Colonizing Bodies: a Feminist Science Studies Critique of Anti-Fgm Discourse

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2000-09-08

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Virginia Tech

Abstract

The contentious topic of female circumcision brings together medical science, women's health activism, and national and international policy-making in pursuit of the common goal of protecting female bodies from harm. To date, most criticisms of female circumcision, practiced mainly in parts of Africa and Southwest Asia, have revolved around the dual issues of control of female bodies by a male-dominated social order and the health impacts surrounding the psychology of female sexuality and the functioning of female sex organs. As such, the recently-evolved campaign to eradicate female circumcision, alternatively termed "Female Genital Mutilation" (FGM), has formed into a discourse intertwining the politics of feminist activism with scientific knowledge and medical knowledge of the female body and sexuality. This project focuses on the ways in which this discourse constructs particular definitions of bodies and sexuality in a quest to generalize the practices of female circumcision as "harmful" and therefore dangerous.

Given that the discourse aimed at eradicating practices of female circumcision, referred to in this study as "anti-FGM discourse," focuses mostly on harm done to women's bodies, this project critiques the assumption of universalism regarding female bodies and sexuality that is explicitly/implicitly embedded in such discourse. By questioning such universals, I look at the ways in which different stories regarding bodies and sexuality can emerge at the gaps of the anti-FGM discourse regarding female circumcision practices. I.e., are there other possible avenues for envisioning bodies which are subjugated and hence eliminated from the view by their rhetoric?

While the main assumption within anti-FGM discourse is that bodies and sexuality are naturally given and therefore universal, contemporary theories in STS and feminism have stressed that bodies and sexualities are figures of historical and political performances, and that knowledge about them is locally situated. These perspectives redirect the typical assumption of bodies and sexuality as simply "biological" to a view of bodies as products of cultural imagination. This project shows that such perspectives have profound implications for understanding female circumcision practices by allowing different body narratives to emerge in the gaps of already established "truths."

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Keywords

Postcolonialism, Bodies, FGM, Science Studies, Feminism

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