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  • Female Circumcision: The Interplay of Religion, Culture and Gender in Kenya
  • Katherine Luongo
Wangila, Mary Nyangweso. 2007. Female Circumcision: The Interplay of Religion, Culture and Gender in Kenya. New York: Orbis Books. 216 pp. $19.00.

Focusing on female circumcision, Mary Nyangweso Wangila addresses a topic of great significance to scholars and subjects alike. It is a pity that her analysis is deeply flawed in theory, methodology, and content.

Wangila is forthright about her position as a religious-studies scholar and her belief that religion can transform female circumcision. It is strange that she then characterizes religion in a somewhat monolithic fashion, subsuming diverse varieties of practices and beliefs under three broad categories: Christianity, Islam, and indigenous religions. This lumping together of complex categories drives her to make claims that range from simply uninterrogated blanket statements, for instance, "Kenyans are very religious people" (p. 99), to highly essentialist remarks, such as "Unlike modern Western world views that distinguish the sacred from the profane, Kenyans tend to seek religious explanations for everything that happens to them" (p. 35). Further, her discussions of "religion" draw heavily on the somewhat outdated work of John Mbiti—an odd choice, given the nuanced, interdisciplinary work on religion in Africa that has emerged since the late 1990s.

Wangila situates herself as a feminist. The support for the bulk of her arguments derives from a band of broadly positioned feminists, ranging from American legal scholar Martha Nussbaum to Kenyan poet-playwright-professor Micere Githae Mugo. Wangila's facile reliance on feminist people and ideas is problematic on two main accounts. First, as scholars have been reminding us since the publication of Chandra Talpade Mohanty's central text, Under Western Eyes (1988), "feminist" and "feminism" are not taken-for-granted categories, which can be universally applied to everyone and everything interested in women and gender everywhere in the world. Second, such a hegemonic approach to "feminism/feminist" leads Wangila to make surprisingly unsophisticated theoretical moves. For example, she bandies about the term patriarchy for a couple of pages before explaining what patriarchy might entail in the particular contexts that she aims to investigate (pp. 22–24). And she is prone to plunking down tidbits of scholarship about women and gender without contextualizing or critiquing the [End Page 143] studies she cites. For example, citing Sherry Ortner, a noted anthropologist of South Asia, Wangila writes, "Women's sexuality has been a target of control in most societies because it is viewed as a threat to male culture. According to Ortner, the universal devaluation of women is based on the assumed hierarchy of culture over nature" (p. 80). Such moves are particularly odd, as Wangila calls for context-driven analysis throughout her monograph (p. 77).

Regrettably, this work is flawed from an anthropological standpoint also. Wangila maintains that she interviewed a pool of fifty informants (p. 50). We do not hear from the overwhelming majority of these informants until the second half of the book, and then it is with the barest of information about them attached: a name and perhaps a tribal affiliation. For oral testimony to be of any analytic or evidentiary value, the researcher must explain how and why a nonrandom sample of informants was developed in the way in which it was. In a study that cuts across broad boundaries of age, economics, politics, social status, education, religion, geography, and tribe, it is even more essential to know the particular contexts from which the informants are speaking and what analytic value the author sees in having such a broadly constituted pool of informants. Wangila perhaps tries to address this issue with some (largely uninformative) tables attending to the breakdown in affiliation and identity of her informants (p. 128).

Wangila makes a number of remarks that may raise an anthropologist's hackles. For instance, she says, baldly, "Kenya is a patriarchal society" (p. 23). Even more troubling, though, is the way in which her ethnographically oriented discussions reflect her overall inability to manage her sources. She addresses an article produced by a Norwegian Lutheran NGO leading an anticircumcision program among the Pokot, a pastoralist people of Kenya. This article, she writes, identifies Pokot women as...


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pp. 143-146
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