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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 832-836

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Book Review

The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective

The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective, by Ellen Gruenbaum (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001).

The followers of mutilation are good people who love their children; any campaign that insinuates otherwise is doomed to provoke defensive reaction.

--Gerry Mackie, (1996:1015)

The quotation, which heads the seventh chapter of Gruenbaum's book, summarizes the normative thrust of her analysis. It is precisely the inability of Westerners to reconcile our definition of "people who love their children" with the image of adults holding down small girls and cutting their genitals, which paralyzes Western-led reform efforts. Gruenbaum highlights and critiques this incongruity in her study of "real-life complexities" regarding what she carefully terms "female circumcision." Her aim is to provide a depiction of the socioeconomic institutions perpetuating female circumcision, which she claims are all too often lost or obscured in the self-righteous rhetoric of the anti-FGM movement. She accomplishes this through a combination of historiography and in-depth case study; and by negotiating a middle-ground between her Western feminism and her anthropologist's cultural sensitivity. This produces a superb example of descriptive scholarship that suggests pathways for change without condemning or collapsing into moral rigidity.

Gruenbaum begins by situating herself as a feminist but with a self-consciously non-ethnocentric lens. Her topic is as much the black-and-whiteness of anti-FGM rhetoric as it is the cutting itself; and her aim is to correct for this as much as to fill gaps in substantive knowledge. "An elitist and ethnocentric attitude does not offer much hope for productive dialogue and mutual understanding." 1 She returns to the problem of ethnocentrism throughout, including through reference to issues such as male circumcision and Western forms of clitoridectomy. In so doing, she catapults the frame of reference beyond the oppressed-women/oppressor-men dichotonomy to hint at the gender/age nexus, the tension between women's and children's rights, and she explores the relationship of "patriarchy" to sociocultural constraints in particular contexts.

Her main criticism of scholarship and rhetoric is inadequate contextualization. In her work she shies away from broad [End Page 832] generalizations, presenting instead varieties of logic, explanations and diverse social functions of cutting without claiming to know under what conditions particular meanings are assigned to the ritual: culture is not static. Her key point is that those practicing female circumcision are not unreflectively following tradition but "use female circumcision to achieve more complex ends." 2

These ends include gender identity: female and male circumcision in these societies serves to construct the bodies of girls and boys, just as divergent hairstyles, clothing, behavioral norms, toys, and yes, genital surgery to correct for "abnormality" in the West reifies gender constructions by channeling children's biological sex into polar directions. Gruenbaum finds not surprisingly that girls who are uncut in these contexts often find it quite desirable to be made to look like their peers: whatever variant of circumcision in the local context is highly wound up with local ideals of beauty and desirability. Thus circumcision also maps onto cultural attitudes regarding aesthetics. Gruenbaum paints a picture of a practice that is no less barbaric (regardless of the harm it does) than (also harmful) breast surgery in the West. "For those who practice infibulation, the resulting vulva is something they are used to and it therefore seems beautiful, even if people outside the experience find it repulsive." 3 The practice can also be linked to debates over interpretations of Islam, and is used in varying ways as a ritual of transition between life stages. Where ethnic diversity exists variation in circumcision practices can reproduce ethnic identity. Gruenbaum tells stories of girls from different ethnic groups teasing one another because one group infibulates while the other practices a milder form of "sunna circumcision." In the context of ethnicity, the perpetuation of circumcision can also be a powerful symbol of opposition to colonialism, which underscores her point that "imperialist" norm entrepreneurship can...


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