think it would be a good thing if phd-budgets in general included the important step of making results accessible to the people under study", she says in an email-interview with me.
“Electricity is a social phenomenon, and I hope that many anthropologists will join this fascinating field", she adds.
Here is the interview:
So what has changed after the introduction of electricity?
What was most striking to me was the tremendous effect electricity has had on people’s time management. With electric light the day in theory has 24 hours instead of 12. People must make new choices as to what to do when. In consequence, time is speeding up and practices change: Women cook only two meals each day and not three as they used to (they now serve leftovers for the third meal). This is also linked to their wish to watch television in the evening and their opportunity to earn money during daytime.
Relations change in the process; the man has ‘entered the home’ in a new way. In the evenings, men and women now sit together in the same room, together with neighbours and the extended family. The electric light provide transparency and purity and the television programme is in focus. The paradox, although a phenomenon also observed in many other places, is that the spouses new opportunity to spend more time together actually provides less time for marital (?) intimacy. Sexual patterns change due to electricity. Because of this and also electricity’s high cost and rapid normalisation, there are signs that the birth rate is on the decrease. This was exemplified when men complained to me that due to the need for electricity, it is becoming too expensive to have more than one wife, or even get married at all.
People’s relationship to spirits also change; electric light is said to make space safer. Elderly, Swahili-speaking people would therefore refer to the new technology as ’security light’.
Health wise, electrified water pumps and improvements in the health services (ex light at night time at the local clinic when a woman is in labour) has had a direct positive effect in development terms.
The arrival of water taps in the village implies that girls do not have to spend long hours fetching water from wells. Instead they are sent to school to the same extent as boys. Children, also girls, attend night classes before important exams and sleep in the school building. This surprised me, because parents in this Muslim context pay considerable attention to controlling girls’ whereabouts. I guess they have faith in the teachers looking properly after their children. But this also speaks of the tremendous importance people put on education in rural Zanzibar these days.
What are your thoughts about these changes?
When I started this study I was determined not to expect that electricity would bring ‘development’ to the countryside in Zanzibar. Overall, however, I am convinced that people’s new access to electricity has been a change to the better. Electricity is so fundamental when it comes to people’s access to information, to public services and to making the hard life in this region less physically demanding.
The notion of development in Swahili (maendeleo) is all about getting new ideas and new things that make you move forward. Following a grounded, entitlement-based approach to development one may even conclude that it should be a human right to have access to electricity. What they use electricity for must of course be left to the people in question to decide.
There are also problems, however, one challenge in Zanzibar being linked to the unequal structures that were also at work before electricity was introduced. In particular, I would highlight women’s lack of rights to inheritance and the fact that the divorce rate is high and easily obtained by men. Most women in rural Zanzibar do not own houses. They do not become electricity customers nor owners of appliances. Yet, they contribute substantially to financing the family’s high cost of electricity. This constitutes a problem the day their husbands want a divorce, when they are left with extremely little material wealth. Electricity may in this way have made women even more dependent on men than before.
In everyday life, there is also a concern among some people that electricity’s high costs may negatively affect the family’s food security. Perhaps the reduction in cooked meals implies that people eat less than before? (this has not been investigated from a detailed, nutritional point of view). At the same time, the alternative, to buy expensive kerosene for lighting and batteries for the radio, is also a financially risky business. In 1991, it would take a family 9 years to pay back their investment in electricity for light and radio as compared to the use of kerosene and batteries. (Thus after 9 years it would become cheaper to use electricity than the alternative fuels). In 2005, due to a rise in the kerosene price, the pay back time had been reduced to 4 years.
Information Project: People from Uroa (working for the Information Project) explaining the use and dangers of electricity during a public meeting in Uzi Village, 2005.
It seems that people sleep less than before. Those without electricity at home sometimes complain that their neighbours are tired after having watched television until midnight and therefore quarrel more than before. Many parents are concerned that children, especially boys who are freer to stay out late at night, are too tired to learn properly at school.
But in the larger picture, such effects are considered as details. The coming of tourists, however, is seen as a greater challenge. The foreigners are often considered to have an improper conduct that could affect new generations in unfortunate ways (alcohol, drugs, clothing etc). If tourism provided people with jobs, this would have balanced the picture, but so far, rural Zanzibaris mostly experience the negative side of this growing business. Still, people are strikingly warm and welcoming towards foreigners. Knowing the social and moral cost of the tourists’ presence in the neighbourhood, this attitude surprised me again and again.
What are the implications of your findings?
I hope to have demonstrated that asking and realising the question of “how” is just as important as “what” (e.g., electricity). My main case, electrification in Uroa village, was atypical in the sense that they were not included in project plans but ended up with the highest number of electricity customers and the only village in Zanzibar with street lights.
I try to show that the success of Uroa was not random, but a direct result of their own initiative and contribution in the process, including the use of magic remedies. People in the village are very proud of what they achieved. They demonstrated in practice what participation is about. Such involvement is possible despite the “heavy” and apparently predetermined nature of infrastructure projects.
On another level, the study revealed that ordinary customers have not been properly informed about how the accounting system works. As a result, the think they are being cheated by the utility and their own morality regarding illegal use becomes affected.
In response to these findings, Norad (The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) agreed to finance an information project in Zanzibar where we put emphasis on electricity’s possibilities but also difficulties. Two teams (both genders, people from town and people from villages experienced with electricity) travelled around the islands for two months and held fabulous speeches:
- Do you think the ocean is dangerous? (Yes)
- We still go out fishing, don’t we? (Yes)
- It is the same with electricity. You just have to know how to deal with the danger…
I have received feedback from management in the World Bank’s evaluation group that the study is interesting also from their point of view. If the experiences from Uroa can be useful to people working and living elsewhere, nothing would be better.
In anthropology, I think there is a need for more studies on electricity and energy. Economists and engineers have had a claim to this field for a long time and there is renewed focus on energy these days.
This was exciting to study, I suppose? You’ve been there during the first years with electricity?
Yes, I arrived in Uroa village in 1991, one year after village electrification. When I came back for the main fieldwork in 2000, they had 10 years of experience with the new technology; more appliances, more households connected. I had expected to find many women cooking food with electricity (what people in 1991 said they expected would be the case). But very few did.
I thus learned the old lesson that people do not necessarily do what they say they want to do. There are many reasons why, but it is interesting to try to understand such discrepancies. I have also returned to Zanzibar in later years as a consultant. People’s use of electricity, as any practices, change in a fascinatingly rapid manner.
What was it like turning the doctoral dissertation into a book? A long process?
It took about one year to get the process started and then 1 1/2 years in production, so yes, it was a long process. Berghahn’s external reader had some very useful comments on an overall level that I have tried to respond to. Otherwise, I felt quite on my own in the process - the luxury of having a splendid supervisor (Aud Talle in my case), was gone. But when writing the thesis I had kept in mind Unni Wikan’s advice to think about the thesis as a book. To a great extent, I could keep to the same structure.
Why did you translate the book into Swahili?
The idea was initiated by one of my friends in Uroa during fieldwork. He does not speak or read English. He told me enthusiastically that he was thrilled about the thought of knowing that other people in East Africa would read the story from Uroa - and learn about electrification. Thus he was concerned about sharing the material with other groups.
I was just as concerned about making this man (and his co-villagers) have access to their own story. The Norwegian Embassy later kindly agreed to finance the translation of a shorter version of the material and have a book produced in 500 copies. This would perhaps not have been the case had I chosen another, less ‘relevant’ topic in their eyes.
But I think it would be a good thing if phd-budgets in general included the important step of making results accessible to the people under study. The book was recently distributed to 35 households in Uroa and schools across Zanzibar.
By the way, I remember Pat Caplan, the main opponent during the defence of the thesis, asking me what reactions I would expect from people in Uroa if they had access to the written material. I said that they would be likely to be proud and agree with most parts, but also surprised and perhaps even disturbed regarding other parts. In particular, the critical analysis of women’s position and the social exclusion of people in opposition to the government, could produce some reactions. I did not leave these aspects out in the published book, which is entitled Umeme: Faida na Athari Zake. Uzoefu Kutoka Kijiji cha Uroa. (Electricity: Its benefits and challenges. Experiences from Uroa Village). So far, I have not heard any reactions from the village, but of course, I am quite exited.
What are doing right now?
I am with the Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo, who have hosted me since I first came in 1999 as an engineer wanting to learn and do anthropology. As member and secretary for a reference group of a trust fund in the World Bank (TFESSD), I discover that the Bank has come quite far in analytical work that integrate work on social development, gender and infrastructure.
The link between gender equality and energy continue to be one of my main interests, and I also currently work on a little piece called Why do poor people steal electricity?
Electricity is a social phenomenon, and I hope that many anthropologists will join this fascinating field. I think we are both needed and appreciated.
Thanks for the interview!
I found three texts online by Tanja Winther:
Tanja Winther: Information Project. Zanzibar Rural Electrification Project, Phase IV. Project Report (pdf)
For readers in Norway: Her book will be presented in Klubben, University Library, Blindern, University of Oslo, Tuesday 9.12. from 16-17 o’clock.
“Why are you, with your impeccable credentials, studying nude dancing?” “I am an anthropologist. Anthropologists study human behavior”, answered Judith Lynne Hanna when she did her field work on striptease clubs. Hoochy Coochy Dancing and Fantasy Love is the topic of the new issue of American Ethnography Quasimonthly.
Exotic Dance Adult Entertainment. Ethnography Challenges False Mythology by Judith Lynne Hanna is one of the texts in the November issue. Furthermore, there is a chapter of the book “G-Strings and Sympathy” by anthropologist Katherine Frank on strip clubs and a photoessay by Juliana Beasley who worked eight years as a professional nude dancer.
Sociologist Danielle Egan also worked as a striptease dancer and wrote about it and we can read an excerpt from her book “Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love”.
There are also two historical contributions: Anthropologist Patsy Holden writes about the history of the Waltz and Swing, and we can read the first chapter of Thomas Faulkner’s book From the Ball-Room to Hell (1892)
There is open access to all articles.