It was a surprise to Janice Boddy when she realized that the altering of female genitals through surgery, professional or amateur, looms large whenever the Sudan is mentioned. In 1976, when she went there for the first time, she was interested in studying religious beliefs of rural Muslim women. But her fellow graduate students in Canada made it clear that when they thought of the Sudan they thought first of female circumcision.
Moreover, the women in the village she chose for her anthropological research insisted that she should learn about this practice and see it performed if she hoped to understand them. She followed this advice and eventually concluded that circumcision validates the village women's lives, safeguards their fertility and establishes "the meaningful parameters of their selfhood."
Now chair of the anthropology department at the University of Toronto, she boldly addresses this question with her new book, Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan (Princeton University Press). The fact that she then falls on her face, academically speaking, does not necessarily diminish her bravery.
Her readers discover, almost at the beginning, that she has a limited idea of academic detachment and fairness. A chronology of events at the front of her book twice uses the politics-laden term "propaganda" to describe Britain's efforts in the 1940s to publicize the harm done by genital cutting. But then she quickly buckles down to her own propaganda project, a storm of disapproval directed at those who argue against the ritual cutting of female genitals.
In her first four pages she says this worldwide campaign has been sustained by imperialistic logic and spurious empathy. Much of its literature, she claims, is "moralizing and polemical" as well as self-righteous. Its supporters, including the 1995 World Conference of Women in Beijing, have "leaped to condemn what they've only presumed to understand." The word for Boddy's approach is "tendentious"-- obviously, it's calculated to promote a particular view.
She sets the terminology firmly in place, so that she can argue in her own terms. She thinks "female genital cutting" (FGC) properly describes the issue. Apparently she considers that a relatively neutral term. But "female genital mutilation" (FGM) is improperly censorious -- an "invidious" label, according to one scholar Boddy approvingly quotes.
As Boddy sees it, those who take a passionately anti-FGM position have no understanding of the context. She doesn't much like the argument that FGM can be fatal, particularly when executed by people without medical training, though she won't quite say it's false. Nevertheless, that warning is "inflicted on ignorant and powerless women by sadistic men."
The type of cutting widely favoured in the Sudan, "pharaonic circumcision," or "pharaonic purification," involves, she says, "paring [a curiously chosen word, normally used for wood carving or the preparation of fruit] a girl's external genitals and stitching together remaining skin so as to cover the wound, all but obscuring the urethra and vaginal opening."
This is different from the method, popular elsewhere, of cutting away part or all of the clitoris, thereby severely and permanently affecting the female's sexuality. However, Boddy acknowledges in a footnote that clitoral cutting "has recently gained ground in Muslim Sudan."
She believes the British campaigned against FGM in the 19th century not to protect Sudanese girls but because they believed it made women less fertile and therefore created (or could create) a labour shortage, making the Sudan less profitable as a colony. She associates anti-Sudan feeling in Britain, including anti-FGM attitudes, with the killing of General Charles Gordon in 1885 by forces loyal to the Mahdi, a charismatic Muslim leader. Gordon, allegedly a devout Christian, was treated as a great martyr in the British press. (Moviegoers may remember Charlton Heston as Gordon in Khartoum, a 1966 film; Laurence Olivier, in burnt cork, was The Mahdi.)
Naturally, Boddy opposes imperialism and all its works. She takes this attitude a step farther by deciding that whatever imperialism opposes, she will defend in the most delicate and compassionate way.
She obviously can't endorse FGC, but a careful reading of her book demonstrates that she's embraced one of the great lies of modern liberalism: Any culture is as good as any other culture and its tradition-endorsed practices (no matter how misguided, harmful and dangerous) deserve respect. Civilizing Women reads in many places like a grotesque parody of academic tolerance but its coherence and its highly detailed account of Sudanese culture reflect years of hard work. The fact that it expresses sympathy for an outlandishly cruel and appalling custom will probably do Boddy no harm in the world of contemporary anthropology.