In the Name of Ritual
An unprecedented legal case focuses on genital politics
Though men remain backstage during these ritual ceremonies, economics and male psychology are central to the practice. Most of the societies practicing FGM are patrilineal; property and social rank are handed down from father to son. Anthropologists surmise that the first clitoridectomies, like chastity belts, were a means for husbands to ensure that their sons were truly their own. Genital mutilation reduces a woman's interest in sex--and the chances she'll be tempted to stray. In its most extreme form, it demonstrates that the bride is a virgin on her wedding night.
Mothers enforce the mutilations because they want good marriages for their daughters, says Mildred Dickemann, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University in California. A prospective groom knows that a girl who has undergone mutilation has also been instructed to be a faithful, modest wife. "It's cruel in the short term," says Dickemann, "but in terms of the social system, it's logical."
Whatever its origins, opponents see only the ritual's cruelty. At the center of the recent debate is Walker, whose film is scheduled for television viewing next fall. Both her book and the movie call for the eradication of FGM, which Walker denounces as "torture." Her best-selling novel Possessing the Secret of Joy made a similar point.
But even critics who abhor FGM say Walker's approach smacks of cultural imperialism. FGM opponent Dawit calls the film "extremely sensationalistic. [Walker] paints a horrific picture, a colonialist picture. If she had been employed by the British government 100 years ago, she couldn't have done a better job." In a New York Times op-ed piece, Dawit and others wrote recently of "the Western feminist tendency to see female genital mutilation as the gender oppression to end all oppressions." She argues that Westerners ought to help African groups fight the practice, instead of bending it to their feminist agenda.
International human rights organizations have been slow to act againstthe practice. Amnesty International, a renowned champion of human rights, has no policy concerning the genital mutilation of girls and women. "There is an ongoing debate on this issue," says Suzanne Roach, a spokeswoman for the organization. The U.S. State Department monitors FGM but does not tie foreign aid to efforts to eradicate it. Sexism is the simple explanation, according to Schroeder: "If it happens to you for racial reasons, it's a human rights violation. If it happens to you for political reasons, it's a human rights violation. If it happens to a woman, it's cultural."
While the quarrel in the West continues, African women face daunting obstacles to raising their gender's status. "In Nigeria, women don't have any rights," says Oluloro. "They live only to serve their husbands' happiness." For all its apparent cruelty, FGM is just one of many burdens borne by African women, who may worry more about finding clean water than fighting traditions passed down from mother to daughter. "It's not enough for Westerners to say it's an undesirable custom," says Gordon Wallace, director of African health projects at Population Action International, which is assisting African organizations trying to eradicate FGM. "The way to help ... is to help Africans. You can't decide for them."