Richard Shweder’s article about female genital mutilation, or alteration, explores the cultural perceptions and meanings behind this custom, which is practiced among many societies globally (Shweder). The modern number of women undergoing this coming-of-age ritual varies wildly between eighty and two hundred million (Shweder). Shweder’s research investigated the vastly large gap in the extreme perceptions of female circumcision from culture to culture, focusing on the lack of knowledge and understanding presented when analyzing an aspect of another culture aside from one’s own (Shweder).
The researcher’s thesis suggests that this lack of insight as well as failure to question the anti-FGM movement has cultivated an uneducated intolerance towards female circumcision (Shweder). Following an analysis of Shweder’s thesis, I will evaluate the various perceptions among societies in Africa as well as the relatively unproved myths associated with female circumcision and alteration. A thorough comprehension of why individual cultures view FGM differently could potentially close the gap between seeing the procedure as “mutilation” or simply “alteration”.
Cultural understanding plays a large role in one’s acceptance of another culture’s practice, and a lack thereof leads to intolerance of a ritual or tradition that is so meaningful to those who participate (Shweder). Shweder states that, “With accurate scientific information and sufficient cultural understanding it is possible to see the (not unreasonable) point of such practices…”(Shweder,7). This also suggests a certain level of ignorance among some when viewing the customs of others (Shweder).
This knowledge of other cultures, of course, comes from thorough research, a great deal of which is performed by anthropologists (Shweder). Carla Obermeyer, a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist, reviewed 435 articles on the topic of FGM and discovered methodological flaws as well as quality-control problems amongst most (Shweder). Shweder explains that after review and filtering of the articles, Obermeyer found that most studies were inconclusive or had little to no evidence (Shweder). One could then only assume that proper and conclusive research on the topic has not been done (Shweder).
To simplify, a lack of desire to truly understand another culture before making assumptions has led to a negative view of FGM without any evidence (Shweder). Whether an individual perceives the procedure as mutilation or alterations also highly depends on one’s own culture, which is often a blockage to openness (Shweder). For example, a person whose culture naturally believes that any alteration to the female genitalia is mutilation will most likely believe the same, because he or she believes that any other belief is invalid or abhorrent (Shweder).
Another aspect of this thesis is that people believe so strongly that FGM is torture and mutilation that they do not question the anti-FGM movement (Shweder). Is it possible that those who do not question the motives of the anti-FGM movement are perhaps perpetuating the negative stereotype (Shweder)? Although many cultures within Africa practice female genital alteration, a few of these tribes stand out in particular (Shweder). The Gikuyu see circumcision of both men and women as the ritual in order to learn the tribal law, religion, and mortality (Shweder, 2).
Also, it is traditional that a man or woman should not marry or have sex with another who is not circumcised (Shweder). It is an essential step into adulthood for the Gikuyu people, similar to the American rites of passage into adulthood and responsibility, such as turning eighteen (Shweder). There are claims that even the educated Gikuyu people support the practice and will continue to defend it (Shweder). Another culture that the article investigates is that of the Okiek (Shweder). The focus of the study done by Corinne Kratz was determining the symbolic meaning behind the female circumcisions (Shweder).
Kratz discovered that not only did the Okiek people not think of the procedure as dampening sexual pleasure or desire, but they thought of it in terms of cleanliness, beauty, and adulthood (Shweder). Their view shared only one similarity with the Gikuyu in that the ceremonial process was the gate into adulthood for both men and women (Shweder). A potentially unexpected source of meaning is the bravery and self-control displayed by those undergoing the procedure as a general sign of their own personhood (Shweder).
About 50 percent of Kenyan women being circumcised, it is apparent that this tradition is a longstanding and prevalent one that is both respected and desirable to the culture (Shweder). Both viewpoints share the same extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to female genital alterations as with many other Eastern Africa societies (Shweder). Shweder claims that all around the world, there is a “mutual yuck” response to other people’s culture (Shweder). He includes, also, that the “mutual yuck” response when it comes to female genital mutilation is a particularly intense one, and “approaches a sense of mutual outrage or horror” (Shweder, 3).
However, modifications such as these are seen as “normal” in certain parts of the world (Shweder). National prevalence rates of 80-98 percent have been seen in places like Egypt, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the Sudan, and many others (Shweder). As a general trend, ethnic group or cultural affiliation is a large indicator of whether one will participate in or forgo the procedure (Shweder). This further supports the idea that a lack of understanding can lead to hasty interpretations, when these alterations are incredibly prevalent in other parts of the world, whether the women are educated or uneducated (Shweder).
Shweder’s thesis emphasizes the notion that disinterest in cultural understanding as well as not questioning one’s own culture has led to the major gap in the beliefs about FGM (Shweder). If people are to reach full tolerance and acceptance, knowledge of other culture is absolutely critical (Shweder). Two tribes native to Kenya, though they share some differences, both share a support for the procedure and see it as a positive ritual (Shweder).
And though there still exists a “mutual yuck” response to the traditions of others, the prevalence of such traditions could be evidence enough that the “benefits” seen greatly outweigh any risk associated (Shweder). An individual’s culture can be both limiting and controlling of their perception and agency (Shweder). Whether it is brutal “mutilation” or beautifying and cleansing “alteration”, the practice of female genital cutting or modifying certainly exists (Shweder). Only cultural understanding will reveal why (Shweder).