This weekend, the American Anthropological Association will hold an annual meeting that ought to make quite a bit of noise for such a seemingly staid body. Interestingly, international groups which oppose “this procedure” will be debating anthropologists who support it. Among the dissenters? African anthropologists who have personally undergone, and defend, female circumsicion. Organizers note in the New York Times:
The panel includes for the first time, the critical “third wave” or multicultural feminist perspectives of circumcised African women scholars Wairimu Njambi, a Kenyan, and Fuambai Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonean. Both women hail from cultures where female and male initiation rituals are the norm and have written about their largely positive and contextualized experiences, creating an emergent discursive space for a hitherto “muted group” in global debates about FGC [female genital cutting].
Well, this particular tactic is already working: much as I want to, I haven’t allowed myself to type the phrase “female genital mutilation”. Way to stifle debate and go all PC on us. Now it’s not just blacks shutting whites up, it’s Africans shutting every Westerner up.
This was one of the few issues that American blacks bothered to notice about Africa and now we find ourselves roped off in the pit of disapproval with The Man, our ‘colonialist’ critiques guilty until proven innocent. Having had to deal with it throughout my career as a non-conforming black public intellectual, I sincerely hate to speculate on the psychological forces at work in ‘circumcised’ women singing its praises. Still, I have to wonder if these womens’ (there goes PC again; I really want to say ‘victim/survivors’) sanity might not depend on making this particular lemonade. If you’ve been circumcised, and you live in the West, you have two choices: celebration or mourning. Even more dangerous: anger. Who knows which any of us would pick.
Just like veiled women who embrace their robes and enforced seclusion as expressions of feminism or cultural pride, however, these women have a long way to go in creating a counter narrative that makes the West look on the bright side of female circumsicion. We might shut up and just leave Africa to its own devices (jagged soup can lids and bacteria-ridden thorns). But I doubt that even these brainy, politicized women living in the collision of two such different worlds can accomplish more than that. Which isn’t to say that these well-educated culture warrior-women aren’t indeed creating an “emergent discursive space” it won’t be easy to speak truth back to the power of. This is what a western education can do in service of the unspeakable:
Dr. Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, was raised in America and then went back to Sierra Leone as an adult to undergo the procedure along with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group. She has argued that the critics of the procedure exaggerate the medical dangers, misunderstand the effect on sexual pleasure, and mistakenly view the removal of parts of the clitoris as a practice that oppresses women. She has lamented that her Westernized “feminist sisters insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage.” In another essay, she writes:
It is difficult for me—considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own—to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to—they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers.
The “authority of their mothers and grandmothers” to mutilate their daughters in unanesthetized and unsanitary rituals meant to please men and reinforce male control over female sexuality? It appears to be Dr. Ahmadu who is doing a bit of de-contextualizing here, making the ritual stand apart from the reason, and the gendered hierarchy, in which it occurs. Ok, I’ll go there—putting women in charge of circumcising other women is little different from slave masters putting loyal slaves in charge of whipping the rebels. It’s no different from any other gut-wrenchingly hideous job categorized, and despised, as “women’s work”. That the women made something exultant from the entrails of oppression is no different than what the slaves did with chit’lins.
In the same way that this issue has reinforced how important it is to control the language of any particular debate (e.g. fgc vs. fgm), it’s also helped reinforce the importance of not being guilted into silence in dealing with the Third World. If these women can prove to us that female circumsicion, whatever it used to be, isn’t now barbaric and foundational to female oppression, fine. But we must not allow the debate to center on the festivities surrounding the circumsicion itself, however rockin’ the party that day. The practice must indeed be culturally contextualized—do women hold office, are they educated like males, is there a dowry system, will the panelists daughters be circumcised?—however much further trauma that might cause those who survived and now support it.
Claiming that women in circumsicion cultures uphold the traditions because they want to just rhymes too closely with the good ol’ boys who claimed that their ‘nigras’ were happy as clams until the ‘outside agitators’ and ‘civil rightsers’ got ’em all confused. Which, if memory serves, is also what the slave masters, and many slaves, said. Free your minds, African women, and your clitorises willl follow.