Sondra Hale’s self-imposed thirty years of silence on female circumcision—broken in 1994 for her Ufahamu article and discussed in her chapter for Obioma Nnaemeka’s Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge (Praeger, 2005)—was grounded in her critique of the “residuals” of the ethnographic agenda. She argued that ethnography, particularly when addressing controversial practices, creates cultural difference rather than the generating solidarity for the struggles of women, such as the Sudanese struggles she studied. Hale recognized that the issue of female circumcision (or female genital cutting, FGC) was being co-opted by imperial discourses calling for civilizing the women in African, Arab, and Muslim societies—what one might label a form of trafficking in women. Hale chose to decline to address the issue of female circumcision for many years, since her audiences so often found themselves unable to consider any other issue of the Sudanese women’s struggles once they heard about FGC. In the face of this imperial discourse and the harm it has done, both to international alliances and to respect for feminist movements in their varying contexts, I utilize Hale’s cautionary principles and several contemporary examples to reconsider how feminists from many loci might engage positively in the female circumcision controversy with something other than silence. In my view, silence is no longer an option, precisely for the reasons Hale waited to address FGC: to resist the imperialist discourse. In light of the escalating use of FGC in inflamed journalism, misplaced condemnations, and the continuing globalization of the movement for change, I argue we must not cede terrain to the arrogance of such voices, lest we find ourselves complicit with the conflagration undermining human dignity.
Ellen Gruenbaum; Sondra Hale’s “Ethnographic Residuals”: Silence and Non-Silence on Female Genital Cutting. Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 1 March 2014; 10 (1): 105–127. doi: https://doi.org/10.2979/jmiddeastwomstud.10.1.105
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