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Interpreting female genital cutting: moving beyond the impasse.

Annu Rev Sex Res. 2000;11:158-90.

Interpreting female genital cutting: moving beyond the impasse.

Leonard L.

Johns Hopkins University, School of Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe Street, Room 7142, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA. lleonard@jhsph.edu

Female genital cutting has been practiced in many parts of the world but is now most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. Particularly in the last half-century, genital cutting ceremonies have attracted significant scientific and media attention. I review some of the most frequently referenced interpretations of female genital cutting and suggest that ways of explaining such practices are limited. I indicate that the study of genital cutting practices is at an impasse–with absolutists arguing that intervention to stop the procedure is required and relativists asserting that outsiders have either no right or no ability to impose such change upon others. Data from fieldwork conducted among the Sara, an ethnic group from the south of Chad, highlight the diversity in genital cutting ceremonies that is not currently represented in the literature or acknowledged in popular discourse. Some of the Sara subgroups have only recently adopted female genital cutting. Young girls have been at the forefront of this movement, and parents, village elders, and religious and traditional leaders have been vehement opponents. The usual explanatory concepts–religion, tradition, patriarchy–are not referenced in participants’ descriptions of their reasons for undergoing the procedure. Strategies for approaching the study of female genital cutting are presented as ways to bring fresh perspectives to the literature and to move discussion of female genital cutting beyond the current impasse.

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