Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives

By Tucker, Elizabeth | Western Folklore, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives


Tucker, Elizabeth, Western Folklore


Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives. Edited by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. vi + 290, introduction, notes, bibliography, contributors, index, acknowledgments. $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper)

In 1973, while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Côte d'Ivoire, I received an invitation from the chief of a nearby village to visit a group of girls who were preparing for their initiation into womanhood. Accepting the chief's kind invitation, I traveled to a small house in the forest where the girls were learning traditional songs and dances while eating as much chicken and rice as they could hold. Several days later, I attended the girls' celebration of their initiation's successful conclusion. Of course, as an outsider and guest, I did not see the girls undergo the celebration's prerequisite: excision. Having kept in touch with scholarship on excision since my departure from West Africa, I am pleased to have the chance to review this exceptionally well-balanced and important book.

The editor, Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, wisely chooses the general term "female circumcision." Each form of female circumcision involves a different level of physical change; clitoridectomy removes the clitoris and excision removes both the clitoris and the labia minora, while infibulation involves removing the labia majora and suturing the genital area. Much of the scholarship on this subject since the early 1980s has been based on feminist and interventionist ideology. Studies such as Asma El Dareer's Woman, Why Do You Weep'? (1982) and Esther K. Hicks 's Infibulation ([1993] 1996) have motivated readers to seek social change. While editor Abusharaf carefully represents the views of both activists for women's rights and believers in cultural accommodation, she closely examines community efforts to transform long-established rituals and their happiness after successful transformation.

One of the book's main purposes is to address "glaring gaps in current conceptualizations of the problem" by providing details about activists' efforts in local and transnational contexts (16). The authors, most of whom have participated actively in NGOs, have had many years of experience in communities where female circumcision has been practiced. Some of them are lawyers; others are physicians or other health professionals; still others are professors of sociology or anthropology. Their expertise and thoroughness in bringing complex situations to life for the reader result in admirably thorough and thoughtprovoking coverage of areas that need to be examined in greater depth.

One issue that scholars have not always considered is comparability between female circumcision and other body modifications. In her essay "Had This Been Your Face, Would You Leave It As Is?," Fadwa El Guindi compares female circumcision to nose jobs, facelifts, and breast enlargement in Western culture. Like female circumcision, El Guindi suggests these procedures mutilate the body and strive to achieve beautification for the sake of sexual pleasure. Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh takes a different approach in his essay "Male and Female Circumcision: The Myth of the Difference," finding infant male circumcision to be as questionable as pubescent female circumcision. Both essays encourage readers to consider, in assessing female circumcision, the impact of their own cultural and religious backgrounds.

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