The Female Circumcision Controversy, an Anthropological Perspective

Article excerpt

WOMEN

The Female Circumcision Controversy, an Anthropological Perspective, by Ellen Gruenbaum. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 242 pages. Appendix to p. 224. Gloss. to 226. Bibl. to 235. Index to 240. $55 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban

The subject of female circumcision-also female genital mutilation (FGM), or female genital cutting-has been problematical for Western feminists and scholars for a number of complicated cultural and political reasons. Western colonial powers mounted a legal campaign against it, and decades later Western feminists mounted a cultural opposition against it. Both were resisted by indigenous people whose traditions sanction the practice. In this broad context of a colonial background, local agents for change-medical doctors, educators and others-were constrained from publicly opposing the practice for fear of being labeled as "too foreign or Western" or as disloyal or unpatriotic. Gruenbaum has chosen the term `female circumcision' for her study both because of its recognition in the West and its lack of offense, unlike the others, in the Sudan, where her case is primarily based.

Moreover, anthropologists were restrained by their own predominantly Western traditions where sexuality has been a taboo subject, and those having first-hand knowledge of FGM may have avoided the subject in their research and writing for fear of making judgments that might violate traditional disciplinary norms of cultural relativism. This reviewer was an example of the latter, and, were it not for the courage of its indigenous opponents and the international human rights campaign that called for eradication of FGM, I would not have understood the limitations of cultural relativity as drawn where serious harm takes place. Gruenbaum understands these complexities and expertly navigates her study of the controversy through sensitive and contested territory. In her presentation of the debates she is simultaneously anthropologist, feminist, Sudanist, human rights activist, and all of the above, making this one of the important recent studies on female circumcision.

Gruenbam is not new to the subject of female circumcision, although this is her major synthetic work. She has treated FGM as a problem of public health, as one of education, as ritual, as an expression of male dominance, as a problematique for political action. Here she brings together her previous writings and analyzes the causes and reasons for the continuation of female circumcision as multivariate-as resulting from patriarchal traditions; from rites of passage having significant cultural meaning and import; as a moral foundation for marriageability; as having strong ethnic but not necessarily religious associations; as a marker of sexuality constructing a folk view of the circumcised as normative; and as part of a totality in which women are enmeshed in a world of economic dependency, polygyny, and relative isolation in rural as well as urban communities. …