The amazing Michelle Goldberg has a great piece in the latest print issue of The American Prospect, but you can also read it online. Essentially, she’s exploring the question, as the title suggests, of “Rights Versus Rites,” when it comes to the much abhorred practice of “female genital mutilation” (by many Westerner feminists) and the much honored practice of “female circumcision” (by many African women). Same practice, vastly different contexts and values–as evidenced by the language itself. Goldberg writes:
At first glance, the two speakers seemed to symbolize the dichotomy between modernity and tradition, cosmopolitanism and cultural authenticity. Fuambai Ahmadu (pictured), the American-born daughter of a Sierra Leonean family, wore knee-high leather boots under a stylish rust-colored skirt. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, she looked younger than her 40 years. Beside her was Grace Mose, regal in a red African tunic, matching skirt, and head wrap. Her perfect English was deeply accented by her native Kenya, where she had grown up in an Abagusii village in the country’s southwest region. It was easy to imagine her as a champion of the line of midwives who have made their living cutting girls since the beginning of recorded history, women who are now being jailed in some countries for practicing a trade that once brought them money and pride.
But it wasn’t that simple. Ahmadu, not Mose, is the high-profile defender of female circumcision and the role it can play in inducting African girls into their societies. “My sitting here is a perfect example that female initiation can have a place in a global society,” she insisted. “I don’t see that initiation is somehow an impediment to girls’ development.”…Toward the end of the debate, a Senegalese woman, incensed by Ahmadu, stood up and said, “I really feel very frustrated seeing an African sister defending female genital mutilation.”
This issue–though often presented as a cut and dried human rights problem–is actually deeply complex, colored by culturally rooted values, religion, history, ritual, and so much more. Goldberg does a masterful job of presenting the different points of view with vivid images, rich personalities, and compelling dialogue. It’s further exciting to see a piece of writing where African women, in particular, are not reduced to caricatures–a crime so often committed in mainstream media that doesn’t acknowledge the diversity and complexity of the African continent and those who live there.
Also, be sure to check out Michelle’s new book, The Means of Reproduction.
UPDATE: Michelle responds to the discussion here.