Posted on August 28, 2007

Cautious Criticism

Zosia Bielski, National Post (Don Mills, Ontario), August 25, 2007

Academia’s fixation on cultural sensitivity is changing the debate around female genital mutilation, with a growing number of professors and women’s rights activists becoming hesitant to condemn the practice.

Where feminists rallied against the operation from the pages of MS. magazine in the 1970s, today’s critics are infinitely more cautious, with most suggesting that the Western world butt out until Muslim African communities are ready to reconsider what they are doing to their daughters.

The shift in attitudes about the practice—which in the worst of cases involves the carving out of a woman’s clitoris and inner labia and can cause lifelong urinary tract infections, sterility and even death—comes at a time when high-profile victims of the operation such as writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali and model Waris Dirie, both Somalis, have launched very public campaigns against the practice.

The issue is so explosive, it has two names—female genital mutilation, or FGM, to those most vociferously opposed to the practice; and female genital cutting, or FGC, to those in the less-condemning camp.

The latter includes the chair of anthropology at the University of Toronto, who has written a new book on the subject. Although not prepared to defend what she calls FGC, Janice Boddy defends women who undergo the operation and want the practice to continue in future generations.

“There are good reasons within the society for the operation to continue, but these are cultural reasons. They are not scientific ones,” says Prof. Boddy, author of Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan.

Working through British and Sudanese archives, she looks at the history of FGC in that country, particularly European colonial interactions with the practice, from British nurses attempting to re-educate Sudanese midwives in the 1920s, to the country’s outlawing of the practice in 1946 amid Western pressure.

“It isn’t a happy situation by any means. I wouldn’t want it to continue. But I think that up until this point, the West has not been particularly helpful in the way that it’s gone about trying to assist in the eradication,” Prof. Boddy says.

Prevalent in, though not exclusive to, Muslim societies, particularly in Sudan, Somalia, northern Kenya and parts of Ethiopia and Indonesia, female genital mutilation takes on its most severe form in infibulation, or pharaonic circumcision.

This can involve the removal of both the clitoris and inner labia with crude instruments such as razors. The entire vagina is then sewn up with thread, or fastened with thorns.

In this way, a woman’s virginity—considered especially important by Muslim men—can be proven before her father is paid the bride price.

The Sudanese, Prof. Boddy argues, are a fiercely guarded culture, one that sees the practice as a defence of their people against intruders, and, astonishingly, as protection against injury.

“The cultural context in which this practice takes place supports the idea of enclosing the body against harm,” she writes in her book. The social body is closed against intrusion from the outside by marriages between relatives. People marry cousins. . . . The kinship system is quite closed. That image of the defensive society, the defensive social body, is carried over into this idea of defending the physical body.

“The idea of closing the womb, which is the most precious organ of the female body, is very highly supported by other kinds of practices.”

Although not outlined in the Koran, FGM is so ingrained in cultural norms that it will not be easily eradicated, she says.

Rather, the West must support local counsellors (she names the international women’s rights organization Rainbo as one) working on the ground with women to change their notions of marriageability.

The professor also says she would like to see “more science” in the arguments against FGM—she takes issue with how often it causes shock and death. To a degree, she also aligns feminists who are ardently opposed to the operation with British imperialists.

Today, Prof. Boddy says, the battle cry is human rights. Back then, it was colonial notions of civilizing the other. It’s a stance that pits her against many critics, including the World Health Organization, which called for the absolute abolition of the practice in the 1970s.

The human rights group Amnesty International considers FGM a form of violence against women, and the end result of discriminatory attitudes and beliefs. But even their representatives are careful when speaking of the operation.

“The motivation is not one of malice or desire to hurt but really to make sure that the daughter is taken care of,” says Cheryl Hotchkiss, women’s rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada.

“But what needs to be examined from a human rights perspective is why is it that in order for a woman to live a good life does she have to undergo such an extreme experience?

“It’s entirely conceivable that a woman may willingly subject herself to it, but our question is, did she willingly subject herself to it because there were so few options to it? That’s a core issue.”

Prof. Boddy’s book has received criticism for leaving Sudanese men out of her discussion. In focusing on the way women perform, perpetuate and desire the practice (since it ensures marriageability), critics say she fails to address the ostracism and potential violence women may face unless they submit.

But these are Western discourses, Prof. Boddy says, arguing that in Sudan, it is women who have power in the domestic sphere.

“You can abhor the sin, but you can love the sinner,” she concludes. “I don’t want them to receive the blame from the West for doing what they think is in the best interests of their daughters because otherwise they won’t be marriageable.”

Ms. Hotchkiss says the key lies in changing those notions of desirability, likely through a combination of state law, grassroots efforts and intervention by the medical community.

“[These societies] see women’s bodies used as the holders of tradition. That’s still because the society sees women’s bodies as not their own. They see them as a tool.

“What Amnesty’s desperately trying to get across, along with women’s human rights activists the world over, is that women’s bodies are their own and they need the right to say what is and what isn’t going to happen to them.”