Theorizing ‘African’ Female Genital Cutting and ‘Western’ Body Modifications: A Critique of the Continuum and Analogue Approaches

Feminist Review 86 (1):45-66 (2007)
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Abstract

Making links between different embodied cultural practices has become increasingly common within the feminist literature on multiculturalism and cultural difference as a means to counter racism and cultural essentialism. The cross-cultural comparison most commonly made in this context is that between ‘African’ practices of female genital cutting and ‘western’ body modifications. In this article, I analyse some of the ways in which FGC and other body-altering procedures are compared within this feminist literature. I identify two main strategies of linking such practices, which I have termed the ‘continuum’ and ‘analogue’ approaches. The continuum approach is employed to imagine FGC alongside other body-altering procedures within a single ‘continuum’, ‘spectrum’ or ‘range’ of cross-cultural body modifications. The analogue approach is used to set up FGC and other body-altering practices as analogous through highlighting cross-cultural similarities, but does not explicitly conceive of them as forming a single continuum. Two key critiques of the continuum and analogue approaches are presented. First, because these models privilege gender and sexuality, they tend to efface the operation of other axes of embodied differentiation, namely race, cultural difference and nation. As such, the continuum and analogue approaches often reproduce problematic relationships between race and gender while failing to address the implicit and problematic role which race, cultural difference and nation continue to play in such models. This erasure of these axes, I contend, is linked to the construction of a ‘western’ empathetic gaze, which is my second key critique. The desire on the part of theorists working in the West to establish cross-cultural ‘empathy’ through models that stress similarity and solidarity conceals the continuing operation of geo-political relations of power and privilege.

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