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The Female Circumcision Controversy

The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective

Ellen Gruenbaum
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Female Circumcision Controversy
    Book Description:

    To the Western eye, there is something jarringly incongruous, even shocking, about the image of a six-year-old girl being held down by loving relatives so that her genitals can be cut. Yet two million girls experience this each year. Most Westerners, upon learning of the practice of female circumcision, have responded with outrage; those committed to improving the status of women have gone beyond outrage to action by creating various programs for "eradicating" the practice. But few understand the real life complexities families face in deciding whether to follow the traditional practices or to take the risk of change.

    InThe Female Circumcision Controversy, Ellen Gruenbaum points out that Western outrage and Western efforts to stop genital mutilation often provoke a strong backlash from people in the countries where the practice is common. She looks at the validity of Western arguments against the practice. In doing so, she explores both outsider and insider perspectives on female circumcision, concentrating particularly on the complex attitudes of the individuals and groups who practice it and on indigenous efforts to end it. Gruenbaum finds that the criticisms of outsiders are frequently simplistic and fail to appreciate the diversity of cultural contexts, the complex meanings, and the conflicting responses to change.

    Drawing on over five years of fieldwork in Sudan, where the most severe forms of genital surgery are common, Gruenbaum shows that the practices of female circumcision are deeply embedded in Sudanese cultural traditions-in religious, moral, and aesthetic values, and in ideas about class, ethnicity, and gender. Her research illuminates both the resistance to and the acceptance of change. She shows that change is occurring as the result of economic and social developments, the influences of Islamic activists, the work of Sudanese health educators, and the efforts of educated African women. That does not mean that there is no role for outsiders, Gruenbaum asserts, and she offers suggestions for those who wish to help facilitate change.

    By presenting specific cultural contexts and human experiences with a deep knowledge of the tremendous variation of the practice and meaning of female circumcision, Gruenbaum provides an insightful analysis of the process of changing this complex, highly debated practice.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9251-0
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: Grappling with the “Female Circumcision” Controversy
    (pp. 1-35)

    To outsiders, the practice euphemistically known as “female circumcision” is shocking. That people surgically alter the genitals of young girls and women, usually in painful and unhygienic procedures that can cause grave harm to their health, seems truly horrible. Why do loving parents allow such things to happen? How can they bring themselves to celebrate these events? How can they justify the practice when occasionally a girl dies from the injuries?

    The horror female circumcision evokes is grist for outrage, electrifying a cry for urgent change. At the new millennium, there are still millions of girls and women in dozens...

  4. Chapter 1 Patriarchy
    (pp. 36-47)

    My first female circumcision party occurred shortly after my husband Jay and I moved into a house in the Khartoum neighborhood known as As-Sajjana, just south of Qurashi Park. We were younger then—it was the mid-1970s—and still in the glow of the excitement of our second year living in this dusty, hot city. Here our milk was delivered by a man wearing a flowing white jalabiya and turban, riding on a donkey. The neighbors’ goats ate the garbage dumped in the central square beyond our walls, somehow turning it into milk for the evening tea. We joined the...

  5. Chapter 2 Ritual and Meaning
    (pp. 48-75)

    The most common question on the subject of female circumcision is “Why do they do it?” In asking the question, we are trying to understand how anyone could submit their child to a painful and harmful practice that seems to offer nothing positive. It is a question about manifest functions, what people believe to be their reasons, and what they hope female circumcision will accomplish for them and their daughters. But analysts often also rely on the effects (or latent functions) as explanation, even if these are not consciously intended.

    The result is a confusing mixture of explanations. For example,...

  6. Chapter 3 Marriage and Morality
    (pp. 76-101)

    Virginity at marriage is vitally important in many of the circumcising cultures, as is marital fidelity.¹ But of course the significance of virginity extends to many noncircumcising patriarchal cultures as well. Even in the United States, where virginity at marriage is less and less the case, it is still considered the ideal by many people and gestured at symbolically in the traditional white wedding dress and veil. Proof of virginity is celebrated in some cultures. One vivid example occurs in Elizabeth Fernea and Marilyn Gaunt’s film about Morocco,Some Women of Marrakech, when the celebrants at a wedding wait outside...

  7. Chapter 4 Ethnicity
    (pp. 102-132)

    Female circumcision practices are deeply entwined with ethnic identity wherever they are found. Understanding this should provide an important insight into the tenacity of the practice and people’s resistance to change efforts, and it can help to explain why the practices may even spread in certain situations.

    InThe River Betweenby Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, an adolescent Gikuyu girl, Muthoni, makes the decision to undergo circumcision in defiance of her preacher father, an ardent Christian convert who has rejected the rite as sinful. Her sister reminds her:

    “Father will not allow it. … The missionaries do not like...

  8. Chapter 5 Sexuality
    (pp. 133-157)

    A frequent concern about female circumcision practices is the effect on female sexuality. When the sensitive tissue of the clitoris is lost, when scarring and tightness result from infibulation, it is reasonable to assume that significant changes in female sexual functioning might result. Indeed, this assumption is supported by Koso-Thomas’s Sierra Leone study that included the experiences of women who were sexually active prior to undergoing circumcision and then experienced a reduced level of sexual satisfaction after undergoing excision (1987). These data are limited, however, because there are so many problems with the assessment of sexual experience. As Koso-Thomas notes,...

  9. Chapter 6 Economic Development
    (pp. 158-175)

    Economic development and the provision of better health and education services to rural areas have the potential to boost efforts to change female circumcision in Africa. Bringing in staff for a health clinic increases the chance for people to learn about the health risks involved. Education and increases in general literacy improve the likelihood that people will be aware of programs and new approaches to change, including challenges to erroneous information they may hold. Economic development and the opportunity for increased commerce, migration, and employment has the potential to expose people to challenges to current practice and alternative views in...

  10. Chapter 7 Change
    (pp. 176-197)

    More than two decades have passed since the watershed 1979 United Nations Conference on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children drew medical, public health, and other experts to Khartoum from dozens of countries. The research presented at the Khartoum conference had a particularly strong influence on the discussions about this harmful traditional practice in Sudan because so many Sudanese were able to attend, presented research, or heard about the discussions that week. The result was an intensified commitment of many Sudanese health workers to end the harmful genital cutting of young girls.

    Prior to that time, female...

  11. Chapter 8 Involvement
    (pp. 198-222)

    We live in a world of astonishing horrors juxtaposed with brilliant achievements. At the dawn of the new millennium, the citizens of planet Earth face some of the most horrible atrocities of which our species is capable, while many live in greater health, comfort, and security than our ancestors could have imagined. Our species has a long and sordid history of horrors of war, torture, economic exploitation, slavery, and callous disregard for the well-being of other people. We have failed to organize the world’s resources to meet the basic human needs for nourishing food, clean water, and secure shelter, while...

  12. Appendix: Organizations That Focus on Female Genital Cutting Issues
    (pp. 223-224)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 225-226)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-236)
  15. Index
    (pp. 237-240)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 241-242)