In the May 2011 New York Times Nicholas Kristof called female circumcision “A Rite of Torture for Girls.” My comment at #146:
I’m not sure why Kristof is going through this rehearsal. It will inevitably bring cries of “barbarism” and condemnation of “primitive” peoples.
The most important part of Kristof’s article are these sentences: “it is clear that the most effective efforts against genital mutilation are grass-roots initiatives by local women working for change from within a culture. In Senegal, Ghana, Egypt and other countries, such efforts have made headway.”
For more perspective, try the book The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective by Ellen Gruenbaum (2000) or the article by Corinne Kratz, Circumcision, Pluralism, and Dilemmas of Cultural Relativism.
Another resource is a 2007 article by Mwenda Ntarangwi, “I have changed my mind now”: U.S. Students’ Responses to Female Genital Cutting in Africa in Africa Today. But despite thousands of anthropology professors using the Corinne Kratz article (or others) for Introduction to Anthropology classes, the comment streams inevitably fill up with outcry against barbarism.
Again, to be clear, anthropology does not condone or defend female circumcision. But sensationalistic articles help no one–except make us feel better about our supposed advances and civilization. Kristof could be considered Exhibit A for “white men saving brown women from brown men” as Lila Abu-Lughod put it in Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? (2002:784).
Additional Resources & Updates
- 2018: Although I have not been in favor of using female circumcision as an extended example for Introduction to Anthropology 2018, my preferred textbook continues to use it for the chapter on culture, which means I’ll need one reading to provide perspective. My choice for 2018 is Susie Latham, “The campaign against Female Genital Cutting: empowering women or reinforcing global inequity?” in Ethics and Social Welfare 10(2):108-121. Hillary Haldane via Twitter recommends work by Bettina Shell-Duncan and also by sociologist Lauren Sardi. Also via Twitter, Barbara Miller says “I discuss FGM/FGC in my intro classes and in my medical anthro graduate seminar where I assign Gruenbaum’s book. For my undergrads, I use my textbook which highlights the experiences of anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu. Always in cross-cultural context of body modifications.”
- 2017: Is it time for Finnish celebrities to save the black girls of a “developing country”? asks Liina Mustonen in Allegra (October 2017). Although Mustonen’s post does not discuss female circumcision, it provides an example of how “Projects that aim at saving others can enforce the feeling of one’s superiority (Abu-Lughold 2013).”
- 2016: See Cultural Relativism and FGC for a 2016 treatment in Introduction to Anthropology.
To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Is Female Circumcision Torture?” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/female-circumcision/. First posted 12 May 2011. Revised 29 July 2018.