Gender Studies

The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective

Ellen Gruenbaum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Philadelphia Press, 2001. 242 pages.

Female circumcision is a highly contested “tradition” practiced in many parts of the world, particularly Africa. International human rights campaigns refer to the practice as “female genital mutilation” (FGM) and seek to eliminate it; its practitioners tend to defend it even after it has been declared illegal. Within this charged environment, Ellen Gruenbaum has undertaken the difficult task of examining the controversy from a more culturally sensitive perspective based on her years of fieldwork in Sudan. In many respects, her attempt to present the issue’s multiple sides is successful. Using ethnographic description, she explores the range of factors giving this practice its importance, from socioeconomic to aesthetic, while also suggesting why and how there are more appropriate means to alter, reduce, and eradicate the practice.

In accordance with her list of influencing factors, Gruenbaum thematically divides her chapters into such sections as “patriarchy,” “marriage and morality,” and “ethnicity.” However, the ethnographic passages within are crucial to the book, because they show the humanity of those involved and help explain the contexts and circumstances of women’s lives outside their objectified status as “victims of tradition.” Also noteworthy is her support of advocacy for change, using ethnography to promote activism that is sensitive to and respectful of the needs of those affected. She repeatedly emphasizes the need to address poverty and women’s basic needs as more effective means to move forward, rather than focusing on circumcision in isolation.

In a somewhat clinical but useful introduction, Gruenbaum defines types of “female genital cutting” and such key issues as religion, femininity, and identity, to be addressed in the book in order to move “beyond simplistic condemnation.” Though she argues that “patriarchy” is too simple an explanation for female circumcision, Gruenbaum’s first chapter nonetheless suggests that this practice is, at the very least, strongly influenced by it. This is particularly true in terms of women’s dependence on marriage and circumcision for their social status and economic security.

The next three chapters’ rich ethnographic description provides a better understanding of some Sudanese women’s experiences. In chapter 2, “Ritual and Meaning,” Gruenbaum explores why circumcision is important to particular communities, including religion (often based on certain interpretations of Islam, Christianity, or animism), gender identity (by removing “masculine” parts to “feminize” a girl), and ideals of beauty. Her comparisons with similar rituals in western traditions (male and female circumcision in Christianity and Judaism, the aesthetics of body piercing) help contextualize the practice. Also of note is her matter-of-fact description of a circumcision ceremony, which avoids sensationalism but alerts us to the health risks and complications that girls may be subjected to as a result of the tremendous alteration to their bodies.

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