Relativism and rage: Representations of female circumcision and female genital mutilation
Doctor of Philosophy
In recent years, there has been an enormous surge in the level of public awareness in the United States regarding female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FC/FGM). These practices, historically portrayed by anthropologists as predominately African cultural rituals known most commonly as female circumcision, have been reconstructed in various discursive sites more frequently as violence and torture against girls and women. In the latter sites, the practices are referred to as female genital mutilation. This reconceptualization has been conducted in large part beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology and at times in opposition to relativistic scholarship in the field, creating a dichotomous ideology that has pitted cultural relativists against political activists aimed at eradicating FC/FGM. These polarized perspectives are played out in the exponential growth of multi-sited representations of FC/FGM within academic, applied and popular culture arenas. Within popular culture, representations of these practices have become ubiquitous and are the subject matter of innumerable print, television and radio "documentary" stories. The production of everyday knowledge has become so mainstreamed that FGM has surpassed being featured on Oprah as a measure of it cultural embeddedness by additionally appearing as the subject matter of television dramas, stage productions, and adult and juvenile literary fiction. This dissertation traces representations of FC/FGM in various Western discursive sites and analyzes the "ideological work" which the debates have produced in arenas of anthropology, law, advocacy and popular culture. Cultural relativists are often charged with condoning the practices, while the "outraged" are portrayed as neocolonial, moral imperialists. I will argue that anthropology has not responded to the "rage" by discarding its relativistic roots, but rater channels its relativistic scholarship to inform "appropriate" change efforts aimed at reducing FC/FGM practices. Laws within the U.S., on the other hand, effectively invalidate cultural relativism by negating "culture" as a reason for FC/FGM and by criminalizing FC/FGM entirely. Finally, popular culture functions to situate immigrants as the "exotic Other" among us, while becoming part of the global discourse to eradicate FC/FGM. Both our laws and popular culture show that we critique others in ways we cannot critique ourselves.