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  • Female Circumcision: The Interplay of Religion, Culture and Gender in Kenya
  • Claire Robertson (bio)
Female Circumcision: The Interplay of Religion, Culture and Gender in Kenya by Mary Nyangweso Wangila. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007, 216 pp., $25.00 paper.

Mary Nyangweso Wangila has made a serious effort to explore the intersections of religion and culture regarding female genital cutting in Female Circumcision: The Interplay of Religion, Culture and Gender in Kenya. While flawed in some ways, this study does a worthy job of bringing into dialogue feminist theologians and scholars of various nationalities, ordinary Kenyan women, Wangila's own experiences, human rights discourses, folklore, anthropology, history and other materials. It is thus widely interdisciplinary, a necessary move when trying to address some deeply rooted and varying customs classified as female genital cutting. Wangila's study is composed of six chapters that cover the controversies surrounding the topic, the nature and history of the various Kenyan religious positions and actions regarding genital cutting of girls, Kenyan concepts regarding sexuality, and the transformational possibilities offered by religious approaches in particular.

Wangila generally does a good job of describing the diverse positions on this controversial topic, with a strong and useful plea that outsiders try to understand the practices involved by considering the social context in particular. The breadth of her approach is noteworthy, with substantial attention to indigenous religions, Islam and Christianity in a country that has a large representation of all groups. As a trained sociologist and theologian she brings to her analysis unique strengths and laudable ambitions.

While her efforts to explicate the different positions on the topic are praiseworthy, it becomes clear that her own position on female genital cutting is unequivocally opposed. Her relatively evenhanded assessment of the positions of opponents and proponents of female genital cutting (FGC) disappears in the end when she opts for strategies for eradication that are virtually indistinguishable from the disastrous approaches adopted by early missionaries. For instance, she likes the nonnegotiable aspect of working through Christian churches and religious means in general to eradicate FGC (136–138). And yet, earlier in the book she showed a strong understanding of the reasons why such means were not effective. It is possible they might be more effective if employed by locals rather than British colonials, but religious intolerance (Christian in this case) is likely to backfire, especially since Kenyans have available to them independent Christian sects, Islam and indigenous religions, some of which promote FGC as a cultural requirement.

There are also other inconsistencies. Terminology is key. Wangila has chosen to use “female circumcision” as a catchall term for any form of [End Page 234] FGC, an unfortunate choice for several reasons. She notes, indeed, that one objection to the term is that it underplays the consequences of clitoridectomy by making it analogous to male circumcision, which does not do substantial damage to male reproductive capacity, but she wants to avoid the implications of doing intentional harm associated with the use of the term female genital mutilation (FGM) as a term. She duly notes that other terms such as genital surgeries or FGC are in current use but still opts for the misleading use of female circumcision, especially in a situation where infibulation is sometimes practiced (as among the increasing numbers of Somali refugee immigrants in Kenya). Thus, the use of the term female circumcision not only underestimates the harm that is done by clitoridectomy, but also is misleading because those writing on the subject often use it to refer only to clitoridectomy, not to infibulation, which is much more drastically damaging, and other forms of female genital cutting, a few of which are quite minor. By using the term she also implies incorrectly that she falls into the relativist camp on this issue, which would defend the practices involved on the basis of cultural sanctity.

Wangila also uses incorrect anthropological terms: polygamy (the practice of anyone having multiple spouses) for polygyny (the practice of men having multiple spouses) and dowry (the practice of a bride's family giving the groom or his family goods and/or money to confirm a marriage) for bridewealth (the practice of the groom or his family...


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pp. 234-235
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