Few topics seem to rile students as much as female genital cutting (FGC), even in a classroom characterized by moderate discussion. Two discussion threads usually emerge: one is outright condemnation of the practice, including labeling it "female genital mutilation," and the other is some display of cultural relativity which leads, for the most part, to its reluctant acceptance. These responses replicate the basic arguments used today in a variety of forums in and outside of Africa, and range from public-health initiatives to missionary efforts to local and federal policies aimed at regulating FGC. Students may well participate in one or more of those forums in the future. I am therefore interested in teaching about FGC as an important topic in and of itself, while utilizing the topic to introduce anthropological analyses. This paper seeks these goals by juxtaposing two learning experiences: one in the classroom and another in the field. How can the controversy surrounding FGC be operationalized to teach anthropological analyses? What happens when students have an opportunity to talk with women who have themselves undergone FGC and support the practice? Drawing on Lyons's definition of FGC as a polythetic category and using student responses, I demonstrate ways in which the topic of FGC can be incorporated into courses so that students learn to develop empathy, responsiveness to its complex cultural contexts, and understandings that allow them to formulate meaningful and more informed positions with respect to it.


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pp. 87-108
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