Why I teach about Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in First-Year Anthropology

Content Warning: The following post discusses the importance of acknowledging one’s own bias and avoiding judgment of cultural practices. It also explores the importance of concepts such as cultural relativism and critical cultural relativism when discussing taboo topics, like FGC, in Canadian Post-Secondary Classrooms. This post does not attempt to take a position on whether FGC or male circumcision is right or wrong or, to provide a comparison between the two practices. Its goal is to discuss how FGC is covered in Canadian and US mainstream media and why this discussion is an informative case study that I use to demonstrate and discuss foundational concepts in my first-year cultural anthropology course. Reader beware.

On February 1st, The Guardian ran a news story entitled: Mother of three-year-old is first person convicted of FGM in UK. The sub-title: Ugandan woman from east London was accused of mutilating daughter in 2017.

Reflecting on the title can tell us a lot. First, the use of FGM – female genital mutilation – versus the more judgement-free term – female genital cutting (FGC). The use of this term frames this discussion in a particular light: That this practice is identified as mutilation instead of cutting – can tell us something about those writing about the practice and in this case, perhaps also the intended audience.

If what I just wrote makes you bristle, think about it this way: Do you know anyone whose experienced MGM that is, Male Genital Mutilation? I assume that you are more used to thinking and discussing this practice as ‘circumcision’ or even as ‘male circumcision’. Although both practices involve genital modification (more on FGC diverse procedures below), these modification practices are not discussed in the same way; that is, overall, male circumcision practices haven’t incurred the same level of vilification or global uproar¹.

Second reflection: ‘Ugandan woman from east London’. The article does not describe the migration history of the mother (the case is about her daughter), but frames the indicted individual as ‘different’ throughout the entire article; for example, after the first two short paragraphs outlining the details of the case, the author then turns their attention to the practices of witchcraft found at the home of the parents (only the mother was charged, her father was acquitted) and includes numerous photos of ‘evidence’ of witchcraft throughout the rest of the piece, even in sections not directly related to the family or their home. If you were a student in anthropology, you’d already know that witchcraft is understood to be another form of spiritualism or identity. To frame witchcraft as different, odd or even worse, evil and wrong, introduces a value judgment – a moralistic question – and is a tactic that works to solidify the family’s ‘difference’.

The article ends by quoting a social activist and survivor² of “FGM”, Leyla Hussein, who is said to have “mixed emotions about the conviction.” Hussein states “[w]e are sending out a strong message that children now come first,” she said. “However, the sad thing is we could have helped that mother. That could have easily been me because 17 years ago I did not understand that FGM was wrong.”

Using a critical perspective, a reader can tell that this article was written from a particular, biased perspective. This is evident from the authors’ choice of words and photos, and their decision to interview certain experts (over others), all of whom identify the act of FGC as inherently wrong. As a Canada-based anthropologist, I can state that this story, and its framing, would not be atypical here in Canada.

When I teach first-year anthropology (Anthropology 101) – it’s to a broad audience. Typically, I have few if any anthropology majors because my introductory course is a popular elective option for undergraduates from across campus. FGC is one of the first case studies I use in this course and I introduce it in Week 3.

Why do I do this? I use it as a means to help students understand how their own beliefs, values, and traditions compare to what we understand as a ‘Canadian culture’. One of the learning objectives of this case study is to understand the ways in which anthropologists must contextualize (build understanding in place) a practice in order to understand why someone would, for example, want to practice FGC.

I dive into this discussion by using a clip from the Tucker Carlson show on the Fox News Network where the host interviews Anthropologist Fuambia Sia Ahmadu. During the short segment, the host and Dr. Ahmadu discuss (okay, okay…they argue about) terminology and facts about what this practice is, who practices it, and why someone – anyone – would perform it (this practice is typically performed on female youth). Kudos to the Fox News network (I’m honestly surprised to be typing these words out on a public platform) for inviting a knowledgeable representative of the community (having choice-fully undergone the practice herself) to present their perspective. During this interview, Dr. Ahmadu works to provide a more nuanced understanding of what the practice is (e.g. that there are various classifications [“levels”] of the practice from more to less invasive) and how many laws surrounding this practice in places like America, are often tied up with a moralistic perspective of the people and places where this practice is most prevalent.

My point in bringing up this example is to teach students that when taking an anthropological approach, one’s not required to answer the question ‘is this practice right or wrong’. Rather, our goal is to understand why and how someone might believe in or want to undergo such a practice. In support of this discussion, we cover the following concepts in class:

  1. ethnocentrism – thinking that your cultural practices are the best AND judging others’ practices by how they stand up to your own cultural practices
  2. cultural relativism – learning more about other’s cultural practices from the point of view of those who practice them (asking questions of why and how)
  3. critical cultural relativism – a concept which recognizes that in addition to acknowledging the importance of cultural traditions, values and beliefs, that there are underlying and important universal human rights that anthropologists must pay attention to, when learning about cultural practices, beliefs, values and norms

Our in-class discussion is also supported by a discussion in our textbook where we read that practitioners believe FGC will ensure things like fertility, fecundity, and the social position of the individual (who underwent the procedure) in their society. Importantly, we also learn that not everyone who practices FGC does so for the same reasons or holds the same beliefs around it. We learn that female circumcision – much like male circumcision – is a practice with specific, historic and cultural values (unique to the area in which it is practiced). From the research conducted on individuals who have experienced female circumcision, we learn that there remain supporters and detractors of the practice.

Dr. Ahmadu (to learn more about her, visit her website, link below) acknowledges that some women are happy that they’ve had this performed (like herself) and others are not. She acknowledges that in some circumstances, this practice is dangerous to the health of the individual (whether the practices itself makes it dangerous because of how it’s done or if it’s the more intensive practice, i.e. infibulation). This is where we discuss, as a class, the concept of critical cultural relativism – where a human life is more important than any cultural practice.

http://www.fuambaisiaahmadu.com/academic-publications.html

From the global discussion around FGC, there are calls for (1) further education for family members on the health risks associated with the practice, and (2) increased choice, allowing girls to make the decision for themselves at an older age. Note, while there may be similar calls to ban this practice for babies born with penises, we can again check the language being used to cover such events in the news. When you google news about circumcision, the stories tend to focus on ‘choice’ and religious observance rather than mutilation or lack of education; See for example this news article about recent study identifying benefits of Male Circumcision (for female partners), or this news article linking male circumcision to religious rites/human rights or, this article discussing the practice as a choice, by a father living in Canada.

I teach about FGC in Anthropology 101 because it demonstrates what anthropologists have to consider when they encounter different perspectives and practices. This case study also helps students understand that their own frame of reference carries inherent biases developed through their enculturation into their own communities and their socialization into Canadian society. For those wishing to take an anthropological perspective, the trick is to not assume that everyone feels the same way about a/this practice. When you read about a cultural practice in the news, it is important to recognize how this practice is framed, whether those reporting about it are using an ethnocentric approach and/or wording, and to reflect on whether we’re asking questions about why and how particular individual supports such a practice.

Footnote:

¹See disclaimer at the beginning of the post. For other perspectives from Canadian researchers on FGC practices, follow this link.

²I’ve highlighted this term here not to question whether Leyla Hussein identifies as a survivor but instead, to note the use of this term works to paints those who undergo this practice as ‘victims’.

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