In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa by Laura S. Grillo
  • Amanda Kaplan

West Africa, Côte D'Ivoire, colonialism, postcolonialism, feminism, Female Genital Power, female agency, female authority

laura s. grillo. An Intimate Rebuke: Female GenitalPower in Ritual and Politics in West Africa. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2018. Pp. 296; 10 illustrations.

Laura Grillo's An Intimate Rebuke is an ambitious survey of West African rituals that appeal to what the author terms Female Genital Power (FGP): the moral authority and spiritual weapon embodied in and by the female sex. Through roughly thirty years of ethnographic research in Cote d'Ivoire and supplemental historical research throughout West Africa, Grillo sets out to trace centuries of what she calls spiritual warfare in which Mothers—postmenopausal women, not mothers per se—draw on FGP to "combat malevolent forces that threaten their community" (2). In protest of colonial action, state politics, sexual violence, or military force, Mothers strip themselves naked and slap their "living altar"—breasts, buttocks, and genitals—to evoke and enact their moral authority (2).

Grillo's book documents this practice and the extent to which it constitutes "activism against postcolonialism" by way of three larger themes: unhomeliness, worldliness, and timeliness (11). Part 1 elaborates how appeals to FGP disrupt the unhoming effects of colonial displacement, politics, and violence by serving "as a touchstone for the values that establish home" (14). [End Page 149] Part 2, in turn, takes up FGP's capacity to chastise the postcolonial state and override its exploitation of ethnic distinctions by cohering diverse peoples around "matrifocal morality"—"the founding knowledge and binding power on which West African civilizations were established" (16). The third and final part follows suit, emphasizing the timeliness, not timelessness of FGP's ritual embodiment: each "collective mobilization offers a new emergent critique of the state accountability" (18, emphasis in original). In so doing, Grillo offers her readers thoughtful meditations on female agency, the relationship between accountability and power, the salience of embodiment, the value of spiritual action, and the politics of tradition, among others.

Over the course of these sections, An Intimate Rebuke strives to cover a sizable temporal and geographical landscape. This aspiration is impressing and Grillo's research impressive. The book offers a plethora of intimately analyzed examples from a variety of different temporal, national, and religious contexts, which spill out—sometimes convolutedly—into discussions of internet culture, witchcraft, youth education, civil wars, and global politics, all in order to "reveal [FGP] to be the invisible … ingredient that lends to Africa a palpable yet ill-defined coherence and to show FGP to be the essential construct informing the African social landscape, responsible for forging much of the sub-Saharan region as a great global community" (9). Here, as elsewhere throughout the text, one might wonder why Africa needs coherence, let alone why "Africa" is the choice descriptor. Given academia's tendency to homogenize, simplify, and overgeneralize continental trends, ambiguous (over)statements like these—of which the book has many—seem unnecessary, even negligent.

Throughout its pages, the book also strives to reckon with sticky concepts like gender, (post)colonialism, tradition, cultural exchange, and the local and global. Given anthropology and other disciplines' long history of imposing Eurocentric gender roles onto non-European contexts, for instance, Grillo is careful in her discussions of female agency and rule. Rather than attribute the Mothers' moral authority to their reproductive capacity, past experiences of motherhood, or some "feminine" performance, Grillo locates their power in their postmenopausal womb and vulva. By virtue of being menopausal, female elders, Grillo argues, exist as the "living embodiments] of the ancestors," "guardians of the moral order," "conduits of a spiritual power," and otherwise gendered (2). Regrettably, Grillo describes their gender as "ambiguous" and "double," a characterization that, to my mind, still presumes and imposes a gender binary, if not also a specific idea of womanhood, neither of which is really historicized (2). Even still, the Mothers' gender, whether ambiguous, double, third, or something else altogether, fractures, refuses, and [End Page 150] exceeds what Maria Lugones calls the coloniality of gender1, which would otherwise condemn these women...