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Culture, Health & Sexuality, September–October 2005; 7(5): 429–441
Socio-cultural dynamics of female genital cutting:
Research findings, gaps, and directions
ELLEN GRUENBAUM
California State University, Fresno, CA, USA
Abstract
The goal of abolishing female genital cutting (FGC, or also FGM or ‘female circumcision’) requires
that the socio-cultural dynamics of the practice be well understood if behavioural change is to be
accomplished. This paper, based on the literature and the author’s ethnographic research in Sudan,
reports on the research issues of studying the variation in and complexity of cutting practices and their
cultural correlates, arguing for multiple approaches and methods. It highlights directions for future
research.
Résumé
Abolir l’excision (ou mutilation génitale ou encore « circoncision feminine ») demande que la
dynamique socioculturelle de la pratique soit bien comprise si des changements comportementaux
doivent se produire.
Cet article, basé sur la littérature et sur la recherche ethnographique de l’auteur menée au Soudan,
rend compte des questions de recherche posées par l’étude de la variation et de la complexité des
pratiques d’excision, ainsi que leurs corrélats culturels, en prenant position en faveur d’approches et
de méthodes multiples.
Il met en lumière des orientations de recherches futures.
Resumen
La meta de suprimir el corte genital femenino (FGC o FGM, o también ‘circuncisión femenina’)
requiere la dinámica socio-cultural de esté práctica que se entenderá bien si se va el cambio del
comportamiento a ser logrado. Este papel, basado en la literatura y la investigación etnográfica del
autor en Sudán, informes sobre las aplicaciones de la investigación estudiar la variación en, y la
complejidad de, las prácticas del corte y de sus correlativos culturales, discutiendo para los
acercamientos múltiples y los métodos. Destaca las direcciones para la investigación futura.
Keywords: Female genital cutting, FGM, infibulation, Sudan, harmful practices
Introduction
A frequently asked question in the international discourse on female genital cutting
practices is ‘why do they do it?’. The world wonders how loving parents can allow their
Correspondence: Ellen Gruenbaum, Department of Anthropology, 5245 N. Backer Ave., M/S PB16, Fresno, CA 93740-8001,
USA. Email: [email protected]
ISSN 1369-1058 print/ISSN 1464-5351 online # 2005 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13691050500262953
430
E. Gruenbaum
daughters to be held down and cut, usually causing fear, pain, and possible major damage
to health and physical functions. It seems incongruous and shocking to imagine a six yearold girl enduring such pain and indignity, particularly at the hands of those she trusts. Yet
an estimated 2 million girls experience some form of this harmful practice each year.
Many people have responded with outrage, condemning the people who practice such
genital cutting of girls, while others have tried to understand it in context. But regardless of
the emotional or moral response people feel, those who are committed to abolition will be
most effective if the change efforts are sophisticated, culturally informed and socially
contextualized.
This paper reviews the sociocultural dynamics of persistence and change in female
genital cutting practices and the conceptual and methodological issues involved in research
on female genital cutting. Sociocultural research findings for these widespread practices
demonstrate that they have many differing cultural meanings among practitioners of
differing religions and among peoples of many cultures.
Cultural explanations
Like the proverbial group of blind people feeling different parts of the elephant and coming
to quite different conclusions about what the animal is like (a tree trunk, a whip, a snake, a
wall, a fan), research and experiences in different social contexts have led to quite different
understandings of ‘female circumcision’ and the reasons why female genital cutting (FGC)
is carried out. Not only do the reasons differ between cultural and social contexts, but also
individuals’ reasons for the choices they make also differ within a society. Culture here
should not be reified: while cultural values are indeed powerful influences in structuring
thought and action, human actors regularly critique their backgrounds, making choices that
reinterpret their cultural and religious values and add new elements.
Yet in the popular media, explanations for genital cutting are frequently simplistic,
emphasizing a single, underlying explanation, such as ‘male dominance’, and inferring that
the purpose is to prevent women’s sexual fulfilment. The research literature on sociocultural factors documents wide variation in practices, reasons, and consequences, yet the
popular media fail to differentiate between the types and tend to privilege the most serious
and damaging practices—especially severe infibulation—the most unhygienic methods, and
the most coercive circumstances (Shell-Duncan and Hernlund 2000, James and Robertson
2002). The images of broken glass and rusty knives, of thorns and infibulation, and of the
use of force, occupy an unduly privileged position in international popular discourse
(Gruenbaum 2001, Shell-Duncan 2001). These shocking images, common in the rhetoric
of change efforts, have proven effective in mobilizing awareness and opposition to all forms
of FGC.
Even though the less severe forms could be proposed as a transition programme for
‘harm reduction’ (Shell-Duncan 2001), reformers concede that all childhood forms violate
a minor child’s human right to bodily integrity. Nevertheless, the plurality of the practices
and their great variation in harm, in meaning and reasons, in cultural roots, and in obstacles
to change, deserves additional socio-cultural research attention, to assure that change
efforts are designed to maximize respect, appropriateness, and effectiveness.
Change against FGC has already been underway for more than a century in some areas
of the world (see Abusharaf 2000: 164–165), a clear challenge to any deterministic view of
culture. It is a misunderstanding of ‘culture’ to assume it is homogeneous or unchanging.
Cultural values are seen differently by social groups—males and females, powerful groups
Socio-cultural dynamics of female genital cutting
431
and oppressed groups, older and younger generations, religious leaders and common
people, educated and illiterate. And as each new generation encounters new challenges of
environment, social encounters with other groups, new ideas and technology, or migration
and war, it is the adaptability of culture—considering and incorporating new ideas,
discarding those that are no longer useful—that enables a social group to remain vital and
its culture to remain satisfying and cohesive even as some practices change.
Shell-Duncan and Hernlund caution analysts to avoid what Gosselin (2000: 18–19) has
called the ‘trivialization of culture’ that can occur when FGC practices are removed from
their social and historical contexts and offered up as ‘barbaric customs’. Such oversimplifications of ‘reasons’ evoke an image of people mindlessly following rituals that are
passed down without reflection, offensive to the very people reformers seek to engage with
(Toubia 1985).
The vitality of culture
To suggest that people are prisoners of their traditions (Lightfoot-Klein 1989) underestimates the dynamics of change and human agency and the potential for rapid change.
Cultural values can be anchors that reinforce tradition, but they can also be the source of
ideas for rethinking and challenging cultural practices. Cultural values can also serve as
launching points for new ideas. For example, although love of one’s daughters leads to
cutting them in an effort to ensure their virginity and marriageability, that same value can
be utilized to give meaning to alternative practices introduced in planned change, such as
protecting their health. If there is also a movement of young men seeking uncircumcised
wives and a movement of girls being expected to take responsibility for their own adherence
to moral strictures against premarital sex, change could occur more rapidly.
Once we establish that culture is a lively force of which people are, as individuals and as
groups, the living agents, it is possible to re-examine the ‘reasons’ lists for FGC and search
for dynamic potential. Meaningful insights about culture emerge not from generalizing
about the most common opinions or statistical breakdowns of responses to why do you do
it questions, but from hearing about the differing points of view of individuals, families,
health practitioners, and students of religion; hearing how people debate about what is the
right thing to do; and listening to the rationales for their choices.
The success of the model used by the Senegalese non-governmental organization
TOSTAN, wherein women’s empowerment is encouraged through literacy, leadership
skills, and social development, allowing women themselves to decide when is the right time
to begin to address change in female genital cutting practices, underscores this potential in
cultural dynamics (see http://www.tostan.org). By focusing on facilitating change in the
most urgent improvements people desire in their lives, a sense of empowerment can grow
which then led to women’s local initiatives to end female genital cutting. While this
empowerment model may not yield immediate change, the change that results will be
transformative and lasting.
Methodological approaches to the study of socio-cultural dynamics and FGC
Neither the apparent origins of the practices nor the perpetuation of the practices in past
decades can be fully explained utilising a static concept of culture. In 2002, two
international conferences were held at Bellagio, Italy, addressing research and action on
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E. Gruenbaum
FGC. Shell-Duncan (2001), among others, emphasized the need for a dynamic
understanding of culture:
Discussions of the cultural context of female genital cutting, in both the academic and activist
literatures, as well as in popular media, often describe the practices as an ‘entrenched’ and ‘deeplyrooted’ tradition, practiced for thousands of years in parts of Africa. Much of the existing literature
conveniently overlooks the dynamic cultural, political and historical contexts of the various types of
genital cutting performed by different actors in widely varying contexts. (Shell-Duncan 2001: 1)
Acknowledging the dynamism of culture and the complexity of variations of individual
motivations for FGC underscores the need for method triangulation in research in this
field. Surveys should be complemented by qualitative research if we are to achieve the
depth of analysis needed to design effective interventions.
Qualitative research faces particular challenges when the topic is genital cutting.
Participant observation, the preferred method of cultural anthropologists, is often critiqued
for its validity and generalizability—do the findings apply to all villages, ethnic groups, and
social classes in the region? Do they provide insights that are useful in other countries?
Ethnographic descriptions of findings often require specific examples and individual stories
in explanations, leading some to critique participant observation data as anecdotal.
Multi-site surveys, comparative ethnographies, and focus groups may help interpret more
limited forms of participant observation data.
In addition, since the cutting practices are infrequent, often held in private, and
sometimes illegal, access may be difficult. Interviewing can be fruitful, although answers are
often affected by ‘performance expectation’ or ‘reactance’ (Mackie 2000), that subtle
distortion of honesty that results when an interviewee shifts his or her answer to say what
they think the researcher wants to hear, leading informants to express modern views even
when practices and beliefs may not have changed much. Research is also affected by respect
for privacy needs or ethical considerations about intrusiveness in researching sexual
practices.
Nevertheless, participant observation offers a good opportunity to get below the surface.
As Shell-Duncan notes (2002), strangers cannot usually witness a family decision-making
process such as when or whether to circumcise, and a survey interviewer arriving according
to a research schedule is unlikely to have the opportunity to attend weddings or childbirths.
In participant observation, however, bridging relationships and rapport promote access to
events. During several weeks of fieldwork in a Sudanese village during the 1970s, the
author was able to interview and observe the work of the government trained midwife,
witnessing her techniques for childbirth and infibulations. That relationship laid the
foundation for a long-term observation of change when interviewed again in three
subsequent periods of research, the most recent in March 2004.
The anthropologist’s immersion in the community can help him or her to understand
roles and social dynamics that impact the views expressed and events witnessed. As ShellDuncan (2002) notes, ‘Knowledge about interrelated social factors and positionality of
members of different subgroups of society based on factors such as age, gender and
economic status allows the researcher to situate issues related to female genital cutting
within a broader social context. It provides the basis for an intuitive understanding of
observations, allowing for the interpretation of data’.
When time does not allow for extensive participant observation, individual in-depth
interviews are highly desirable and focus group interviewing is another choice. However,
focus groups can be unwieldy. In my own ethnographic research in the Sudan, the
Socio-cultural dynamics of female genital cutting
433
excitement surrounding the presence of the research team meant that scheduling a group
was impossible without resulting in a large crowd. Hospitality ethics required that anyone
who dropped by be included, and this made any sort of controlled format impossible. We
adjusted by shifting to directing questions either to the whole group or shifting to a sort of
‘public interview’ with a single individual with others jumping in. Although the result was
chaotic at times, it provided leads for follow-up interviews.
The demand for quantifiable data on practices and associated variables that can be used
in comparisons often leads researchers to undertake surveys where these are possible. In
addition to participant observation and focus groups, Shell-Duncan’s (2002) research on
the Rendille of Kenya used a large survey. The Demographic and Health Surveys that have
now been conducted in many of the countries affected by FGC now include a set of
questions focused on the practices. Generally speaking, however, brief survey responses are
more comprehensible when combined with richer ethnographic information.
Adult responses to surveys may also mask the effect of peer pressure. In research in
Sudan I have found that little girls use childish taunts to reinforce conformity or to
stimulate or resist change (Gruenbaum 2001). In the 1970s, girls from the Arab-Sudanese
ethnic group that performs infibulations mocked uncircumcised girls both from their own
group and from the Zabarma, using name-calling, Ya, Ghalfa! (Hey, unclean!)
(Gruenbaum 2001). Some mothers from the non-infibulating Zabarma group told me
their daughters had begun to respond to the pressure by asking to be circumcised, needling
their mothers with comments like, ‘What’s the matter? Don’t we have razor blades like the
Arabs?’.
Social pressure to conform to higher status Arab practice was resisted by creative
responses of some Zabarma girls, who answered the hecklers with name-calling of their
own. Ya, mutmura! they called, naming the target of the taunt as the underground grain
storage pit that is opened and closed, opened and closed, just as the scar tissue is for birth
and reinfibulation (Gruenbaum 2001: 130–131). Unfortunately, by 2004 the Zabarma in
this same community had adopted FGC—clitoridectomy rather than infibulation,
however—mostly to end fighting among girls.
Careful anthropological and sociological research using participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and surveys offer the foundation for understanding both resistance to
change and changes that take an unanticipated direction. As in the case just mentioned,
non-cutting social groups have adopted and continue to be interested in adopting the
practices (Leonard 2000). Yet cultural values, wit, dialogue, and artistry can be mobilized
effectively both to deflect pressure to adopt more damaging practices and to promote more
healthful change. And as human agency is increasingly recognized in cultural debates (cf.
Ahmadu 2000: 283), reformers must consider how individual choices and cultural selfdetermination play out in defence of a marker of identity or a symbolic world view.
Socio-cultural research and promoting change
Efforts to promote change in female genital cutting practices did not commence in the late
twentieth century. Their origins are to be found in the work of indigenous women’s
organizations and religious leaders (Abusharaf 2000), colonial medical establishments
(Boddy 1998a), and missionaries in Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries (Gruenbaum 2001). In colonial efforts, the theme for many social change efforts
was ‘enlightenment’, drawing the subject peoples out of traditions that Europeans deemed
harmful, beliefs considered too non-Western, and practices that obstructed the smooth
434
E. Gruenbaum
administration of colonial political and economic control. During the colonial period, many
African traditions were targeted for change to pave the way for enlightenment on a
European model of values, for improved hygiene and health conditions to protect workers
and European settlers or administrators, to achieve pacification, and to spread Christianity.
Campaigns against indigenous rituals (e.g., scarification as a rite of passage into
manhood, female genital cutting), marriage practices (especially polygyny), and indigenous
faiths (beliefs in spirits, veneration of ancestors) were common under colonial powers. It
was not uncommon, especially in the early twentieth century when the women’s rights
movements had gained momentum in the USA and Europe, for traditional practices in
Africa and the Arab world to be blamed for oppressing women in Africa and the Middle
East. This provided an additional justification for colonial control and missionary
intervention.
Hayes (1975) published a research-based article on female genital mutilation in Sudan,
linking the practices to fertility control, women’s roles, and patrilineal social structure.
Assaad (1980), Boddy (1982), Cloudsley (1983), and the author (Gruenbaum 1982) later
analysed the value of the practices in their cultural contexts. Although these writings
recognized that female circumcision was not very pleasant or healthy, the practices were
understood to have symbolic vitality (Boddy, 1982) and social consequences for
marriageability. None of these analyses was an apologist stance. Indeed Cloudsley’s
original subtitle to Women of Omdurman was ‘Victims of Circumcision’. Although analytical
rather than activist, the writers recognized that change was already happening and it was
likely to continue.
The long agenda of life struggles facing poor people in so many African communities
often precludes immediate attention to change in circumcision practices. Some have argued
that more urgent attention should be paid to women’s inequality of opportunity and power,
as well as the conditions of war, famine …
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