- Anthropological Perspectives on Female Genital Cutting:Embodying Tradition, Violence,and Social Resilience
Anthropology grew out of a commitment to study and discuss humanity, in variation and sameness, across time and space. Given its disciplinary penchant for holism and historical context, anthropologists have produced millions of pages describing and debating who we humans are, and how and into whom we have changed over time. Female genital cutting (FGC) has been a topic of perennial anthropological interest because of the variablility of its forms; how those forms are represented; and how and why they are, quite often, targeted for eradication by activists in continental Europe, Britain, and the United States—the three major homes of academic anthropology and the constituents of the so-called West. While most commonly practiced in Africa, FGC became increasingly relevant in Western societies because of colonial entanglements, and it remains so as a corollary of migration and incorporation of populations with strikingly different cultural heritages. As such, it indexes a fascinating otherness for members of nonpracticing, Western communities.
This special issue of Africa Today, an outgrowth of a panel at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2005, highlights how the topic of FGC engages anthropologists' peculiar position as sociocultural critics and potential collaborative reformers. A recent news item on BBC World News opened with the following: "Kenyan villagers have been shocked by the death of a girl who bled to death after trying to perform female genital mutilation on herself" (23 June 2006). The first line, and the events that led to the story, speak to the complexities of the FGC debates, and to the immediate tendency for the reader to separate "us" and "them." How can we understand why a 15-year-old would do this? Do we respond in terms of cultural relativism, or politically informed outrage (Walley 1997:406)? To anthropologists, the idea of girls circumcising themselves is not new (see, for example, Thomas 1996); nor is it new to the [End Page v] women, who, when denied the opportunity to follow tradition, sang the song "I will circumcise myself" as they performed punitive hard labor in colonial Meru, Kenya. What have we learned from anthropologists who have produced historical particularist works on the varieties of FGC, from those who have passionately condemned it as female genital mutilation, to those who have lived through culturally transcendent rich moments and been protective of newly circumcised women? How can observers make sense of these reactions to procedures that have become a major target of global activism, one mostly oriented toward eradication? And what can and should we propose about the future of such practices, especially where they form core parts of adult identities in the societies where they continue?
The researchers featured in this issue approach these questions through insights derived from fieldwork that spans two and a half decades, archival research that covers centuries, and geographic foci that traverse the African continent and beyond. The papers explore outsider and insider perspectives on FGC, concentrating on the attitudes of the individuals and groups that practice various forms of it, as well as on the effects and efficacy of indigenous and nonindigenous efforts to alter or stop it. By drawing on the past, present, and future of anthropological treatments of FGC, the authors implicitly and explicitly discuss the roles that anthropologists can play as public intellectuals, policymakers, and activists.
Throughout this issue, we use the term female genital cutting as a general category, which includes procedures described below as types 1, 2, or 3, or the remainder category of type 4. The term female genital mutilation (FGM) appears in this issue, but only when we quote a source or use the phrase or acronym in keeping with those other sources. These terms, female genital cutting and female genital mutilation, are usually intended to elicit specific responses. Some researchers prefer still other terms (e.g., female circumcision, female genital operations, female genital torture) to be more specific about a particular procedure, or to draw out particular reactions. The complexities of these linguistic strategies have been discussed elsewhere (Gruenbaum 2001; Walley 1997), and are more thoroughly explored...