On Feb. 6, 2007, two women, both of whom had been circumcised in Africa, met in the conference room of a small foundation on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a highly unusual debate. It was the fourth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, an occasion for events across the globe dedicated to abolishing the practice. The gathering drew about 30 women, half of them African immigrants from countries including Senegal, Sudan, and Kenya, where female circumcision is common. Several of them were shocked to realize that, despite the name of the event, this wasn't so much a discussion about how female circumcision can be eradicated as about whether it should be.
The custom of cutting off all or part of girls' external genitalia -- deeply ingrained in large swaths of Africa and parts of Asia and the Middle East -- obviously has its defenders, as evidenced by how tenaciously it has endured in the face of a global campaign to eliminate it. Indeed, as the anthropologist Richard Shweder argues in a much discussed 2003 paper, "It is a noteworthy fact that in at least seven African nations 80-90 percent of the popular vote would probably vote against any policy or law that criminalizes the practice of genital modification for either boys or girls." Yet apologists for female genital mutilation (FGM) don't interact much with the global women's movement, which is generally no more inclined to debate the merits of the practice than it is to ponder the upside of rape or wife beating.
That's what made the New York event so unique, and so charged. At first glance, the two speakers seemed to symbolize the dichotomy between modernity and tradition, cosmopolitanism and cultural authenticity. Fuambai Ahmadu, 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." Circumcision and all that it represents in her culture, she said, "is an important source of my social identity. It's what links me with my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my female ancestors. It celebrates our history, our connection."
As she spoke, Mose, a fervent campaigner against the practice, glared at her. Unruffled, Ahmadu continued, arguing that in Sierra Leone, "female circumcision is empowering." 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." A few people applauded. She herself, she said, had not been cut and saw the practice as indefensible. "There is one thing we have to clarify. We have used here the term 'female circumcision,' which is a term that I do not like at all. Because it puts together two things that are totally different. We [should] talk about female mutilation. Why? When we circumcise a boy, that is skin that is cut off. Now when a female is, I'll say, excised, that is the whole part that is taken out. That is completely different!"
Ahmadu had been calm and poised all evening, but there was an undercurrent of controlled anger in her voice as she responded. "I am glad that you referred to me as sister. I believe that we are both sisters," she said. "In Senegal, in Gambia, in my country, Sierra Leone, there are words that we can use, as circumcised women, against uncircumcised women that are very insulting and very nasty and very offensive." Comparing these slurs to the word "mutilation," she continued, "I may be different from you and I am excised, but I am not mutilated. Just like I will not accept anybody calling me by the n-word to define my racial identity, I will not have anybody call me by the m-word to define my social identity, my gender identity."
Ahmadu sees herself as speaking for African women who value female genital cutting but are shut out of the rarified realms of international civil society. "The anti-FGM activists have access to the media, and they have enormous resources, so they're able to influence the media in such a way that most of the women who support the practice cannot," she told me later that evening. "Even if they did, a lot of them are illiterate, so they can't even speak the necessary language, and they cannot respond to charges of backwardness and barbarity."
A global sophisticate, Ahmadu is an unlikely tribune for their voices, but she's also a symbol of the issue's complexity. In concert with the United Nations, the United States has been committed to eliminating FGM since Bill Clinton's administration. Now, Barack Obama is signaling a renewed commitment to international women's rights -- in March, he appointed the first-ever ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer -- while Hillary Clinton is making women's rights a priority at the State Department. But even when it's just, the project of trying to change other cultures is complicated, bound to elicit backlashes and cries of imperialism.
Like international debates over family planning and women's empowerment, the controversy over genital cutting is about who has the right to intervene in the sexual practices of others. In the campaign to eradicate female circumcision, a powerful alliance of rich-country donors and poor-country activists are telling traditional societies that they must change for the sake of their girls. They are trying to eliminate a practice that causes many women incalculable agony but that millions value deeply, in part for its role in warding off sexual chaos. International institutions are pressuring national governments to supersede the child-rearing decisions of families and thus protect girls from harmful traditions. Given that around 3 million African girls are cut each year, the power of global norms to shape individual destiny is being tested on a massive scale.
For many doctors who treat African women, there's little question about the negative effects of female circumcision -- which can refer to anything from clitoridectomy to infibulation, in which the external genitalia is cut off and the two sides sutured together, leaving just a small opening for urination, then torn apart when a girl gets married. "It is painful and destructive," said Nawal Nour, a Boston gynecologist and one of the United States' leading medical experts on female circumcision. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Nour is the founder of the African Women's Health Center, the country's first gynecological clinic devoted to African immigrants. She treats hundreds of infibulated women, mostly from Sudan and Somalia, although she has patients from other parts of the continent as well. Like some defenders of the practice, she avoids the term "female genital mutilation" because, she said, "most of the women I treat don't consider themselves mutilated." Many consider infibulation beautiful. When they first realize American women are almost all uncircumcised, they tend to react with pity and disgust, not envy.
"Part of what I do here in the United States is to bring down that sensationalistic perspective -- oh my god, these are barbaric individuals, how horrific, how can parents do this to their daughters," Nour said. "When you truly understand the issues of female circumcision, it's a tradition, it's a rite of passage, it's something that is celebrated in a lot of these places." She understands why people like Shweder oppose blanket condemnation. "But they go a step too far, because I see the women who do have long-term complications. These long-term complications can go from minor, chronic vaginal infections to inability to penetrate, to have intercourse, to infertility, to very painful intercourse, to inability to deliver a baby," she said. "You can't tell me that they don't have chronic issues."
In Africa, the practice of infibulation has been tied up with globalization for hundreds of years. The political scientist Gerry Mackie has speculated that it derives from an area in what is now northern Sudan and that it spread into other parts of Africa via the slave trade, becoming less severe as it diffused. The practice predates Islam and isn't sanctioned by many orthodox interpretations of the religion; it is mentioned nowhere in the Koran. Nor is it practiced exclusively by Muslims in Africa. Nevertheless, in large parts of the continent, Islam and female circumcision -- especially infibulation -- have been deeply intertwined. Closely tied to the conservative Muslim obsession with female virginity and chastity, it's meant to attenuate women's sexual desire and provide a physical barrier against premarital sex.
If one wave of invaders brought FGM to sub-Saharan Africa, another has long been trying to end the practice. British colonialists in the early decades of the 20th century tended to see female genital cutting as a hideous, heathen custom to be eradicated by their civilizing mission. Their attempts to ban it in Kenya elicited furious opposition, turning FGM into a badge of anti-colonial authenticity. This legacy is often used to tar efforts to eradicate the practice as a kind of neocolonialism or secular missionary work. "These days at least two things have changed since the 1920s and 1930s in Africa: anesthesia is more available, and the 'civilizing' missionary efforts of militant Protestants have been supplemented and even supported by the evangelical interventions of global feminists and human rights activists," Shweder writes.
Yet many African feminists bristle at the idea that opposition to excision and infibulation has been imposed on them by Westerners. Circumcision, Mose insisted, is meant to instill humility and submission in women. "We are not opposing it because we are following what the West is telling us," she said during her debate with Ahmadu. "It's because of our own personal experience. There is no Western woman who came to tell me, 'This practice is painful.' No. That is an experience that I went through, and I understood how painful it was. . . . No woman should have to deal with that."
More than in any other region in the world, in Africa the politics of sex and gender are bound up with the institutions of global governance, which are themselves under pressure from the women's movement to intervene against discrimination. Humanitarian activist and Harvard fellow Alex de Waal has described how African AIDS activists have been able to work through international nongovernmental organizations to affect local policy: "Blocked from direct routes of access, African activists meet with their Western counterparts, who have access to policy makers in Washington and Brussels, who in turn squeeze African governments."
His analysis is equally true for feminists. African activists have been able to leverage international concern about FGM to press their leaders -- most of them dependent on foreign aid and thus eager for global goodwill -- to respond. In July 2003 the heads of government of the African Union countries approved one of the world's most progressive treaties on women's rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, often referred to as the Maputo Protocol, after the city in Mozambique where it was negotiated. Though little noticed in the United States (or among the vast majority of African women), the Maputo Protocol was a major achievement for the continent's women's rights activists. It prohibited "all forms of female genital mutilation," outlawed child marriage and forced marriage, and called for the legalization of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life and health of the mother, making it the first international treaty that affirms abortion rights.
The protocol went into effect in 2005. Gambia, which had initially registered reservations, ratified it fully in April 2006. The country's president had once accused the West of spending millions to undermine African culture and Islamic values, proclaiming in 1999 that FGM "is part of our culture, and we should not allow anyone to dictate to us how we should conduct ourselves." The government later took a new line. "The cultural beliefs of the past may not be good anymore, because we now know that they are not too good for our health and well-being," Gambia's secretary of state argued at the National Assembly in 2006. Of course, in Gambia and other countries that have ratified the Maputo protocol, the practice continues.
Opposition to anti-FGM efforts has been particularly strong in Ahmadu's native Sierra Leone, where, according to the United Nations, 94 percent of women have had clitoridectomies. The link to tradition is so valued that politicians have sponsored mass circumcisions to garner votes. This February, Sierra Leonean women who support FGM kidnapped four female foreign journalists whom they believed to be hostile to the practice. According to the BBC, the reporters were stripped and marched through the street in the city of Kenema before being released.
For outsiders, of course, it seems baffling that women would cling to such traditions. Straddling cultures, Ahmadu is in a unique position to explain the phenomenon. Her family comes from the Kono ethnic group, which lives in northeastern Sierra Leone. For the Kono, circumcision is at the center of a girl's initiation into Bondo, a powerful female secret society (initiation into the male counterpart, Poro, also involves circumcision). "Among the Kono, Bondo is part of life; it's part of the culture," she said. "So in a sense it's your right. It is your privilege. And if you don't, then you are being denied your right. For me, it was something I was very excited to belong to . . . it was a question of when, not if."
For Ahmadu, the time came when she was a 22-year-old senior at George Washington University. When her family decided to bring her and her 8-year-old sister to be initiated in their ancestral village, she went willingly. It was a discombobulating, sometimes thrilling and physically agonizing experience, and one that she now values deeply. Ahmadu reminds us that what public-health officials call "harmful traditional practices" are in fact the very texture of life for many people, the rituals and norms that imbue existence with order and purpose. To talk to her is to begin to understand why a practice that causes so much pain nevertheless remains so entrenched and so zealously defended by its ostensible victims.
All the same, for Ahmadu circumcision was a choice, one she made as an adult. For the overwhelming majority of girls who undergo it that is not the case. Most only have such options when a cluster of deeply rooted values, beliefs, and hierarchies begin to deteriorate, a process that causes anguish and panic for some and offers the promise of liberation to others. The fact remains that, in general, the more alternatives girls have and the more exposure to the outside world, the less likely they are to opt for these old ways.
Nowhere in the world is that more clear than at Kenya's Tasaru Ntomonok Girls Rescue Center, a shelter that houses dozens of Masai girls who have fled their villages in their desperation to remain intact. Located on the edge of Narok, a dusty market town in Kenya's fabled Rift Valley, Tasaru is testament to the lengths to which some girls will go to escape painful traditions once they glean the merest hint of a way out.
Agnes Pareyio, the founder of Tasaru Ntomonok, is a Masai woman in her early 50s with an open, friendly face and a gap where her two bottom middle teeth should be, a traditional Masai body modification. Other than that, when I first met her, the only outward sign of her ethnic heritage was the beaded bracelet she wore. Her hair was braided and coiled in a bun. When she goes into the surrounding villages she sometimes shocks other Masai by wearing trousers. Pareyio grew up in an ordinary Masai village, though she attended boarding school, where she had a friend from a community that didn't circumcise its daughters and was horrified to hear about the practice -- and planted doubts in Pareyio's mind. During the December holiday when she was 14, Pareyio returned home from school to find her family preparing a great feast. She asked her mother what was going on, and she replied, "All these people are here because there's a ritual that is going to be performed." Pareyio realized what they were planning and told her mother that she refused to let it happen. But eventually, under family and community pressure, she agreed to go through with it. Her legs were pried open and her genitals slashed off. Afterward, an old woman felt the wound to make sure nothing was left. The pain was horrible, and it came back twice as bad every time she urinated. She has regretted it her entire life.
Luckily, she was sent back to school, and her parents didn't marry her off until she was 18. Soon after her marriage, Pareyio became a local women's rights activist and, before long, a campaigner against female circumcision. To demonstrate the consequences of the practice, she had a local woodworker make a model of the female reproductive tract with detachable parts, then walked with it from village to village, talking to any group that would listen. She spoke about shock, pain, and hemorrhaging and explained how circumcision complicated childbirth.
Soon, something remarkable happened -- girls who had heard her started running away from home, trekking alone through the bush or hopping on buses to seek Pareyio's help in escaping the fate tradition had prepared for them. Pareyio found them temporary housing and enrolled them in school while looking for something more permanent. In 2000, playwright-turned-global-activist Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame) was touring Kenya when she saw Pareyio in the field, doing a presentation in a village with her wooden model. Enormously impressed, Ensler started fundraising for a shelter. In 2002, Tasaru Ntomonok -- which means "rescue the women" in the Masai language -- was born.
Early on there was considerable rage toward Pareyio. Many in the local Masai community "were very much against Tasaru. They say you are going against the tradition of the people," said Hellen Kamaamia, a local teacher who serves as Tasaru's treasurer. Men typically pay for their wives with cattle, the Masais' traditional source of wealth; fathers who can't give their daughters in marriage are literally poorer for it. Furious men -- fathers or would-be husbands -- would sometimes show up outside Tasaru's door with swords, demanding their girls back, and Pareyio would have to face them down. "Agnes is bold," Kamaamia said with obvious admiration.
Despite her stalwart rejection of harmful traditions, the last thing Pareyio wants is for the girls at Tasaru to end up alienated from Masai culture. Instead, she wants Masai culture to change to embrace strong, educated women. Female circumcision is the way girls have traditionally been initiated into Masai womanhood. Pareyio sees much of value in the initiation process, and she's trying to keep it alive without the cut. Each August groups of girls come to Tasaru for an alternative rite-of-passage ceremony. Slowly, Pareyio's community has started to see her as a leader rather than a threat.
Ahmadu's argument, that to decry circumcision is to decry her very culture, is a persuasive one. Liberals have many reasons to sympathize with people struggling to hold on to their ways of life in the face of the hegemonic steamroller of globalization. But they have even more reason to sympathize with people like Pareyio who are fighting for individual rights in societies that demand subsuming such rights to tradition and myths about sexual purity. After all, even if relativists like Shweder truss them up in fashionable thirdworldism, such demands are the very essence of reactionary conservatism.
No outsider could ever create the kind of change Pareyio has, but Pareyio couldn't have had such a profound impact without outside help. Ultimately, she offers a model for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton as they try to expand women's rights around the world. Pareyio's work is possible because of the global system that pressured Kenya to change its laws, and because of the grass-roots funding that enables her to help the girls in her community. The United States needs to work on both levels -- at the macro-level of U.N. conferences and international law and at the hyper-local level where only people who are really part of the community can make a difference. To support people like Pareyio -- as well as those fighting to implement the Maputo Protocol or working against draconian abortion bans or the terrible iniquities of Sharia law -- is to reject relativism. It is to believe that other cultures, like our own, can change in necessary ways without being destroyed.