The following guide was contributed to the WMST-L file collection in 1994. Written by Jennifer McMahon and Denise Maynard, it offers a number of valuable suggestions for incorporating the issue of Female Genital Mutilation into courses on Contemporary Moral Issues (McMahon) and on African American Women Writers (Maynard). See also the two-part WMST-L file Female Genital Mutilation.
Contemporary Moral Issues is an introductory course that deals with a wide range of philosophical questions that face the people living in the world today. As a basis for analysis of these issues, different types of ethical theories are studied. Each issue is then evaluated from these and other Perspectives.
Among the issues discussed in the course are abortion, animal rights, the environment, the role of business in society, human rights, poverty, medical ethics, violence, and sexual ethics. The foci of these debates are the responsibilities of the individual and the responsibilities of society. Questions like "Who makes these collective decisions?" are also asked within the context of the course.
At the end of the course, the student should come away with a broader understanding of all of the larger issues that face society today. All perspectives are examined, and each student should arrive at a more personal view on how they are affected by each ethical problem.
On a general level, the issue of Genital Mutilation can provide the class with an example of the problem of whether or not ethical problems can cross cultural bounds. Kenyatta's book, Facing Mount Kenya, and Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology, are good sources for this type of debate. Daly makes the argument that charges of racism merely succeed in making genital mutilation not a women's issue, but one of race. Kenyatta is arguing the other point, that genital mutilation is a national tradition and should therefore only be the concern of the African people. This type of argument is very important to give students the opportunity to understand that cultural differences often complicate moral debates.
Further along these same lines, possible examples of genital mutilation in American culture can be discussed. Good examples include the breast implant debate, as well as various other forms of plastic surgery. Mary Daly, in her book, Gyn/Ecology, discusses this dilemma in some depth.
Genital mutilation also fits into the theme of this class as an example of human rights violations. Genital mutilation is an act of violence which still occurs today, on a large level, to women on the sole basis of their sex. When the issue is approached from this perspective, it becomes virtually impossible to deny that the human rights of these women have been violated. The question of who is deciding what is right for whom is evident in these examples of genital mutilation. The Hidden Face of Eve can be used to facilitate class discussion on this topic. El Saadawi gives a first hand account of her own experience with genital mutilation. El Saadawi's educated parents, influenced by societal pressure and Egyptian tradition, forced this operation on all of their daughters.
Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
A literary presentation of an African American woman who chooses to have a clitoridectomy in order to follow Olinka tradition. Passages of this novel are a good choice for students because they help personalize the issue of genital mutilation. Professors may want to read the entire novel to decide which chapters can be used in conjunction with each section of the syllabus.Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (editors), Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1990.
The sections entitled "Zainaba" and "Lecture on Clitoridectomy to the Midwives of Touil, Mauntania" give an account of one attempt to work within the existing framework of African culture to bring about improvements in the medical practices of clitoridectomies. These articles present the reader with a different perspective (other than a Western one) on how change can occur in the area of genital mutilation.Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-ethics of Radical Feminism, Boston, Ma.: Beacon Press, 1990.
In chapter five, "African Genital Mutilation: Unspeakable Atrocities," Daly discusses how certain health organizations refuse to deal with this topic because of accusations of racism in regards to the issue of genital mutilation. Daly also discusses the components of the Sado-Ritual Syndrome, including the hermaphroditic myth, and the reason for the absence of men from the actual practice of female genital mutilation. Daly also investigates possible parallels of African genital mutilation to certain health trends in the United States today.Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of Gikuyu, New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
Jomo Kenyatta holds the opposite view of Mary Daly. He is writing from the perspective that genital mutilation is an African tradition, and for this reason, it is not a matter that should occupy international concern. It is not a women's issue, Kenyatta believes, but an issue of race and nationality. Chapter six entitled, "The Initiation of Boys and Girls" is a good example of these beliefs.Fran Hosken, The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females, Lexington, Ma.: The Women's International Network News, 1982.
Students should read the introductory chapter, as well as the chapter which presents Fran Hosken's personal opinions. This book is a collection of statistics that Hosken has compiled over the years in her studies of genital mutilation in some countries in Africa.
This is El Saadawi's personal account of how she had the operation forced on her as a child. Her account is vivid, and we get to hear first hand about one woman's pain. El Saadawi goes further to discuss the situation of Arab women today, and more specifically, Egyptian women. The chapters entitled "The Question No One Would Answer," and "Circumcision of Girls" are very helpful.John Duffy, "Masturbation and Clitoridectomy: A 19th Century View," Journal of the American Medical Association, volume 186, October 19, 1963: pp. 245-248.
This article is a clear example of how issues of genital mutilation have threatened the situation of women in the United States. Duffy recounts how during the Industrial Revolution, it was suggested that women were deriving too much sexual pleasure from operating the pedal controlled sewing machines. Clitoridectomies were considered as a possible remedy, but as we can see by the lack of modem pedal sewing machines, other methods were used to eliminate the problem.Fran Hosken, The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females, Lexington, Ma.: The Women's International Network News, 1982.
Fran Hosken is the first to publish a definitive study on the topic of genital mutilation. For this reason, her work has a tendency to generalize about the situation in Africa. The Hosken Report provides maps and many specific case histories. Hosken is also the editor of WIN News, which deals with the issue of genital mutilation on an on-going basis.
Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya, Chapter Six, "Initiation
of Boys and Girls."
Nawal El Saadawi's The Hidden Face Of Eve, the chapters entitled "The Question No One Would Answer," and "Circumcision of Girls."
1. Which of these accounts do you find most believable, and why?
2. Describe each author's understanding of the entire process of genital mutilation. How are they similar? How do they conflict?
3. What sorts of moral issues do these two points of view raise? Do you see this as a problem of only African or Egyptian concern? Do other countries have a moral obligation in regard to this issue? If yes, what are these obligations, and if no, why not?
Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology, Chapter 5, "African Genital
Mutilation: Unspeakable Atrocities."
Fran Hosken's The Hosken Report, the sections entitled "Forward" and "Personal View."
1. How do these two readings relate to what we read for Monday?
Do these articles clarify any moral issues? If so, what are
2. How do these two points of view deal with the issue of national tradition? Do you feel that their response is correct? How would Jomo Kenyatta respond?
Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy, selected
Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, Opening the Gates, sections entitled "Zainaba" and "Lecture on Clitoridectomy."
1. How does the account described in Opening the Gates attempt to
deal with the problem of genital mutilation? As a moral
question, do you find this action sufficient? Discuss why, or
2. How have the selections from Possessing the Secret of Joy affected your thoughts on this issue? How does each of the other points of view relate to this literary interpretation?
1. What is the responsibility, if any, of the medical community
as more and more people who perpetuate the practice of genital
mutilation move to the United States? What ethical factors
come into play? Should these operations be performed in the
United States? In what situations?
2. What are some ways women in the United States mutilate their bodies? Do you see any parallels between these types of mutilation and genital mutilation?
The purpose of the Major Contemporary Black Women Writers course offered at Gettysburg College is to introduce African American writers as individual authors that articulate a unique Black Self rather than the white person's perceptions of what it is to be Black. The texts that are presently required for the class are, Brown Girl, Brownstones (Paule Marshall); Betsy Brown (Ntozake Shange); Meridian (Alice Walker); The Salt Eaters (Toni Cade Bambara); Tar Baby (Toni Morrison); Linden Hills (Gloria Naylor); and Disappearing Acts (Terry McMillan). Critical texts by Melissa Walker, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Audrey Edwards and Craig T. Polite are also utilized. These books are specifically chosen for this class, explains Professor Deborah Barnes, because they depict Black women writers who exhibit "an empowered, culturally-centered African American Self." The authors are able to critique Black female subordination and disempowerment because they place the text within a "feminine sphere where the Black female 'Self' is free to define, to value, and to assert itself authentically." These books are not about Black women as depicted by white authors; they are about Black women representing themselves, their culture, and their history. They are books not only about self discovery, but also about self identity. Instead of identifying themselves through the eyes of whites, they are identifying themselves through their past and the eyes of other Black women. This course has specific focus on certain concerns and issues that are brought out in the readings. This is an outline that Dr. Barnes has provided of these concerns:
This course is structured as a seminar. Oral class participation and discussion of the texts is necessary. It is structured in this manner to "emphasize and reify the importance of orality, shared knowledge, and mutual respect--fundamentals of African American culture."
The class is responsible for submitting three short critical essays (3-5 pages) that are written on three novels of their choice. One of the essays serves as a record of their formal oral presentation and also as a critical idea that is expanded in a term paper, which also serves as the final exam (35% of their grade).
By exploring the issues found in the literature of Black women writers and using the characteristics of race, gender, and class, the goal of the course is to "track the Black woman's personal, social and political evolution in contemporary America," and to identify the Black woman's struggle to gain her identity despite years of subordination and disempowerment.
While violence against Black women permeates many aspects of the Black woman writer's work, this particular bibliography focuses on incorporating the subject of genital mutilation into the Contemporary Black Women Writers course. Only recently has genital mutilation--also known as female circumcision, phaeronic circumcision, infibulation, excision and clitoridectomy--become a subject that Black women writers will discuss in their works. Direct references to it can be found in Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy and Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe. Other works include references to it, but often its severity is hidden in a set of symbols. Of course, that is what genital mutilation is about--symbols. Reasons for why it is still performed in some countries of Africa are its symbolic meanings in religion, marriage, and the daily lives of women.
It is important to discuss this topic because it does pertain to the goals of the course. It is part of the African culture and, if the writers wish to acknowledge their past as being separate from that of the Anglo-Saxons, a part that symbolizes the African rituals and unity. To encompass the feeling of an African sisterhood, the African American in today's society cannot ignore a practice that is part of the African woman's life. Whether or not the African American agrees with this practice, it is part of the process of the African American writer to depict an "empowered, culturally-centered African-American Self."
As far as this particular course is concerned, the following bibliography will assist any students wishing to further research this topic for the oral presentation or the research paper. It also serves to assist the professor and increase their knowledge on the subject. Suggestions for class discussion are included in the suggested syllabus.
Naylor, Gloria. Bailey's Cafe. New York: Harcourt, Brace,
This novel covers many topics Black women writers focus on in contemporary African American literature. It is narrated by a man, but the author is a woman and the "misfits" are also women. The chapter titled "Mary (Take Two)" is the story of Miriam's infibulation and pregnancy. Her experience is not told directly and it is the only story not told by a man because, "this isn't a story any man can tell. And the girl can't do it for herself; she's a little off in the head" (p. 143). What makes her story so different? Basically, Naylor is implying that genital mutilation is really a woman's issue and no man could possibly understand it, let alone describe it. Perhaps this is because genital mutilation is a practice continued by the women of the families; men have very little say in genital mutilation and actually know very little about it. The techniques that Naylor uses to tell this story are metaphor and symbolism. She parallels Miriam's infibulation to a plum being peeled.Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992.
The focus of this novel, which has angered many African American women for its Western view of genital mutilation, is the psychological effects of infibulation on the main character, Tashi. Not only does she suffer psychologically, but also physically and she continues to suffer when her son is born mentally retarded. Finally, Tashi is driven to murdering the woman who performed the procedure on her and she must face death for the murder. Walker's style is interesting in this novel because all the characters narrate their individual stories. It introduces what it is to be a woman and why men want to take it away. Notice the bluntness of Walker's style--she does not leave much to the imagination. Also think about her views on the issue of how Western women should react. Should it just be African American women who are concerned?
Naylor, Gloria. Bailey's Cafe. New York: Harcourt, Brace,
This novel is excellent for a Black Women Writers literature class because it covers so many topics that affect African American women today. lt is narrated by a man, but the author is a woman and the "misfits" are also women. The chapter titled "Mary (Take Two)" is the story of Miriam's infibulation and pregnancy. Her experience is not told directly and it is the only story not told by a man because, "This isn't a story any man can tell. And the girl can't do it for herself; she's a little off in the head" (p. 143). The techniques that Naylor uses to tell this story are metaphor and symbolism. For example, the description of Miriam's infibulation parallels the description of a plum being peeled. Also, the title of the chapter implies religious meaning especially since Miriam is pregnant and she claims, "No man has ever touched me." This emphasizes the reason why infibulation is still performed (virginity) and also the obvious connection to the Virgin Mary. There are many opportunities for class discussion concerning this book.Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992.
The focus of this novel, which has angered many African American women for its Western view of genital mutilation, is the psychological effects of infibulation on the main character of the novel, Tashi. Not only does she suffer psychologically, but also physically and she continues to suffer when her son is born retarded. Finally, Tashi is driven to murdering the woman who performed the procedure on her. Walker's style is interesting in this novel because all the characters narrate their individual stories. It introduces what it is to be a woman and why men want to take it away.
Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into
Female Genital Circumcision in Africa. New York: Harrington Park
Prisoners of Ritual tells about Lightfoot-Klein's trek through Sudan, Kenya, and Egypt and her personal relations with the African women she stayed with and their explanations of the topic of genial mutilation. It has been called the most "fair-minded book" as far as its subject is concerned because it is not written in anger, but in compassion. Lightfoot-Klein includes interviews with women who have undergone genital mutilation, as well as interviews with doctors (male and female) and the husbands of women who have been through this type of procedure. She also includes a summary of how she conducted the interviews and the range of people interviewed, so one knows her methods of interviewing. John Money, PhD, Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has said of this book, "the book does not sensationalize, wrath does not override compassion, and the gateway to change is unlocked and kept open." Because of this, Prisoners of Ritual should be the first resource read. It provides pictures, drawings, unbiased interviews, and historical background that are enlightening and straightforward.Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyo. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
Kenyatta is the first leader of post-independent Kenya and a celebrated anthropologist. In his chapter "Initiation of Boys and Girls," he supports genital mutilation and says it is a practice misunderstood by Westerners who criticize it. His focus is not the physical pain suffered by the women, which he says is no different from the pain suffered by circumcised men, but the traditional and cultural meanings behind genital mutilation.Hosken, Fran P. The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females. Lexington, Mass.: Women's International Network News, 1982.
The most detailed and up-to-date research on genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East. It includes personal accounts of women and evidence why Americans should do all in their power to make genital mutilation stop. It is biased and, unfortunately, a very Western view. Hosken ignores the cultural significance of genital mutilation and her suggestions as to how to stop this practice are arrogant and imposing and show little understanding of African culture despite the time she spent in Africa.Van Sommer, Annie, ed. Our Moslem Sisters. New York: The Young People's Missionary Movement, 1907.
Our Moslem Sisters is an example of how taboo a subject genital mutilation has always been. Because it was written in 1907 by American Missionaries it is a naive narrative. It does not directly discuss genital mutilation, but it does discuss in detail some of the obstacles that the Moslem women in Africa face due to the overwhelming influence of the patriarchy. This book is written from a religious stand-point, but it does show a fairly accurate picture of the Egyptian woman's life and the difficulties she encounters when she is married young, forced to marry someone she does not know, and, "her life is merely an animal life; she is but a necessary article for use in her husband's household." The references to genital mutilation are not direct, but one wonders if it is being implied in passages such as the following: "I have tried to reason with them and point out the advantages of cleanliness and industry; all admit that I am right and that our habits are better than theirs, yet none have the heart or the energy or the character to break away from their customs and their innate laziness and to rise up and be women" (p. 68). As this passage also shows, this account is tremendously biased and told from a Western view which tries to "civilize" the natives and make their country a replica of America or Europe.Morgan, Robin. Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology. New York: Anchor Books, 1984.
The relevant chapters in this book are the ones on Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. Basically this book provides statistics on the economy, gynography, and the government. In the section on gynography, there is an overview of marriage, divorce, traditional/cultural practices, rape, etc. These statistics are useful for factual evidence on genital mutilation and other practices which effect women in each of the countries. Also, all the chapters are followed by a brief essay on the women's movement in each of the countries and their areas of concentration. The essay in the chapter on Egypt is by Nawal El Saadawi she is the author of The Hidden Face of Eve, a book that tells the story of an Egyptian woman's life and discusses in detail genital mutilation.
Badran, Margot and Miriam Cooke, eds. Opening the Gates: A Century
of Arab Feminist Writing. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University
The chapters "Zainaba" and "Alifa Rifaat" talk about genital mutilation. "Zainaba" shows the difficulties in educating midwives and sharply contrasts writers, such as Hosken, with a Western view. This essay also supports the theory of Nahid Toubia found in Women and the Family in the Middle East because it shows that an attack to the midwives will not be the only way to eliminate genital mutilation. "Alifa Rifaat" is a chapter from Rifaat's book, Who Will Be the Man. It is an interesting contrast or comparison to African American accounts such as Walker's.Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, ed. Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1985.
In the essay entitled "The Social and Political Implications of Female Circumcision: The Case of the Sudan," by Nahid F. Toubia, the author provides a quick analysis of common assumptions about genital mutilation and the reasons it should not be performed. For example, Toubia says that to eliminate the practice only for health reasons should not be the central focus of people desiring to terminate genital mutilation. She argues that genital mutilation must be seen as a practice in which women are subordinated, and it is only a part of the web of practices by which women are controlled. To end genital mutilation would mean to end other practices which create inequalities between men and women.
Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.
The chapter on "African Genital Mutilation: The Unspeakable Atrocities" represents a radical feminist view of genital mutilation. Obviously, Daly is strongly against the practice and sees genital mutilation as another means in which women are subordinate to men. She explains some historical reasons for the continuation of the practice and provides modem reasons why it should be stopped from a feminist perspective, therefore not only concentrating on the medical reasons.
Stratton, Jon. The Virgin Text: Fiction, Sexuality, and Ideology.
University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
In most of the texts describing genital mutilation, an emphasis is on virginity. One of the reasons the practice is performed is to maintain a woman's virginity. In his chapter on "Sexuality and Confinement," Stratton discusses virginity as a way to control sexuality. This pertains to genital mutilation as a way that women's sexuality is controlled in areas in Africa and the Middle East. There is also an analysis of the clitoris and theories of Freud and other behavior analysts who analyze the psychological significance of the female's genitalia. Stratton also describes confinement as a means of controlling a person's sexuality. Overall, he describes sexuality and the controlling of a person's sexuality as part of a bourgeois capitalist society and uses perhaps one of the best descriptions of genital mutilation's purpose, "The problem arises of demonstrating not that something has happened but that it has not" (p. 18).Atkins, John. Sex in Literature: The Erotic Impulse in Literature. London: Calder and Boyars, 1970.
This text is useful in providing traditional descriptions of females found in literature and helps support the stereotypes of the "ideal" woman being smooth, white, soft, etc. These ideals are what women are trying to attain when they go through genital mutilation. It shows what a beautiful woman is, and supports the practice of genital mutilation as a means of achieving the "ideal" beauty. Interestingly, the same ideals are found throughout the world, so one might say that women who are genitally mutilated have just taken the descriptions to extremes. One description supporting the threat of a woman's genitalia growing to extremes and becoming like a man's penis is found in Juliette: "There is a woman named Volmar who is fitted with a clitoris three inches long, and, 'destined to insult Nature' whichever be the sex she adopts, the whore's got either to play the nymphomaniac or the sodomite: with her, there's no median alternative" (p. 198). This text explores the myths associated with women's sexuality from a literary stand-point and it is interesting to see that these myths do not only stem from Africa and the Middle East--they have pervaded Western literature and literature from the Orient for centuries.Bettelheim, Bruno. Symbolic Wounds: How Pre-Literate Man Masters Fear by Trying to Make Woman's Power His Own. New York: Collier Books, 1962.
This book contains anthropological data on initiation rites and the symbolism behind the actions. Despite its title, it is told without bias and is a useful source to see what the symbols and symbolic acts represent. In the chapter "Girl's Rites," genital mutilation and theories behind it are explained in detail.Michie, Helena. Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
In the chapter "'And Now She Was Different': Sexuality and Differentiation Among Black Women In Quicksand, Passing, and Sula," motherlove, Black women's sexuality and symbolic marks and how they are depicted in these books are discussed in detail. It is interesting to compare these ideas and how they are portrayed in these books to Bailey's Cafe and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Also one can compare them to books read in class by Toni Morrison. The themes of silence, loyalty, and love being shown through violence are also applicable to the other texts that discuss genital mutilation. Another issue to further study is the symbol and uses of the bedroom, since the bedroom is a crucial setting in all these texts as a place for privacy, but also as a place in which sexual acts occur.Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
The chapter entitled "Enclosures" is the most pertinent to the topic of genital mutilation. Boddy uses her account of the procedure to look into symbolic messages that are portrayed in the practice of genital mutilation. For example, she examines the importance of heat, pain, and of blood and how this practice affirms the symbolic meanings of these things. She explains her purpose in this chapter: "Embedded in its surface expressions--customs, beliefs, ceremonial procedures--lies a network of interlocking symbols, idioms, and metaphors that provides the context in whose terms Hofriyati interact and derive meaning from their experiences in the world" (p. 47). Instead of supporting or condemning genital mutilation, Boddy researches why it is important to these people.Henderson, Mae G. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text" in Spillers, Hortense J., ed. Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. New York: Routledge, 1991.
This essay primarily discusses the following: boundaries that separate the speakable from the unspeakable. the Black woman's sense of self and the recovery of herstory, and motherhood and how events from the past become the Black woman's repression and obsession. There are also references to "mutilations" in the sense of scars that are self-inflicted or inflicted by males. While it is mainly a discussion of Beloved, the ideas in this essay can easily be applied to Bailey's Cafe and Possessing the Secret of Joy. It is a useful reference to compare and contrast these novels.Staples, Robert. The Black Woman in America. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1973.
Chapter two of this book, called "The Sexual Life of Black Women" describes some of the sexual obstacles faced by Black Women in America in 1973. While it is outdated, it is interesting how the author attempts to describe certain aspects of the Black woman's sexuality to events in her past--slavery and the Black woman's role in African society. It is not an accurate source, but it perhaps gives some explanations why authors like Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker are writing about genital mutilation today.
Dr. Barnes has placed the literature used in the course into four sections: Integration, The Struggle for Social Change, The Price of Assimilation and The Fruits of the Struggle. I suggest that Possessing the Secret of Joy be placed under the heading "The Struggle for Social Change" and Bailey's Cafe be read under the heading "The Price of Assimilation." A general outline for class discussion could explore the following questions:
The following questions can serve as a guideline when discussing Bailey's Cafe:
Some guidelines for discussing Possessing The Secret of Joy are:
Another topic to explore is to compare and contrast genital mutilation to the other forms of violence described in the other texts.
All these questions can be discussed in class or in a paper. It is a topic most people know very little about and I guarantee it will create some controversy in the class, therefore it is important that the Professor research the different views supporting or opposing genital mutilation so as to give all arguments some direction.