Books of 2017: ‘The Twilight of Cutting’ taught me about more than FGM

From theology to anthropology to fiction, these are my books of 2017. I didn’t like all of them, and I didn’t read all of them from cover to cover. But in this post (and the next three), I’ll share some thoughts on what I made of them.

The number one spot belongs to The Twilight of Cutting and it warrants a full blog post in its own right.

Written by a Bosnian woman who works as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University, it is a stunning study of the complexities of discourses surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM), which is also known as ‘cutting’.

It’s thick, it’s heavy, it’s academic. I read the first ten pages and thought, “OK, that was a fairly comprehensive intro” – only to realise the introduction was 50 pages long. But even from what I was able to understand (and I did read it all) this book profoundly shifted my understanding of the world. 

The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life After NGOs

By: Saida Hodžić
Publisher: University of California Press
First published: 2017
Genre: Medical Anthropology

Reading this book was an education.

It is the closest thing I have had to a lesson on British colonial history, and good grief I was shocked. We talk about how we abolished the slave trade, but what we did afterwards in Ghana was hardly laudable. And its effects are still there, impoverishing the northern part of this country in particular, even to this very day.

And that was just chapter one.

I was surprised by why FGM/cutting happens

I thought I knew why this practice took place. I didn’t. And make no mistake, the reasons vary from region to region and country to country. But I never, ever, ever imagined a grown woman who was married and who had children would voluntarily want to be cut. But yes, this happens people. All for the sake of social inclusion.

I was surprised by how FGM/cutting is ending

Meanwhile, there’s the story of how the practice has been outlawed twice in Ghana; there’s how the people want the law to serve as a steer, not a stick, and how ‘zero tolerance’ policies (often inherited from US-funded programmes) don’t help to end the practice. In fact, the most effective method of changing people’s attitudes towards FGM/cutting was the use of theatre.

It’s the internal narratives that need to shift within people.

But it’s not just the narratives around the practice that need to change. There are only two cutters/circumcisers who’ve been convicted of FGM/cutting and later they were both released early on humanitarian grounds. One of them, Abampoka Abane Mbawini [p303] was an old woman; she knew FGM/cutting was against the law but did it anyway on several girls when their families asked her to. Initially, she was given the maximum sentence but because of the her age, pretty much everyone was conflicted about the decision. The police, the villagers, the judge – and yes, even the non-government organisation (NGO) workers who were trying to end FGM/cutting. No one felt comfortable believing that an old woman could be a criminal and deserving of punishment. Because in their heads offenders are young men who commit theft and robbery [p309]. And in their heads, the girls had agency and wanted to be cut because they didn’t want the shame of being uncut. [p316]

Yes, there are some who argue that the victims of FGM/cutting should be prosecuted.

I have no words.

I was surprised by why FGM/cutting is ending

The thing that made me more angry than anything else reading this book was to do with the rationale that Northern Ghanaians cite for why FGM/cutting must end. Namely: loss of blood. Why? Why would anyone give that as the reason? Shouldn’t the reason be the equality of women and girls? Or that it has no health benefits and numerous health risks? Or that sex is meant to be pleasurable and women’s clitorises are important for that?

Those are the reasons I would give, but the reason given in Ghana is that FGM/cutting is an unworthy loss of blood.

An unworthy loss of blood.

Because women in the Upper East Region of northern Ghana can’t afford to lose blood because 50% of them are anaemic, and 90% of their children are anaemic. [p222]

You know what this means? If these people simply had enough food to eat, their internalised rationale for ending FGM/cutting would collapse.

That made me angry.

I mean, what are we going to do? Keep them poor, keep them hungry, so that we can coerce them through punitive legal measures to stop FGM/cutting? Because that’s what it looks like the West is doing. The simple fact is that the practice has been waning in recent decades (which is why the book is called the twilight of cutting), but Western (white) awareness of it has increased in that time. And when I came away from reading this book, it seemed we are far more concerned with the politics of ending FGM/cutting (whatever ‘ending’ means), than we are about actually caring for the well being of survivors and the general populace.

I am a white, British woman – and I have never felt so ashamed.

Hungry for the gospel?

And through all of this there are moments when you see the influence of Christianity. When the gospel really does shine through in people’s accounts of how they understand that Jesus suffered with us and can redeem us and end the shame of widows rites and other harmful practices. And I ask myself, “What would it mean to these people to know that Jesus shed his blood for them? What would it mean for them to hear about how he is the true bread of heaven? Who gives in abundance? Who feeds people with baskets of leftovers afterwards?”

Suddenly I saw the Fair Trade certified chocolate made by Divine using Ghanaian cocoa was something that actually did something.

Another thing I didn’t expect to read were the accounts of men who were born into families who circumcised girls for a living – and who tried to run away from it:

My father was cutting. He was cutting because someone from his uncle’s house was cutting so when he died the thing chose my father. Cutting chooses people. So when my father died, it chose me, but I refused and I ran to Kumasi. But it killed my three children so I decided to do it. Cutting is a god. It chooses people. [p166]

What if he had heard how Jesus is victor over all powers in heaven and earth?

And yes, he has stopped the practice because it is outlawed, though he doesn’t believe the practice caused girls any harm. And he is aggrieved by how he is now an impoverished outcast who has no trade, no food and nothing to offer in sacrifice.

And I’m left thinking, “Is this man being taught about the equality of women or the goodness of their sexuality in any way at all?” Because it doesn’t look like it to me. Instead, to me, this looks like a Western box-ticking exercise. We’ve finally made up our minds that FGM/cutting is wrong and we have no qualms in using our money, through NGOs, to get these people to jump through our hoops on our terms for our statistical targets.

Regarding them as human beings? That’s secondary.

Caveats and concluding thoughts

This is a very high level summary of my learning points and emotional reactions reading this book. I still have a lot to learn and I ask readers not to take this as a comprehensive lesson on race relations, FGM/cutting, feminism, NGOs or Ghana.

What’s more, I recognise this is one book, about one country, written from the point of one academic discipline. I’m sure there are other anthropologists out there with different views. I’m sure that anthropology itself has its limitations. I’m sure some NGOs operate for the holistic benefit of societies, not just development statistics. But what I read in this book shocked me. Maybe there are other viewpoints that would hold some of it in balance, but it was written with sufficient academic rigour that I can’t dismiss it.

I hope that the people who read this post will be motivated to stretch their awareness of gender equality beyond the cultures and context they’re familiar with. We all have to find our ‘lanes’ when it comes to the calling and activism of our lives and, yes, I think there is merit in sticking to our lanes. But this is a very wide road here and we should be aware of the other traffic.

And yes, I do genuinely believe that the spiritual messages at the heart of Christianity are both relevant and powerful enough to end FGM/cutting not just in practice, but also in the hearts and minds of those who would advocate for it. And I hope the Christians reading this post will pray for that.

I am also aware that the causes of FGM/cutting are complex and the practice comes in different guises in different places. And it cannot be separated from matters of law and economics. If we truly care about gender equality, we must therefore recognise that this is not a matter to weigh in on with gung-ho moralising. Instead, we must work in practical ways, exercising care and faithful persistence, to address not just gender inequality, but also the causes of poverty.

And for that, dare I say it, my first prayer has to be this: Kyrie eleison.

In the next post I discuss the books that I think would be of most interest to egalitarian Christians; after that I’ll look at the books on theology and Bible study; and then I’ll finish with the books relevant for people who want to think outside the box, particularly in regard to sex and gender.

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