Physical Aesthetics and Women's Human Rights in Botswana and Sudan
Gruenbaum, Ellen, Ahfad Journal
This article focsues on the question of womens's rights especially in matters regarding health and the body. Based on ethnographic research that Gruenbaum has conducted in Botswana in which she focused on beauty and aesthetics. The article argues that the actualization of women's human rights is dependant on specfic cultural processes that shape local understanding of rights.
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Since I first began research in Sudan in 1974, I have worked to understand the question of what motivates people to dramatically alter their bodies and those of their children, particularly when it causes harm. Female circumcision, particularly the infibulation that transforms a child's vulva into a smooth area of scar tissue, is aesthetically satisfying to its practitioners. While striving for beauty is not the cause of the action, the smooth, enclosed, socially constructed propriety that symbolically defines femininity in northern Sudanese culture (see Boddy 1982), the aesthetic aspect contributes to its preservation even in the current era of change efforts. Rejecting the "ugly" and "masculine" parts in favor of the "beautiful" smoothness (considered "natural for us," as one of my interviewees put it), many Sudanese women, even those unhappy about the health risks, continued to decide in favor of circumcising their daughters.
In my book on The Female Circumcision controversy, I offer an anthropological perspective that we should strive understand die varieties of practices and the varieties meanings with the lens of cultural relativism, contextualization, and respect for the rights of groups and individuals to define meaning in their lives. But I argue that we need not get stuck there. It is possible and desirable to work to reduce the harm of a cultural practice, but it can only be accomplished by working with its practitioners. Those who are deciding that their daughters be cut are the only ones with the power to make the change of any practice like this, that is done in the privacy of homes.
Considering the movement against female circumcision that has heated up in the past three decades, it is clear that many practitioners have rejected external pressure as inappropriate interference and have defended female circumcision as a culturally important symbol of morality and the female gender role that they should, have the right to practice. Inroads could only be effectively made as insider reformers began to take the lead. But for this to happen in die first place and spread to become an accepted movement, there needed to be fundamental challenges to conceptions of morality and propriety, tradition and ethnic identity, and beauty and desirability.
I was still pondering this conundrum--the tangle of beauty and harm, the idea of a right to bodily integrity and the right to cultural self-determination--when I arrived in Botswana in 1999. It was just weeks after a woman from Botswana, Mpule Kwelagobe, won the Miss Universe competition. For a small country like Botswana, relatively low profile in the global arena, this was like taking the World Cup of beauty competitions. There was the feeling in the air, that at last die world Will have to sit up and take notice of our small country.
The main streets were lined with posters congratulating Mpule, and a grand home-coming celebration was planned. The newspapers were filled with ads from every imaginable organization and company, offering their congratulations' and thereby sharing a little in her glory. Even an officer of a leading feminist organization sent a letter to the editor of one of the major newspapers, offering Mpule congratulations, along with a sisterly message to remember not to forget about her education ! A Motswana colleague recounted a chance encounter in Canada where a stranger, upon learning what country she was from, offered her congratulations on the Miss Universe win.
But in the subsequent weeks and months, there unfolded a shift from national pride in a young woman's success to a national obsession with beauty and beauty contests. …