An anthropologist justifies female genital mutilation

May 23, 2016 • 10:06 am

The concept of “choice” in a community that has long traditions about the subject of that choice, particularly ones connected with religion, is problematic. How many women “choose” the hijab or burqa in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, where such clothing is not only connected with religion, but mandated by the government? The fact that places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have morality police to enforce covering, as well as the absence of covering before those countries became theocracies, suggest that many women would not cover themselves without the legal requirements and threat of beating. And even where covering is optional, as in Egypt, many women must cover themselves for fear of looking “non-Muslim,” of disobeying their husbands, or of defying community standards and being ostracized.

So when I read a new piece in The Atlantic, “Why some women choose to get circumcised?” I was wary. How do we know that without religious and social pressure, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a “choice” in the sense of something that would be elected without that pressure?  While FGM has been around for a long time, and is practiced by non-Muslims, it’s been institutionalized (as has veiling) by many branches of Islam. If you think that FGM has nothing to do religion, read Heather Hastie’s column on the Islamic connection.

Khazan is an associate editor of The Atlantic, covering health and gender issues, and she interviews Sheila Shell-Duncan, a professor of anthropology at The University of Washington. The curious thing about the interview is that while Shell-Duncan is part of an initiative to reduce FGM by 30% in ten countries over the next five years, she proceeds to more or less excuse the practice in her interview. And I do mean “excuse”, not just “understand”.

First, an introduction by interviewer Khazan:

For starters, Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington who has been studying the practice in many countries for years, suggests using the term “cutting” rather than “mutilation,” which sounds derogatory and can complicate conversations with those who practice FGC.

She also challenges some common misconceptions around FGC, like the belief that it is forced on women by men. [Not so, though; see below.] In fact, elderly women often do the most to perpetuate the custom. I thought African girls were held down and butchered against their will, but some of them voluntarily and joyfully partake in the ritual. I thought communities would surely abandon the practice once they learned of its negative health consequences. And yet, in Shell-Duncan’s experience, most people who practice FGC recognize its costs—they just think the benefits outweigh them.

Actually, I don’t care who perpetuates the custom, whether it be women or men; I care that society forces the practice on young girls, and that religion not only allows it but in some cases urges it. And changing the word to “cutting” rather than “mutilation” is just semantics. Yes, those trying to eliminate it should just call it “cutting the genitals” to those they’re trying to persuade, but we should realize that it’s still mutilation. It’s as if we tried to sanitize the throwing of gays off rooftops by extremist Muslims as “involuntary defenestration of homosexuals” rather than “homophobic murder.”

And of course if doing something inculcates and integrates you into the culture, you may do it “joyfully”—after all, you’re joining the pack—but do you do it  “voluntarily”? In a culture where it’s the norm, and rejecting it leads to ostracism, what does “voluntarily” even mean?

If that barbaric cultural practice didn’t exist, as it doesn’t in the West (which outlaws FGM), women wouldn’t elect it. Now you’ll say, “Well, of course: if there’s no FGM culture, why would any girl want to do it?” But that’s precisely the point. FGM is a reprehensible practice that is not only medically dangerous, resulting in both short- and long-term health problems, but also, by excising the inner labia and clitoris, severely reduces the possibility of sexual pleasure for women—which is of course its point. (This is the form of FGM that Khazan and Shell-Duncan are discussing.)  A misguided cultural relativism has tended to overlook these issues (and this article shows it), but that kind of relativism isn’t acceptable—not when there are health and sex issues as well as harm to women.

Here’s some of the statements that Shell-Duncan makes in celebrating, or at least excusing, FGM:

The bride came out and joined the dancing. I almost died. I thought she must be on codeine, but she wasn’t. She was joyful. I didn’t understand the joy about this.

But later I remembered that when I gave birth to my first son, I had a very difficult delivery. After my son was born, everyone in the delivery room popped a bottle of champagne. I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck and they were toasting champagne. But it was a good pain, and that’s what this was. This girl had become a woman.

When I went back two years later, the girl came to me and gave the [pain] pills back. She said, “You don’t understand, this is not our way. And if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be a woman now.”

I understood why. And I respected her.

Well, Shell-Duncan’s pain didn’t presage a life without sexual pleasure, either! And as for “respect”, well, that’s a double-edged sword. Admiring someone for withstanding a painful and barbaric practice doesn’t do anything to eliminate the practice. No, you don’t have to shame the girl—that would be counterproductive—but do you “respect” those hyper-Orthodox Jewish women who shave their heads and purify themselves in ritual baths after menstruating? Or those Muslim women who put themselves in cloth sacks, and won’t go out without a male guardian? I’m not sure “respect” is the right word here.

And here’s the rationale:

Khazan: Yeah. So, wow. I guess the biggest question for me is what do they see as the benefit? Are there any benefits?

Shell-Duncan: This is not true everywhere, but there, there it’s not about virginity. It’s not about modesty. And it is in some other cultures. The Rendille are sexually active before they’re married, both men and women. And it’s completely culturally acceptable.

The woman is going to go live with her husband’s family, and it’s part of inclusion among other women whose identity is as a circumcised woman. She’s reliant on her mother-in-law and her husband’s kin. So it’s part of becoming inducted into this female network that’s really important.

Also, for us, we believe that bodies are natural and perfect. Not everybody believes that. Some people in Africa believe that bodies are androgynous and that all male and female bodies contain male and female parts.

So a man’s foreskin is a female part. And for a female, the covering of the clitoris is a male part. The idea of becoming a wholly formed female includes being cut—having any part that is somewhat male-like removed from the body.

Khazan: That actually makes logical sense to me. We have shaving your legs, or wearing makeup. We have weird things that we do that are less painful. But the pain in their case is kind of the “proving yourself” aspect.

Shell-Duncan: Right.

“Sexually active” doesn’t mean, “getting pleasurable sex,” of course. And really, getting inducted into a network via means that are harmful, painful, and dangerous, while understandable, is not necessarily admirable. In some cultures men need to kill an enemy before they’re fully accepted. Is that okay? Further, comparing FGM with shaving one’s legs or wearing makeup is seriously misguided. While those practices may be culturally enforced (I grew up in an era when many women didn’t shave their legs, and I don’t care about that), they aren’t nearly as harmful to the practitioners as is FGM.

Here’s Shell-Duncan’s critique of the feminist argument against FGM:

Khazan: And where is the support for this practice coming from?

Shell-Duncan: The sort of feminist argument about this is that it’s about the control of women but also of their sexuality and sexual pleasure. But when you talk to people on the ground, you also hear people talking about the idea that it’s women’s business. As in, it’s for women to decide this. If we look at the data across Africa, the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men.

So, the patriarchy argument is just not a simple one. Female circumcision is part of demarcating insider and outsider status. Are you part of this group of elder women who have power in their society?

Yes, it’s part of insider versus outsider status, but many barbaric religious practices are. Many see circumcision of Jews as another one of them, as well as putting women in burqas or, in some Mormon sects, marrying young girls and taking multiple wives. And, of course, the religious dictates in favor of FGM come from men, even if women are the “enforcers.” In fact, later in the piece Shell-Duncan admits that men are involved:

Shell-Duncan: If I decide I don’t want to circumcise my daughter, that’s not an individual behavior. I would have to answer to my husband, to my mother-in-law, my mother-in-law would have to answer to her friends throughout the community, my father-in-law would have to answer to people in the community, so there’s societal pressure. So understanding what is a collective decision versus individual is really important. You can go and tell an individual mother what the health risks are and she can believe you, but it doesn’t mean, first of all, that she has the power to make that decision, or even that she has the authority to impart that information to her mother-in-law and other senior people in the society who are the decision-makers. Who wants to be the first one to change? Who wants to be the odd man out?

And there’s this, where Shell-Duncan admits that trying to get women to stop cutting their daughters is a tactic that doesn’t work:

Shell-Duncan: What we’re coming to realize is that programs that target individual mothers are completely ineffective. Mothers are not solely in charge of the decisions for their daughters. We need to be targeting people who are in the extended family, and we know that we need to figure out who are the figures of authority in these families, and who are the influences on them in the community. We need to do male elders, but also female elders.

So why on Earth does Khazan call her piece “Why some women choose to get circumcised?” And why does she have an introduction saying that “elderly women often do the most to perpetuate the custom”?  Shell-Duncan admitted it’s not a “choice” in the conventional sense of the word. There are serious repercussions to not getting cut. Why, then, do both women maintain that it’s older women who are really in charge of FGM? Shell-Duncan seems deeply confused, and her arguments are conflicting.

And here’s her bogus arguments against the medical dangers:

Khazan: What, medically, are the harms? Why are people trying to stop this?

Shell-Duncan: The WHO was able to show a statistically significant association between FGC and certain risks from obstetrical outcomes. Things like infant death, hemorrhage.

There was a study that was done in Gambia—they were looking at the chances of having sexually transmitted infections and pelvic inflammatory disease, and it was positive, but of course, you can’t prove that being circumcised is causal.

Khazan: Do these communities know about the medical consequences?

Shell-Duncan: One of the things that is important to understand about it is that people see the costs and benefits. It is certainly a cost, but the benefits are immediate. For a Rendille woman, are you going to be able to give legitimate birth? Or elsewhere, are you going to be a proper Muslim? Are you going to have your sexual desire attenuated and be a virgin until marriage? These are huge considerations, and so when you tip the balance and think about that, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Let’s not forget the loss of sexual pleasure, which of course these girls won’t know about because they never learn what they’re missing. But do review the World Health Organization’s list of medical harms caused by FGM. When you get a chronic infection or painful scar tissue (and possible obstetric fistulas) from cutting, is Shell-Duncan going to say, “Well, that’s just a correlation; you can’t prove it’s causal.” That is an invidious and willfully ignorant way to excuse FGM. What does it take for her to accept that an infection in the genitals after cutting, which won’t occur in those that don’t have FGM, is caused by FGM?

After all this, Shell-Duncan admits why she’s trying to reduce the incidence of FGM:

Khazan: Do you think it’s a global-health imperative that we work to stop this?

Shell-Duncan: There’s no question this is a global-health issue. In the U.S., adult women are capable of giving consent for surgical procedures. But what would it take to get a woman in an African country to the same position of being able to give consent? Social pressures [in the nations that practice FGC] are so strong that no woman could ever opt out. Everybody would come down on her. That’s the problem. Why can we give consent and they can’t?

There’s more, but you get the ambivalence. We have a conflicted feminist who sees that FGM is harmful, and is trying to stop it, but at the same time is trying to justify the practice, as well as distort its origins and how it’s enforced. Interviewer Khazan, of course, plays right into this, and doesn’t ask Shell-Duncan the hard questions. I applaud Shell-Duncan’s initiative to reduce FGM, but one can see her being drawn into a form of cultural relativism that has the danger of diluting her opprobrium of FGM. At least she’s doing something about it.

72 thoughts on “An anthropologist justifies female genital mutilation

  1. but some of them voluntarily and joyfully partake in the ritual. – oh yes, the joys of mutilation, you must be able to see it reflected in their smiling eyes…

    What an abject piece, by both reporter and Shell-Duncan. Disgusting.

    There is a memoir out recently by an African woman who was mutilated as a youngster. From the review and excerpts, ‘joy’ was about the last word to be associated with the abominable practice.

    1. Here is deeply moving first-person account of what it is like to be a victim of FGM. It includes everything – the lies told to, fear, and confusion of the seven year old girl…the family drama and fighting and a surprise revelation about who actually did what…the fear of dating and sex and possibility of never enjoying it or having an orgasm…the difficult conversations with her mother, doctors, friends, and boyfriends…

      This is worth your time.

  2. Unfettered cultural relativism, which is at the heart of much of Social Anthropology, has a very difficult time avoiding the absurdity of rationalizing any and all human practices. The (reasonable) goal of avoiding ethnocentrism slides easily into the abandonment of humanist principles that nearly all Anthropologists value. One of life’s ironies.

    1. It is closely related to the problem of “keeping such an open mind that your brains fall out.”

      It starts from a good premise. We should be kind, accepting, non-prejudiced and non-judgmental of others. But when given free rein from reason it can result in outcomes nearly as monstrous as anything achieved by starting from nasty premises.

  3. I wonder how many women have chronic pain afterwards. The slightest things going wrong down there can really affect a woman. Someone being mutilated like that could really mess up the nerves and cause chronic, daily pain. The kind of pain that makes it hard to sit down kind of pain. You’d never know how many suffer this way because women aren’t about to tell you all about how their genitals hurt.

    1. I often see dark African women in their twenties or thirties, fully covered and with children of course, walk like they have glass in their shoes. I suspect they’re from those countries where the girl gets infibulated- you know, stitched up directly after being mutilated, only to be cut open again for giving birth.

      Completely voluntarily, of course. Yeah right.

  4. I’m not about to justify this or, indeed, the equally appalling genital mutilations practised on men in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa (with equal social pressure) or among certain Australian aboriginal tribes. However, as someone who lives in Ethiopia, officially the world’s most religious country (, where the orthodox Christian majority (as well as the Muslim minority) systematically practises FGM, I No that this is as much a part of being an Orthodox Christian as going to church for five or six hours on Saturdays and Sundays, not eating any animal products for 200 days of the year, ritually slaughtering a sheep inside the house at Easter (after 56 continuous days of fasting), and many other rites and rituals dictated by the church and faithfully followed by virtually the entire rural population, and a large majority of the urban population. Like child marriage (which, by the way, is one of the primary causes of fistula rather than FGM itself), it is officially banned by the government, but will only be eradicated, or at least reduced, by a long and slow process of education. And though the physical act is mostly practised by women, it is the church (male) that will have to lead the way.

    1. It really bugs me, btw, when some feminists, who are all about ‘consent’ and ‘body ownership’ decry FGM then talk about how they had their sons circumcised because ‘it looks better’ or ‘boys can’t clean their own penises’


      1. As a circumcised male, I don’t think FGM and male circumcision are very comparable at all. The intended (and actual) outcomes are dramatically different.

        1. It comes down to consent. Yes, FGM, the more extreme forms, are admittedly worse, but I don’t like to dismiss MGM just because it is not as damaging. It is still damaging and is done without the boy’s consent.

          And my point was that these regressive feminists are *all* about consent – the entire abortion argument revolves around consent.Yet when it comes to the willies of boy-children, they don’t get a say!

          1. The point about consent (generally speaking, in the “western world”) is pretty clear. I see your point about hypocrisy.

            To me, the comparison lowers the outrage over FGM. To me, male circumcision (competently performed using methods as it’s done in hospitals in the US anyway) is insignificant compared to FGM.

            1. If it all comes down to consent, then what is the issue with the example given in the text? As described, it was an adult bride consenting to the process.

              I’m partially playing devil’s advocate here; while I wouldn’t approve of the procedure either way, I see a very big difference in objectionableness between it being done to infants vs. adult volunteers…even when the adult volunteers are in a culture where’d they be shunned if they didn’t do it.

              The law can’t solve all problems. Ones’ decision to seek the social approval of their peers via actions that risk or damage their health is one of those problems the law is pretty bad at addressing.

        2. There is statistical evidence that male circumcision actually has multiple health benefits (as long as it’s done by a properly qualified person of course) and the best time to do it is when the boy won’t remember it. However there’s also the issue whether the child should be able to consent, which he obviously can’t do as a baby.

          1. Maybe you need to find out what happens elsewhere in the world. Apart from the Orthodox Jewish practice of the circumcision by suction (which has led to the transmission of herpes), and the weird generalization of circumcision in the US, many male circumcisions around the world are not as “clinical” as we imagine, not a “quick snip” – (

            1. That’s why I specifically said “done by a properly qualified person.” The situations such as the Orthodox Jews in NY spreading herpes while the child’s parents sign a waiver, unsterilized equipment, inexperienced practitioners etc all over the world are a disgrace and shouldn’t happen.

  5. Ah yes sadly it is quite common now to see third wave feminists support FGM. In fact, they disapprove of the word ‘mutilation’ because that might ‘hurt the feelings’ of the person who has been mutilated. Hence – ‘cutting’.

    But really this moral relativism is all about white cishet capitalist patriarchy. Anything that is not that is thereby good, and should be celebrated. Violent Islamists and those who would engage in the oppression of women are celebrated by regressives as valiant warriors, fighting against the evils of white capitalism.

    A lecturer at Goldsmiths University in London has defended female circumcision and child marriage as legitimate responses to colonialism and a product of women’s “agency,” in a shocking seminar that has been uploaded to Soundcloud by one of her students.

    The lecturer begins by arguing that men in developing countries oppress women as a means of sticking it to the west. “In the early 19th century there are huge movements against … child marriage, and [for] widow remarriage” says the lecturer. “But as time goes on, the argument becomes ‘look, we’ll do all this, we will reform the condition of our women, but we’ll do it once we’ve got independence. It is not for the colonisers to tell us how we should be treating our women.’” (Which links to the blog post of the student who attended the talk in case you do not trust Breitbart)

    Islamists have learned from the regressive mentality, and often invoke SJW buzzwords in order to justify their barbaric treatment of women.

    As the reporter who investigated the child sex slavery rings at Rotherham wrote:

    Again, media commentators pointed to the national scale of this problem, and the over-representation of Muslim men in organised child sex gangs. Allison Pearson wrote in the Telegraph that the rapists had learned the lessons of multiculturalism, cultural sensitivity, and the paralysing fear among public authorities of being labelled racist, and were actively using this to distract from their crimes. <–Read the entire report if you have time, it is really quite thorough.

    Anyway, this cultural relativism is deeply racist. Basically, brown people just can't help themselves so we must protect them! They are just like children! Disgusting.

    And the Atlantic has really gone downhill lately. I read another article by Khazan a few days ago in which she was arguing that claimed gender identity is what scientifically determines biological sex. So yeah. More POMO bullshit.

    1. Forgot to add:

      If Christian women were ‘cutting’ their daughters, the regressives would blame ‘internalised misogyny’, but, since brown people are doing it, it is a valiant fight against colonialism!!

      1. Cindy, as I wrote above, millions of very Christian women in Ethiopia are cutting their daughters. I guess you mean white American Christian women.

  6. Like many academics Prof Shell-Duncan is wise to be wary in not giving grounds for accusations of racism or western elitism or any of the forbidden opinions which may result in condemnation by the hordes of the righteous and then having enraged students rampaging through her department because of perceived hurt to their tender sensibilities.

      1. Seems to me that one of the perks of professorship is to expose one’s own willingness to cause rage in the service of encouraging free thought and critical analysis . . . hiding behind mollycoddlling namby pamby okayness is a BAD example to set for one’s students.

  7. The issue of cultural relativism raises profound and difficult ethical questions. Suppose Culture A finds a social practice in Culture B repulsive and harmful to some members of Culture B. This social practice in Culture B has no direct effect on Culture A. The members of Culture B that are perceived by Culture A as being harmed by the social practice seem to accept the practice and in many cases cannot even comprehend life without the existence of that practice since they have not been acquainted with any alternatives. The termination of the practice in Culture B would severely disrupt this society because the practice has been an integral part of that culture for many centuries.

    So, the question arises: what is the criteria that Culture A should use to justify trying to end a social practice in Culture B? What are the ethical justifications? Remember, this practice in no ways impacts the mores and values of Culture A.

    Intervention by western societies and others to end GFM may very well be legitimately justified (probably on health grounds). But as a general principle, before attempting to intervene in other societies, the reasons should clearly be spelled out and have an ethical basis. If not, there should be no complaints against Christian or Islamic missionaries attempting to convert people in other societies to their religions because clearly the religion currently being practiced is repulsive.

    1. A very good point. Sorry to quote again the cultural perspective of the country I live in, but the thought that you might hand your aged mother or father over to strangers to look after, rather than caring for them in the family, would seem deeply immoral here. As for same sex marriage, trans-genderism or eating pig… There’s an old story of the French encountering China and mocking the Chines for worshipping a dragon, whie meantime paying homage to a dolphin.

    2. Its about Human rights and the United Nation is very clear about it. Cultural relativism does not mean you should not condemn violation of human rights especially of children who can not possibly give consent. Secondly just because a practice has been prevalent for a long time that it can not be overthrown. Example Hindu widows in India were not allowed to wear jewelry and in some communities they even have to shave their head. These things have been banned in Secular India and it has had huge impact, and very few women have to live a celibate life like before. Even though religious sanctions are used for this cultural practice in a progressive society people wake up to the fact that certain things of the past or tradition can be given up for greater good of society.

    3. ‘But as a general principle, before attempting to intervene in other societies, the reasons should clearly be spelled out and have an ethical basis.’

      Are there any such ‘general principles’? Relativists are logically forced to say no, and this despite what their own ethical predilections may be. The assertion ‘all matters cultural are relative’ must add ‘including this assertion.’ In other words, humankind has no standpoint outside its cultures from which to make ethical judgments.

      The ethics of homicide (not murder, which is immoral by definition)are therefore relative. States within the U. S. still kill heinous offenders. Some call capital punishment ‘legal murder’ (oxymoron), yet it continues without stint in desert places like Texas.

      My point is that moral/ethical revulsion is a characteristic of our species–except when it isn’t, as reconditioned by one or another of human cultures. What would help here is a clarification of the meaning of ‘rights,’ one based on reason and a much broader understanding of why the individual, not his or her culture, is the ground for rights in pursuit of well-being.

      To get there–and I have to hope it is possible to get there, and sooner, since there will likely be no later if we don’t–we must privilege (yes!) what is conventional as if it were transcendentally true: individuals have rights.

    1. I think it’s kind of sad that a bad reaction to the act of FGM is characterized as ‘yuck’ rather than a visceral reaction to imagining the pain, both during and after, of excising sensitive areas of your body.

    1. The long term issues include “hypersensitivity of the genital area”. I bet that clinical term barely touches on the daily suffering of these women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had constant pain coming from there and had trouble sitting.

  8. Your link says ‘Sheila’, but the article and the result of the link show Bettina. I think you mean Bettina Shell-Duncan.

  9. Would anyone accept the apologetics for FGM if they were adapted to a cultural or religious practice that, say, required blinding the left eye of the eldest child (from Sam Harris, I believe)?

    1. Well probably, if it had been going on for long enough and had a good religious explanation. Makes as much sense as many other religious customs.

    2. I think you can answer that by trying to imagine a world in which that situation existed and someone asked, “Would anyone accept the apologetics for left eye blinding if they were adapted to a cultural or religious practice that, say, required the cutting out of little girls’ clitorises?”

  10. These practices have no function in a healthy (modern) society. Regardless of the morality and the brutality.

    It takes no effort to be a victim. This is not something to be commended, ever.

    In contrast, in South America, some boys have to ritualistically endure severe pain from ant bites, but even their ordeal has some function. Their immune systems are likely more capable of dealing with the toxins they may encounter in their daily lives.

  11. Excellent post Jerry! And thanks for the shout out. 🙂

    I’m constantly irritated by those who think we shouldn’t be able to criticize practices of other cultures that are demonstrably harmful. Social anthropologists do valuable work imo, but their work doesn’t mean a culture has to stay frozen in the practices described at any particular point in time. Culture evolves constantly, and getting rid of a damaging practice doesn’t mean the culture is being damaged. In fact, healthier women is a guarantee of a stronger culture.

    Just because something has always been done a particular way, doesn’t make it right. Our culture hasn’t suffered, for example, because women have stopped wearing corsets that force their internal organs out of position and worse. Quite the opposite in fact.

    You can’t make a choice without both knowledge and genuine options, and most women who “choose” FGM are thus not in a position to do otherwise.

    1. “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs

      1. I wonder if he was related to the Napier who created logarithms so as to be able to predict The Second Coming.

    2. The anthropological position is a delicate balance between trying to understand cultural diversity and treating non-westernized humans as cultural zoo animals, “protected” from invasive “dominant” social values. To the extent that Anthropology is a social science it requires impartiality to the greatest extent. Things break down when anthropologists try to translate professional impartiality into “applied” social advocacy.

  12. I have a more sympathetic reading of this article.

    I don’t see Shell-Duncan being conflicted at all. She clearly states that FGM is a damaging practice and should be eliminated. What’s more, she is willing to actually DO something about it, which in my book counts a lot more than just expressions of disgust and moral outrage.

    What Jerry sees as “excusing” FGM, I see as explaining FGM. Good policy has to be based on an understanding of why the practice exists in the various cultures that it exists. This includes accepting the reality that the participants in the practice might actually believe that there is a net positive to practice, even if you don’t agree with their calculations of the cost/benefits and even if it is clear that the ONLY positive is social acceptance. Accepting that this is the reality on the ground is NOT the same as excusing the practice.

    For my part, when it comes to setting policy against FGM, I’d rather have someone who has gotten beyond simple expressions of moral opprobrium and is focused on developing practical, effective policy based on a realistic understanding of why it exists in an culture.

  13. The very use of the phrase “circumcision” to describe FGM is problematic, as circumcision has neither FGMs intent of turning the subject into “property you can fuck,” nor its destructive effects (unless you believe the accounts of men with lousy sex lives who find it convenient to angrily blame it on their having been circumcised.) That conflation simultaneously minimizes the horror of FGM will demonizing circumcision — both of them intentionally, I believe.

    1. I’ve been in the situation a couple times where people tried to conflate the two and I had to mention that if they were really the same they’d either be cutting much less off women or far more off of men.

  14. Her “reasoning” is just disgusting. She admits right there that individuals have no say in the matter, not the girl who is being mutilated, and not even her mother. This person should be ashamed of herself and everyone else in that Regressive corner. In fact these people can team up any day with Far Right Republicans, where they belong.

    We can’t do much in the countries where the practice is common, but we can stand up against the people around us who make up excuses (e.g. involving coffee invites in lifts) and who hold onto their appalling cultural relativist and egocentric beliefs.

    Like with other things. If the West is waffling and for example has blasphemy laws in their books, or people with (yes, caricatures, but…) it’s hard to force others to drop their draconian practices and misanthropic beliefs — the same here, the making of excuses is completely undermining any demands to end this genuinely misogynistic practice.

  15. The interview is unfortunate in that there is little in the way of a meeting of minds. Shell – Duncan mediates the whole issue through the tenets of modern social anthropology whilst Khazan’s approach is through feminism. Both carry varying degrees of baggage: Shell – Duncan arguably the more so. So far as some practices go we need to set aside all such “objective” considerations and trust ourselves that in ending the practices we are doing right. I think Shell – Duncan recognises that in assisting the WHO in reducing the incidence of the practice.

  16. As you would expect, United States readers have great difficulty appreciating the similarities and parallels between male and female genital cutting. Anthropologists have never seen any significant differences between them as cultural phenomena, but most Americans are blinded by the fact that “routine circumcision” (i.e. foreskin excision) of baby boys is deeply embedded in their medical practice and social expectations. In recent years ethical and medical scholars outside anthropology have turned a critical eye on both male and female genital cutting and conclude that it is hypocritical (or at least morally one-eyed) to get outraged by one of them while endorsing the other as acceptable. For an introduction to the debate:

    1. “As you would expect, United States readers have great difficulty appreciating the similarities and parallels between male and female genital cutting.”

      Would you say that the male analog to amputating the clitoris would be amputating the glans?

      What would you say is the male analog to cutting off the labia majora and minora?

  17. One of the best thoughts I’ve heard in a long time:
    ” In a culture where it’s (you can substitute about anything, here) the norm, and rejecting it leads to ostracism, what does “voluntarily” even mean?”

    1. Or, what would count as involuntary? Does one have to literally have a weapon at one’s head? As an Inuk friend pointed out to me, sometimes that’s actually an easier choice.

      She mentioned this in the context of traditional Inuit punishments. The Inuit are very reluctant to punish, because even the most horrendous people often do help out sometimes. Instead, ridicule in an attempt to “shape someone up” is done. So when they do decide to punish an offender, there are basically two punishments: death and exile. Death is regarded, in my view correctly, the *more merciful* punishment, for less severe offenses, because exile means (usually) a slow death by starvation or exposure, rather than a quick blow to the head to end it all fast.

  18. And the ultimate patriarchy is to have performed FGM on women for so long ago (generations) that even the women administer and encourage it. The key, as Jerry says, is the intent to prevent sexual pleasure in women. Contrast that with African girls who undergo skin scarring, piercings, etc. A painful practice (no doubt) but inducing little long term damage.

    FGM is like breast ironing and feet binding. Go ahead Shell-Duncan – justify these practices.

  19. Here’s what I don’t get. If you believe everything is culturally determined and relative, how then can you continue to outraged about “injustice”? Where are the excuses for neo-nazis, for the front national, for yappy strip-club patronizing investment bankers, for the one percent and their culture of appropriation? If you can judge these things, you can judge other things, including FGM.

    If nothing can be evaluated morally, how about a big bowl of shut the **** up?

  20. As with an earlier post yesterday, I wouldn’t throw the PoMo baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I think the assessments of Cultural Anthropology and Postmodernism in this thread are themselves extreme, a result of the true ugliness of the issue at hand. As such, I think it’s inappropriate for me to belabor an academic point when the issue of FGM is on the table.

    That is, regardless of my theoretical foundations, I find it lazy, cowardly, selfish, and repugnant for anyone from the west, operating from a claim of wanting to avoid colonialism, to overtly or tacitly approve FGM and similar practices. Whether the practice is simply “long-standing,” has “deep cultural meanings with positive social outcomes,” or is rooted in strongly held religious beliefs, the cultural relativism used to eschew any sense of ethical perspective is far, far beyond well educated, drooling doltery. It is nothing short of doubleplusgood left-regressive duckspeak; the combination of justification of a practice that one also wants to reduce for the sake of womens’ physical health (was there any substantive mention of the obvious social control of women through the elimination of sexual pleasure, a general practice in many permutations across cultures and centuries with the same purpose and outcomes?).

    This is not even “good” cultural relativism, where ethical conflicts are clearly articulated and engaged in a compelling and challenging way. I suspect such substance was absent from the Atlantic interview because it was simply nowhere to be found to begin with. Is it surprising in the least, is it supposed to be “news” at all to discover that–wow!–people derive pleasure from group acceptance! Moreover, the more extreme the “initiation” into the privileges of group membership, the greater the enjoyment of gaining that acceptance. That phenomenon is not unique to African tribes which practice FGM; it’s also readily evident Chicago street gang initiation, for that matter.

    It is in no way whatsoever a violation of progressive boundaries to work from a set of principles and perspectives which at times conflict with the internal integrity of the “other’s” cultural identity. The allegedly “unassailable” agency that the other has with which to continue certain practices which most folks with properly firing frontal cortices would find repugnant, not from their own cultural relativism but from a secular humanist position that is much, much larger than all of us, is nothing but intricately articulated self-delusion: self-delusion that there is absolutist, inherent good in protecting other cultural agency; self-delusion that colonialism is being rejected by doing so (way to infantilize those you “defend!”); self-delusion that making a strong statement against FGM is automatically a condemnation of the cultuses which practice it (and for such a cultural relativist, that’s a curiously turgid perspective to have)…I’ve just scratched the surface, but I’m sure you don’t need me to continue.

    I don’t mean to value signal with the following example, but I do think it’s quite relevant: one can, with a degree of ease, make the argument that the wave of admissions and further allegations of sexual abuse of altar boys and other youth by Catholic clergymen is indicative of a long, long-standing cultural practice going back centuries. You may disagree with the assertion, and I say it not to stir any feces with anyone. I say it simply to draw a comparison with FGM and African tribes. If you categorically condemn the former without categorically condemning the latter, your hypocrisy invalidates whatever finely crafted justification you otherwise would have tried to foist onto anyone within earshot. To reduce the cause of ANY cultural practice or phenomenon to only one thing is automatic grounds for revocation of one’s Ph.D and current and subsequent grants.

  21. I find your implication that the desire for social acceptance justifies almost anything astonishing. The Hitler youth and young SS recruits could say the same. All societies have to punish non-conformance regarding rules that are generally considered important enough to merit emphatic means to uphold them. Peer acceptance can be society wide or a group within society – a professional or sport group, or a kin group. It can also be behaviours which many admire (e.g. getting wealthy, looking beautiful, winning various competitions). Hence Forbes 100 people sometimes vow they will do better for their families or to impress peers over the next few years by improving their wealth ranking to show what a real man or (less commonly) great woman they are. This is not altruistic or even beneficial – but its just as much seeking peer acceptance as “traditional” cultural practises such as FGM. It may not fit Marxist theory but then Marxist theory pretends there is such a thing as an end of history and that labour and class but never anything else determines survival. If we are to move beyond this we have to recognise what is bad versus what is currently necessary and where and when it is (and is not) necessary in all forms of culture and peer pressure. I would assert that there is still far too much of the left that have a problem with this.

    The strongest norms prevailing throughout a community in times of crises or else for long periods – will be about survival or will have assisted the reproduction of the society for some significant time. Sometimes myths excuse these attitudes to help spread them and internalise them or even to make them more palatable. This is especially true in pre-modern circumstances of fewer means or more pressing needs. It is also true in times of great crises (eg, in time of war). I would argue it is less true in many societies influenced by the Enlightenment, and which also enjoy reasonable wealth and stability than ever before in history. These societies have created and bequeathed greater physical means to alter our circumstances in the world – alongside some imperialism and colonial exploitation but I would argue that the exploitation is radically diminished compared to the past, and that the Cold war period was in (sometimes inappropriate and expansionist) response to superpower aggression. Though we continue to be flawed we are now way less oppressive than most societies in which only religion brings order to the struggle for absolute power and wealth amongst kin and kin support groups. Corruption reigns and citizens do not have expectation of unbiased service between strangers and impersonal, transparent, fair and effectively enforced contract laws with numerous institutions for investigation and accountability. Regarding Islamic societies these are traditionally very autocratic and kin based (Pakistan: A hard country, Patricia Crone, God’s Rule), and the Hidaya prescribes that people should marry within their class (delineated by occupation and wealth)

    In most non-Western societies many things that are unpalatable are no longer necessary, and we should strive to keep such practises from being promoted as acceptable in our culture, and encourage removal of practises such as FGM wherever feasible.

        1. Thanks. I’m not sure exactly where C.C. is coming from, so to speak. Personally, I’d throw the pomo baby out with the bathwater since the baby is dead and the bathwater is putrid.

          1. I do agree with most of what he actual says and I have to apologise to him I jumped the gun without after reading him properly having seen FGM comments on other sites but I still feel theres too much post colonial guilt distorting these issues and the blame for that is squarely on POMO/Crit Theory as theories.

        2. Apologies to Christopher Courington Ive misread his comment which is actually very critical of Shell Duncan’s position.

          1. Greetings Somer: No apologies necesasry. In fact, I am very grateful for, and hold in very high regard, the fact that you revisited my response and were up front about it. I have certainly done so myself, invariably concerning issues about which I was/am inordinately passionate. The fact that you were able to quickly assees what was going on and engage the self-awareness required to.address it properly is, again, to my mind rather impressive. I am.better at it than I used, though that’s not saying much right now, lol.

  22. Can’t find it right now, but I remember a online posting that many families in Indonesia are adopting symbolic genital cutting – a small cut that draws blood, but results in no permanent harm. Some western “liberals” have complained that this just perpetuates the idea that FGM is a cultural necessity. I suspect the young women involved would say “I don’t care about perpetuating ideas, I’m just glad I still have a clitoris.”

    1. In countries that have no FGM tradition anything which normalises the practise is bad, but where it is already normal, its better to allow a harmless form (technically this doesnt even rate as FGM as its only the pupace)

      However this can have some dangers. Indonesian muslims follows the Syafi school of Sunni Islam – the one that makes FGM desirable, and according to some interpretations, obligatory. Islam is diluted in parts of Indonesia due to the fusion of pre Islamic custom and Islam in many areas. In many places however, uncircumcised women are considered kaffirs although the practise predates Islam. Due to Lack of field studies on FGM its impossible to say how widespread FGM is. The government upholds Islam and encourages medically supervised FGM – so urban Maternity clinic nurses and midwives practice it – and in some clinics offer it as a package, alongside vaccination and ear piecing when birthing the female child. There is no recognised medical method to conduct this procedure as it is not internationally recognised as compatible with health. These professionally trained midwives and nurses, moreover use scissors not penknives, and incise or excise the actual clitoris (not just the skin) where traditional practitioners more commonly simply do a ritual nick or pinprick that does not actually remove anything. USAID report worries with WHO that this makes FGM more common and in this case makes more or less medically harmless ritual kinds (still estimated around 28% of FGM cases) About 3/4 of the cases of FGM in Indonesia appear to involve “pain and real genital cutting” esp pp . Viii, 3, 10

      According to hadith the procedure is involves the skin only but the actual wording is ambiguous. The most commonly cited hadith is “cut slightly and do not overdo it, because it is more pleasant for the woman and better for the husband”.
      Hadith quote in
      Law and Social economics: Essays in Ethical Values for theory, practise and policy, edited by Mark D. White, Chapter 6 page 2
      Also in Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community, Elizabeth Heger Boyle, p 32
      FGM was practised in many parts of North Africa prior to the arrival of Islam there but Heger Boyle notes that “some Islamic leaders advocated the practise historically” and concludes that analysis of data from Demographic and Health surveys of five African countries indicates that being Christian was “a strong predictor of women rejecting FGC [Female genital cutting] – in both attitudes and behaviour.” (p 32-33) Egyptian sheiks and the mufti of Al-Azhar university in Cairo issued fatwas in the 1980s and 1990s declaring it is not a duty but recommended because it “attenuates sexual desire” in women and encourages “desirable moderation”.
      However the practise is believed to “attenuate sexual desire in the female, maintain chastity and virginity before marriage, and fidelity during marriage, and increase male sexual pleasure” (p 3 USAID report cited from WHO 1996, 2000). Similar reasons for practising FGM are mentioned on every site – and any other reasons ultimately flow from the perception it will make the woman less likely to stray. Traditionalist Mate guarding aimed at women.

      1. Correction for part of para two (Amendments in upper case)
        USAID INDONESIA report worries with WHO that this makes FGM more common and in this case OFTEN REPLACES the more or less medically harmless ritual kinds (still estimated around 28% of FGM cases). About 3/4 of the cases of FGM in Indonesia appears to involve “pain and real genital cutting”

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