Searching for “Voices”: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations

Essay Excerpt

In this article, I attempt to address this issue by offering a dual perspective that looks at the practice of, and discourse surrounding, female genital operations. I will ground an analysis of the discursive politics surrounding genital operations by offering an ethnographic account of clitoridectomy within the context of daily life for a rural population in western Kenya's Kikhome village in 1988. In doing so, I question whether either of the seemingly polar viewpoints commonly expressed toward female genital operations in Europe and the United States—moral opprobrium or relativistic tolerance—is sufficient to construct an adequate feminist and "humanist" political response to this issue. I instead suggest that within the Euro-American debates, both sides—critics and relativists—often share an unacknowledged common thread. This commonality is a hard- ened view of "culture" based on a rigid essentialist notion of difference that can be historically linked to the colonial era (see also Koptiuch 1996). By addressing these issues, I hope to help lay the groundwork for a more productive feminist and anthropological debate capable of transcending the binary terms in which female genital operations are commonly discussed—binary terms that falsely suggest an insurmountable chasm between "us" and "them." (406-7)

About the Author

Christine Walley is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT. She received a Ph.D. in anthropology from New York University in 1999. Her first book Rough Waters: Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park (Princeton University Press, 2004) was based on field research exploring environmental conflict in rural Tanzania. Her current project Exit Zero uses family stories to examine the long-term impact of deindustrialization in the United States. It includes a forthcoming book with University of Chicago Press (2013) as well as a documentary film made with director Chris Boebel. Chris Walley and Chris Boebel are also the co-creators and co-instructors of the documentary film production and theory class DV Lab: Documenting Science Through Video and New Media.

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