Of Rebels, Spirits, and Social Engineers: The Problems with Ending Female Genital Cutting
Saida Hodzic, Women and Gender Studies, George Mason University
Research Grant, 2009
My research project, “Of Rebels, Spirits, and Social Engineers: The Problems with Ending Female Genital Cutting,” was motivated by a desire to understand a paradox: whereas the practices of female genital cutting incited passionate Western responses and desires to end the practice, African efforts to end cutting were largely disregarded. For many decades, public and scholarly debates about cutting proceeded on such a narrow track that they overlooked radical transformations across Africa. Meanwhile, African organizations—mostly NGOs, often in collaboration with governments and donors—have worked on ending cutting for decades. The role of Africans in transforming and ending cutting was both unacknowledged and unexamined.
My book The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs (2017) argues that the political and ethical concerns about cutting to which we must seriously attend are not those of Western subjects, but of the African women and men who are most involved in and affected by anti-cutting efforts. Based on sixteen years of ethnographic and archival research in Ghana, the United States, and Western Europe, the book analyzes Ghanaian anti-cutting campaigns and their national and transnational dimensions. My analysis shows that Ghanaians respond to medical and legal campaigns not by holding onto the so-called tradition of cutting, but by reconfiguring how they are governed. I illuminate how rural women end cutting, while simultaneously critiquing the violence of extraction that has made their bodies vulnerable. I also detail how the NGO activists who make anti-cutting laws eventually deem them violent and unjust. The book has received the Michelle Rosaldo book prize.
I am currently working on highlighting implications of my research for policies affecting African immigrants in the global North as well as writing about humanitarianism, refugees, and asylum.
My research shows both the promises and the problems associated with anchoring a future for African immigrants in the global North in the conceptualization of Africa as a solution.
As I was completing the research, I noticed a new trend in Western treatments of African NGOs and their anti-cutting campaigns. In recent years, Western governments and NGOs have started to look at select African campaigns as model solutions and best practices for ending cutting that can be emulated in the global North. My research shows both the promises and the problems associated with anchoring a future for African immigrants in the global North in the conceptualization of Africa as a solution. African campaigns appear attractive because they are believed to be more empowering and led by the affected women themselves. My research shows that they are neither. When Western governments look to Africa as a solution to its problems, they obscure the fact that African anti-cutting campaigns are also oppressive, even if they are designed by Africans and claim to be empowering.
The reason why such oppressive campaigns are less damaging in Ghana is that Ghanaians have more say over how they are governed than African immigrants in the West. While Ghanaian NGO workers and civil servants ultimately oppose the most repressive legal mechanisms for ending cutting and reign in the power of the law, I argue that their opposition is grounded in locally meaningful ethical relations that structure how Ghanaians live with one another and relate to the state. The problem is that such checks on state power are not conceptualized as best practices and are not considered a part of the solutions package. I want to show that what African immigrants in the West might need are not simulations of African campaigns against cutting, but a different distribution of power and greater say over the policies that affect them.
Hodzic, S. (2017). The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs. University of California Press.
Hodzic, S. (2016). The Ends of Cutting in Ghana: Blood Loss, Scarcity, and Slow Harm after NGOs. American Ethnologist, 43(4): 636-649.
Hodzic, S. (2013). Ascertaining Deadly Harms: Aesthetics and Politics of Global Evidence. Cultural Anthropology, 28(1): 86-109.