Anthropologists Debate Female Circumcision

TierneyLab has a post about the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which included a panel on female genital cutting (FGC). Some of the panelists have stated that the Western “zero tolerance” approach to FGC represents cultural imperialism and a fundamental misunderstanding of certain cultural heritages. Other panelists have maintained that because of the American tradition of infant male circumcision, as well as the genital cosmetic surgery that some American women voluntarily undergo, those who argue against FGC speak from glass houses.

At the time of this writing, the TierneyLab post had generated a whopping 208 comments. Most, although not all, argued against the position taken by these panelists and emphasized the drastic physical effects of FGC as well as the circumstances under which it is often performed. But it’s hard to argue with one basic point of the post: genital cutting is a cultural phenomenon.

To wit, consider the experience of a medical center in Seattle which serves a large Somali immigrant population. The tale is recounted in The Seattle Compromise: Multicultural Sensitivity and Americanization, by Doriane Lambelet Coleman. (You can find the article at 47 Duke L.J. 717 (1998)). Many Somali mothers requested that the medical center circumcise their daughters; they were mystified that the hospital would circumcise boys but not girls. The mothers were clear about what they wanted: a symbolic cut on the hood of the clitoris, one that would draw blood but not excise any tissue. The mothers believed that as a cultural and religious matter, some form of genital cutting was necessary. If the hospital did not do it, the mothers would take their daughters to Somali “midwives” in the Seattle area or send them back home. In either event, their daughters would experience far more genital cutting than the mothers were proposing, possibly even complete removal of all external genitalia. The medical center convened a special panel to consider the matter. Eventually the hospital agreed to perform the cut suggested by the Somali mothers, with the use of a local anesthetic, and only on girls old enough to understand the procedure. The hospital was hopeful that this would serve as a transitional measure and that second-generation Somalis would abandon the rite.

But then the media got wind of the hospital’s plan. It was besieged by critics, including then-United States representative Patricia Schroeder, who had been instrumental in passing federal legislation that outlawed female circumcision. Under immense public pressure and the threat of litigation, the hospital abandoned its plan. Coleman hypothesizes that most of the interests that lobbied against the hospital did not even understand what it was proposing; once they heard “female circumcision,” they stopped listening. What happened to the girls who would have been cut at the Seattle medical center is unclear, but I doubt it was anything good.

It is easy to look at most forms of FGC and argue that it should not be allowed to occur under any circumstances. But as Coleman explains,

The [medical center’s] proposal was clearly different . . . because unlike the traditional forms of [FGM], it would have been less injurious to the health, welfare and safety of girls than male circumcision is to the health, welfare and safety of boys. Specifically, while the symbolic female circumcision would have involved only a small incision on the hood of the clitoris, an incision that was accurately characterized as a “mere bloodletting,” male circumcision always involves the cutting as well as the removal of tissue (the foreskin of the penis). Skin bruising and disfigurement always accompany the accepted procedure, and these injuries typically take some time to heal. The emotional consequences of the two procedures could be characterized as equivalent; although again, the fact that the [medical center’s] proposal contemplated obtaining the actual consent of the girls, where boys are rarely in a position to give their consent to circumcision, makes it arguable that the symbolic female circumcision actually would be less injurious in this respect as well.

Of course, just because a practice like FGC has cultural and religious roots doesn’t make it right. Similarly, a cultural predisposition against a particular practice doesn’t mean that the resulting opposition is misguided. The difficulties arise when our cultural predispositions lead to kneejerk conclusions, or when we are willing to scrutinize the practices of others but not ourselves.

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4 Responses

  1. Margaret says:

    I think you shouldn’t use the term “female circumcision” at all. It’s not an accurate term for any form of female genital cutting (at best) or mutilation (at worst, and at most common). But maybe that’s just a “kneejerk conclusion” based on my “cultural disposition.”

  2. adhum says:

    I think you’ll find this recent paper on genital cutting very interesting:

    Darby, Robert and Svoboda, J. Steven (2007) A Rose by Any Other Name? Rethinking the Similarities and Differences between Male and Female Genital Cutting. MEDICAL ANTHROPOLOGY QUARTERLY, Vol. 21, Issue 3, pp. 301-323, ISSN 0745-5194, online ISSN 1548-1387.

    Download the pdf for free here.

  3. nornerator says:

    I do not see what the big deal is here.

    I understand that in some countries within certain religions it is practice to preform “female circumcision” which often times simply means destroying the possibility of sexual satisfaction later in life.

    This practice seems to be a bad idea IN GENERAL.

    However if the story is portrayed accurately the procedure the hospital was considering appeared to be the most rational thing to do.

    Unlike politicians many medical professionals ethics very seriously.

    In this case it was quite clear that if the hospital did not perform this simple and safe medical procedure, it would be performed by somebody either poorly trained or not trained at all which could result some very negative possibilities.

    Once again politicians need to stand out of the way of intellectuals. It is clear that intellectuals are far more concerned with ethics than politicians are, yet for some reason it is the politicians that get to make policy decisions over ethical issues, stem cell research for instance, not intelligent people.

    Tis a sad world we live in.

  4. Waia says:

    Female Genital Cutting is not required by any religion. Much like Male Genital Cutting (widespread in the US), it is practiced by Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths. Nor does it necessarily mean destroying the possibility of sexual satisfaction. Many “circumcised” women report experiencing orgasm regularly and some even report greater sexual pleasure than before. In addition, there are other erogenous zones completely unaffected by FGC.

    Finally, a number of forms of FGC are actually quite similar to Female Genital Cosmetic Surgeries, which are becoming increasingly popular in the US (check out or a number of other sites on FGCS).