Danny Yee >> Anthropology

African female genital infibulation

To: anthro-l
From: Michael (moffatt@GANDALF.RUTGERS.EDU)
Date: Thu, 5 May 1994 08:54:07 EDT

"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."

I don't know how widespread Walker suggests it is, but its distribution is fairly well known, and it's hardly on the verge of dying out -- in Egypt (where it was first labelled "Pharaonic circumcision" 500 BC, before the advent of Islam) and a few adjacent parts of the middle east and north Africa; up the Nile; virtually universal in Sudan; common in parts of Ethiopia, also found down into parts of Kenya and across sub-saharan Africa to parts of Nigeria, I think. See the map in Hanny Lightfoot-Klein's Prisoners of Ritual.
It takes different forms, from removal of the clitoris, to full genital infibulation -- removal of parts of the labia, sewing together of what remains to form a kind of anatomical chastity belt.

"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...

The last half of this seems accurate to most places where it's practiced, but it's a pre-Islamic practice not found in much of the middle eastern Islamic world. On the other hand, it is consistent, deliberately and consciously in most places it is practiced, with the Islamic (and Christian) notions of sex as sinful, and women as the more sexual gender, most in need of sexual restraint. Where Islam found it in place, Islam decided to approve of it. Ditto, interestingly, according to Lightfoot-Klein, in Christian Ethiopia.

"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.."

As described by Lightfoot-Klein, and by Smadar Lavie for Bedouin women of the south Sinai in The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeima Allegories of Bedouin Identity under Israeli and Egyptian Rule (Berkeley, 1990), it's practiced on girls in the age-range 4-8, quite capable of being traumatized by it. But what's most interesting and challenging according to these women-centered cultural accounts is that the women in these cultures are 99% in favor of the operation, and presumably remember their own infibulations as painful but positive experiences. At least according to Lightfoot-Klein's account: the operation is the occasion of a warm, supportive women's ritual, in which the girls in question get all kinds of female family support, attention of a sort not given to them, etc.

One could argue "hegemony," that women have had to accept a patriarchical ideology in these cultures which inferiorizes their gender and requires them to do these things to their bodies; but one still has to deal with the fact that, evidently, women are among the biggest defenders of these practices, at least where they've been carefully documented.

Lavie also reports mature female informants saying the operation gives them an advantage they otherwise wouldn't have in their often abusive marriages -- after clitorectomy, they claim, they can take married sex or leave it, but their husbands still have to have it -- providing these women (protrayed as strong, untraumatized personalities) more negotiationg strength vis-a-vis the husbands than if they were similarly sexually needy.

"she, like Graber, compared female circumcision to similar acts of 'body modification' that occur in the West, like 'plastic surgery.'"

Lots of evidence suggests the poster is correct in suggesting this is a lousy analogy. The various "genital ordeals" described for various cultures have a range of evident local cultural meanings; but only African genital infibulation seems to be expressly designed to limit or remove the ability of the person it's performed on to experience sexual pleasure.

(Male circumcision, subincision and superincision are occasionally believed to make the penis prettier and/or cleaner (see an old account of the Mangaia, by Suggs, I think), or possibly to make the penis bleed at puberty -- as women bleed through menstruation (this motivation was evidently present in aboriginal Australia). But most accounts indicate that the properly-operated upon penis is still largely intact in its pleasure-centers [the only exception I know of is voluntary "clean-cut" castration carried out by some heterodox early Christian sects, explicitly designed to make its practitioner automatically as chaste as Pauline sex-negativity recommended]).

-- Michael Moffatt, Anthropology, Rutgers

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