Over at Feministing, there’s a vigorous discussion about the excerpt from my book The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World that appears in the current issue of the Prospect. Many of those leaving comments seem to think that the piece is a rationalization or a justification for female circumcision, which it very much is not. “This is some of the most pathetic apologism I've ever seen,” wrote one person. “Culture can be bad. We have bad elements to our own culture, and Feministing spends plenty of time talking about them and how they can change. But when there's an upper-middle class American academic defending it, suddenly it's sacrosanct.”
But the point of the excerpt – and of the book more broadly -- is very much that culture is not sacrosanct. The article begins by trying to understand the position taken by Fuambai Ahmadu, an American-born academic who, in keeping with the traditions of her Sierra Leonean family, voluntarily underwent circumcision, and is now a very eloquent defender of the practice. But understanding is not the same as agreeing. And it ends by contrasting Ahmadu with Agnes Pareyio, a Masai woman who runs a shelter for girls running away from home to escape being cut.
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 … 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. …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.
But even if one doesn’t want to defend female circumcision and other harmful customs, it seems important to understand why so many people cling to them. There are all kinds of complex cross-cutting issues that make attempts to eradicate the practice really complicated. Disgusted condemnation may be morally appropriate, but if you really care about seeing female circumcision stopped, after a certain point it's not that helpful. To me, that complexity is what’s fascinating, but also what’s hardest to convey in the rapid-fire atmosphere of the blogosphere.