We’re in uncomfortable territory here. Accepting that there are parallels between male and female genital surgeries might turn more people against male circumcision. Or it might have the opposite effect: we might relax our opposition to milder forms of female genital cutting. That seems to be the view of Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, an anthropologist who was born in Sierra Leone and raised in the US before she returned to Africa to complete a coming-of-age ritual that included genital cutting. For her, the tradition symbolises female empowerment, not oppression, and she calls it sexist hypocrisy when Americans are fine with male cutting but not female cutting.
That’s not far from being the cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder’s view. In 1972 he taught for a year at the University of Nairobi, which helped to familiarise him with the genital cutting practices there, and with colonial efforts to prohibit female but not male circumcision. He was startled in the early 1980s when feminists started talking about female cutting in African countries as one of the world’s great atrocities to be eradicated. Wasn’t this a return to ‘dark continent’ thinking?
This might seem like a confounding point of view. It’s true that no matter what any adults think of circumcision, babies are unanimously against it: for them, it’s just inexplicable pain. And it’s true that when parents and communities hold a circumcision ceremony with the infant as the unwitting star, they’re using babies as a way of spreading a particular culture and pleasing dead ancestors. Then again, isn’t this what having kids is all about? Few people have children because they want to care for random free agents who don’t share any of their values. Children are beautiful, perfect, cherished little bundles of meaning. That role is usually compatible with their wellbeing, but sometimes it isn’t. This leads to conflicts of interest. It would be fascinating to try to resolve them all in the child’s favour. But until we do, it seems odd to try to ban circumcision because it fails to meet an impossible standard of parental selflessness.