Searching for "voices": feminism, anthropology, and the global debate over female genital operations

Cult Anthropol. 1997 Aug;12(3):405-38. doi: 10.1525/can.1997.12.3.405.


PIP: This article lays the groundwork for a feminist and anthropological political response to female genital "operations" that transcends the current debate over the phenomenon, which is couched in terms of cultural relativism or of politically-informed outrage. After an introduction, the study considers the politics involved in assigning a name to the procedure and explains the author's reason for choosing female genital "operation" over the more commonly used "circumcision," "mutilation," or "torture." In the next section, clitoridectomy is contextualized through a recounting of the circumstances under which the procedure was performed in the western Kenyan village of Kikhome in 1988. This discussion focuses on the ceremonies surrounding the circumcisions of young men and women, the author's attempts to discover how the young women involved really felt about the tradition, and a review of the anthropological literature on the significance and impact of these practices. The analysis then examines the international controversy surrounding female genital mutilation and provides an overview of the colonial discourse on female genital mutilation in Africa to expose 1) the origins of justifications for colonial dominance in the dominance of non-Western women by non-Western men and 2) the fact that use of cultural arguments that fuse women and tradition can support culturally-defined power relationships. The article concludes with a consideration of who is qualified to speak out against female genital mutilation given the fact that all women and all debates are the products of longstanding, tenacious power relationships.

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Africa South of the Sahara
  • Africa, Eastern
  • Anthropology*
  • Colonialism*
  • Developing Countries
  • Economics
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic*
  • Feminism*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Kenya
  • Political Systems
  • Social Sciences
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Women's Rights*