Female genital 'modification'

Thu, 5 May 1994 01:30:38 -0400

Since the 'ethical relativism' thread has now started swerving toward the
issue of female circumcision, I cannot help but follow the turn. This issue
moves us from matters of principle to certain matters of race, sex, and

(And I'm starting this thread while simultaneously non-defending the
principle of anonymity on ANTHRO-L!)

Recently, Nigerian author Aima Ata Aidoo came to Gainesville, and she
basically talked about two things - her own recent book, and her
disappointment in her friend Alice Walker's book _Possessing the Secret of
Joy_. Walker in her book describes how traumatized her protagonist is by
being circumcised by the elder woman of the village - so traumatized that
she flees Africa to first see a Swiss psychiatrist, and then to come to the
U.S. The book ends with her obtaining revenge against the woman who
circumcised her.

The interesting thing is that most feminists (African-American or
otherwise) like Walker have focused on female circumcision because in most
cases, it involves the removal of the clitoris, which they see as a
deliberate attempt by patriarchy to deny and control women's sexuality.
Male circumcision may be painful, but while there have been arguments about
how the foreskin may or may not influence male sexual pleasure, it does not
really influence male sexuality.

The comparison between female and male circumcision by Bob Graber is
interesting. Up until recently, male circumcision was largely limited to
one particular religious group within "Western civilization," namely Jews.
It was only in the 20th century that doctors began circumcising all male
infants after birth, this time invoking 'hygiene' instead of 'religious
ritual.' Most medical doctors are generally agreed that there is no medical
value to removing the foreskin, but the practice continues anyway. Is it
'ritual'? Of course.

Is female circumcision genital 'mutilation'? I suppose it depends on
whether one considers removing the clitoris or parts of the labiae as
aesthetically marring female genitalia. (Most people do, I suppose.)
However, genital 'modification' seems too neutral for this practice. It is
not done, like piercing or tattooing, to enhance a person's pleasure or for
sheer bodily alteration; rather for social control - largely having been
introduced through Islam, the practice originated partially due to Arab
folk beliefs that women's sexuality was much more uncontrollable than that
of the male...

Returning to Aidoo, she criticized Walker for portraying Africa in such a
negative light, and for aiming her book at the women of Africa, who are the
ones who generally circumcise female infants. Aidoo pointed out that female
circumcision is not nearly as widespread as Walker suggests in her book,
and that it only continues in a few isolated areas. Further, she, like
Graber, compared female circumcision to similar acts of 'body modification'
that occur in the West, like 'plastic surgery,' and suggested that Walker
try and criticize plastic surgeons who scar African-Americans that try to
alter their facial features first. Frankly, she felt (as many doctors feel
about male infants receiving circumcision) that since it generally occurred
at an extremely young age, it was highly unlikely that anyone would be as
'traumatized' by it as Alice Walker's character... and that further, it was
not likely to leave much permanent injury or scarring (bleeding was
carefully staunched.) There was an undertone of hostility, I think, toward
African-Americans for criticizing native African traditions which they no
longer remember...

As a Jew, I had my foreskin lopped off at the tender age of eight days. I
assure you, I had no say in the matter, but I do not think I was
mutilated... but I get the feeling that female circumcision is something
more serious, since I assume (lacking any basis on which to know otherwise,
either from direct experience or the medical literature) that lacking a
clitoris makes it impossible for a woman to experience orgasm. Something
serious, which may be related to matters psychoanalytic, such as the male
fear of the female's castrating genitalia (e.g. the vagina dentata)...

The problem with this example (female circumcision) for exploring cultural
relativism is that it's wrapped up in layers of sexuality, gender, race,
and colonialism. (It's hard to use it as a way to explore the issue - it
might be better to look at something like headhunting?) But heck, as I've
found out, so are most examples; so is caning in Singapore, since it was
introduced by the British, and is not a native practice...

Seeker1 [@Nervm.Nerdc.Ufl.Edu] (real info available on request)
CyberAnthropologist, TechnoCulturalist, Guerilla Ontologist, Chaotician
Matrix Master Control Node #3, Gainesville, Fl.
"I slept with Faith & found a corpse in my arms upon awakening/ I drank and
danced all night with Doubt and found her a virgin in the morning." --