Kalamazoo College's Student Newspaper
By Tshephiso Teseletso and Emily Townsend, Staff Writers
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as, “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” They say the practice is affecting 140 million females across the world and is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers or health providers.
On Tuesday at 8 p.m., anthropologist Richard Shweder gave a lecture on “Engaging Cultural Differences without Moral Panic, the Burqa and ‘FGM.’” Shweder opened his talk by saying, “We should take a final step towards humanizing cultural differences without moral panic.” He was critical of western media’s interpretation of African traditional practices.
He distinguished between ‘facts’ and ‘factoids’ by saying, “Factoids are presented as facts, but are not really.” His message against Westerners’ moral panic in the form of discrimination quickly turned to his hot button issue: female circumcision in West Africa.
The WHO’s FGM page reads in bold letters, “NO HEALTH BENEFIT, ONLY HARM.” Shweder argues that this ethical battle is skewed. He says Westerners wrongly believe that, “There has been an acceptance of the dark, brutal, primitive and barbaric custom and this practice deserves to be on the list on absolute evils…”
In a documentary that Shweder screened, an American resident, Sunju Ahmadu, from Sierra Leone returns to her motherland for the Kono’s annual female initiation. Many Westerners feel FGM is a product of patriarchy. However, the film showed images of ceremonies and great celebrations by both the young girl initiates and their prideful mothers. A Kono woman looks into the camera when she says, “It marks a transition from girlhood to womanhood…This is what our ancestors did, so it’s important to follow their footsteps…”
Shweder says FGM and female circumcision are the same thing but called differently by different societies. He said, “There’s a discourse of beautification [in Africa] versus the discourse of mutilation [in the West].” Audience member, Ashlee Traylor (K’12), pointed out that FGM causes a woman to have reduced or no pleasure during intercourse, thus she is less equal to her male partner. Shweder refutes this when he cites studies from Italy. Research states that there is no significant difference in orgasmic quality between circumcised and uncircumcised women.
Shweder’s final point came in response to a question from Maya Edery (K’15). She pointed out that his research mostly referred to Kono women, not other places in Africa. She alluded to the often forgotten fact that Africa is a highly diverse continent and results should not be generalized.