Unpacking female body “mutilation” in Senegal and the U.S.
Guest post by Courtney Smith
My recent article, Who Defines Mutilation?: Challenging Imperialism in the Discourse of Female Genital Cutting, published in Feminist Formations, takes a close look at traditional Western discourse surrounding Female Genital Cutting (FGC). I use the phrase Western discourse in this case to refer to the classic feminist texts written on FGC, such as those by Fran Hosken, Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, and Alice Walker, along with the rhetoric long used by non-governmental and human rights organizations seeking to eradicate the practices. A final addition to this category of Western discourse is the types of language and framing that are used by the general population of Western countries, such as the women and men interviewed for this project.
I use the “West” in this work to refer to Western European, North American, and Australian societies, though I do focus mainly on the United States, simply because of my own geographic limitations and cultural experience.
In the article, I critique the ethnocentric and imperialistic rhetoric that circulates in the West regarding the practices. This rhetoric posits FGC as a barbaric, uncivilized, and mutilating practice carried out on and by agency-less victims. For example, Hosken (1979) displayed blown-up pictures of bloody vaginas to groups of African women; Walker (1993) produced a documentary that reduced Gambian women (even women from non-FGC practicing communities) to forlorn victims with mutilated genitalia; Daly (1978) published a text with a chapter dedicated to unveiling the horrors of “African Genital Mutilation” and its “unspeakable atrocities”; and Goldberg (2009) asserted that “eradication is the only moral and appropriately feminist response to this ‘human rights abuse’ against African women” (in Ahmadu and Shweder 2009, 17).
I aim to provide an alternative approach to studying, discussing, and understanding FGC by interviewing African women who are affected by FGC, constructing discourse and action based upon their experiences, and opening the discussion to include practices of body modification in the West. Engaging with women in contexts where FGC is practiced and privileging their voices and views provides a new discursive framing based upon more inclusive participation in the discussion.
In terms of including practices of body modification from the West into this analysis, I examine breast implantation because breast implantation, like female genital cutting, molds female bodies into what are culturally defined as naturalized, sexed forms. In the United States, “normal” and “healthy” women are expected to have two proportional, ample-sized, round breasts. The idea that a normal and healthy female body has breasts of this type is prevalent in interview responses for this project, as well as in medical discourses (Bames, qtd. in Jacobson 2000), advertising and popular culture (Pedersen 2004; Singer 2008), evolutionary psychology (Buss 2005; Miller 2000), cosmetic- and plastic-surgery literature (ASAPS 2007), and embodiment theory literature (Adams 1997; Bordo 1993; Young 1990). Breast implantation is a way for women to obtain this “natural” form. It is the most popular cosmetic surgical procedure for American women, with over 300,000 women undergoing the surgery in 2010 alone (American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery 2010).
Women in communities that practice FGC have expressed the idea that “real” and “worthy” women do not have phallic clitorises or excess folds of skin in their genital region. They also have unpenetrated genitalia until marriage. Female genital cutting removes these “abnormalities,” helps prevent pre-marital penetration by presumably reducing female sexual desire, and physically constructs the body to fit a “proper” and “clean” female model. Bodies in both of these environments are therefore normalized; they are made to appear as the form women’s bodies should take.
In examining these two practices, I do not argue that female genital cutting and breast implantation are equivalent procedures. The larger role of choice in breast implantation cannot be overlooked, as well as the environmental conditions in which they occur, the long-term physical ramifications, the age of the person undergoing the procedure, and the consequences for female sexual pleasure.
I do, however, examine both practices within the same project as two different exemplars of the construction of women’s bodies, a construction aimed at achieving naturalized female ideals.
My research first involved six months during 2005 and one follow-up month in 2007 in Senegal, West Africa. I conducted eighty in-depth, open-ended, and semi-structured interviews with women and men in twelve different locations across the country, both rural and urban, and among a range of class, occupation, ethnicity, age, marital status, and education levels. In 2007 and 2008, I spent eleven months carrying out sixty-five in-depth, open-ended and semi-structured interviews with American men and women about the two practices. I conducted face-to-face interviews in five different cities, as well as over the telephone and via email. In each country, my goal was to garner a broad understanding of the ways in which people experience their bodies and view the bodies of others.
During each interview, I encouraged women and men to first discuss topics related to their identities, social, familial, and economic roles, beauty, marriage, and their bodies. I then asked about the specific practices of female genital cutting (in Senegalese interviews) and breast implantation (in American interviews). I asked respondents why they believed the respective practices exist in their societies, where the practices developed, what their personal opinions were regarding the procedures, etc.
I then changed the direction of the interviews by asking the respondents for their opinions on a practice occurring outside of their community. In Senegalese interviews, I asked women and men about the practice of breast implantation. In American interviews, I switched the conversation to the topic of female genital cutting. In these cases, I explained the “other” practice and answered questions that arose. In Senegal, I presented each interviewee with photos of before-and-after pictures of women’s bodies undergoing breast implantation, and of the actual silicone or saline implanted in the chest.
I then asked several questions regarding why the respondent believes that women undergo the “other” practice, what the “other” practice accomplishes, if there is a similar practice in the interviewee’s own environment, and if the “other” practice should be eradicated. I did this in hope of opening up space for the interviewees to “introduce new points of view, questions, and criticism into the conversation” (Benhabib 1995: 251), as well as to provide them the opportunity of stepping out of their own cultural environments.
The presence of an interpreter in the majority of Senegalese interviews also plays an important role in constructing the interview environment. I speak rudimentary Wolof and could roughly follow some sections of certain interviews. I also learned the customary greetings in Halpulaar and Mandinka, which allowed me to politely greet interviewees who spoke those languages. I had three different interpreters for the interviews translating responses from three languages into French, which I speak. Twelve interviews were conducted directly in French, thus removing any need for interpretation. In all of the interviews, I had to then translate the French responses into English, which did increase the potential loss of meaning and/or miscomprehension of the responses.
With that said, findings from the interviews challenge the blanket, generalized viewpoint that “Western women are free, African women are oppressed” that circulates in the West. Interviewee reactions to female genital cutting such as “That would never happen in the United States,” “All I can say is that I’m glad I wasn’t born in one of those countries,” and “At least here in this country, you do have choices,” all represent the belief that there is a qualitative difference between the two societies at hand. Interviewees in the U.S. communicated the idea that Africans live without agency or free will, while individuals in the U.S. hold the right to make autonomous decisions in their own interest.
However, when I discussed breast implantation with West African women, some of whom have experienced female genital cutting, many of them reacted using the same rhetoric of barbarism that is traditionally used by some Americans to describe FGC. Their words challenged the Western notion that American women are freely choosing individuals simply attempting to meet standards of beauty, while they are controlled, agency-less beings.
For example, one woman commented upon breast implantation, “I have never heard of this practice and never in my life do I want to know about it. Women who do it aren’t really women. It must be caused by a sickness.” Her comment clearly shows that she does not perceive American women who opt for breast implantation as “free.” Many Senegalese respondents, both male and female, expressed disbelief that Westerners would travel across the globe to fight female genital cutting in Africa while the horrid, unnatural, and ungodly practice of breast implantation exists in their own homes. Senegalese conceptions of women’s bodily integrity clashed directly with Western notions of liberty and rights.
The goal of this project is not to construct a tit for tat imperialist game between the two groups of interviewees. I aim to rather uncover what can be accomplished through locating alternative approaches to discussing body modification such as female genital cutting, as well as listening to women who are affected by these practices. The alternative discourse is based on dialogue between women, even if it is for the moment just taking place within this project. It seeks to create an environment where reciprocal analysis of body modification practices can take place.
I welcome comments or questions concerning this work and its goals, and particularly on how to further operationalize this alternative discourse.
Courtney Smith received her Ph.D. in 2009 from the University of Oregon. She taught in the Political Science Department at the University of Oregon, and then at Hunter College of the City University of New York in the Women and Gender Studies Program. Her research is based in feminist political theory, embodiment theory, and transnational feminism. Articles from Courtney Smith can be found in Feminist Formations, Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration and Social Science Journal.
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