Should academe fight everything, or should they pick the right battles?

Ellen Gruenbaum's "Culture Debate over Female Circumcision: The Sudanese are arguing this one out for themselves" is as fascinating a read as it must be contentious. At once there are so many "maladaptive" parallels to female circumcision that one can think of, all varying in degrees - sati in India, foot binding in China, use of the burqa and extreme restrictions put on the movement of women in central Asia to even the high prevalence of type B diabetes in India which some experts have linked to how women are traditionally apportioned food in their households.

Gruenbaum takes us through the interviews she conducted with Sudanese women who have lived with circumcision in all its forms and how these women regarded as arrogant outsiders' hegemonic perception of this practice. She also puts the practice under the dual test of "what functions does it serve" and "who benefits", and eventually gathers that the women are not the ones served nor the ones who benefitted. At this juncture, I cannot help but ask, is there nothing more than just a moot point here?

How would CCA approach or look this matter? But even before we go there, I will ask is this a problem at all, and need it be managed, or solved? For all the pureness and neutrality of Gruenbaum's academic exercise, why did she even choose to study such a topic if she never for a second thought anything was amiss about this practice?

I recall a friend in Kabul telling me several years how she was only one of very few women who were allowed to work during the years when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. That was the time when male doctors were banned from seeing female patients, and because my friend happened to be a gynaecologist, so the work of attending to all the women patients in Kabul fell on her shoulders and other female colleagues.

Day and night she worked, and even though she knew that her work was very important, she operated in fear. As a woman, she was not allowed to drive and that greatly hindered her movements on a daily basis. She told me how one time there was no male relative around who could drive her to work and because she needed to get to the hospital very quickly, she decided to take a chance. When she got to the hospital, a Taliban soldier spotted her and shouted at her before giving her such stinging slap on her face that she fell over. As she related the incident, she told me how humiliated and helpless she felt.

At the time of our meeting, women in Kabul had mostly already ditched the burqa but my friend told me that she was afraid she would never recover from the damage caused to her eyes after years of being forced to use the burqa. I could not understand, and I asked her why. She said to me, try looking through a gauze as you go about your daily life and try to work looking through such a thing. She said it caused her nausea and fainting spells. And during our meeting, a time when she was no longer using a burqa, she said she felt her eyes would never return to what they were before.

Unlike the Sudanese women who Gruenbaum met whose views of female circumcision were at best ambivalent, this Afghan doctor told me just how happy and grateful she was when Kabul was rid of the Taliban. While she knew that a lot more needed to be done to repair the country, she was already very happy to have gotten to that point in history.

As appalling as female circumcision must sound to everybody on this planet who does not practice it in their own community and will never want to adopt such a ritual, what is the driving force in trying effect change in these villages in Sudan? If even the women themselves see nothing amiss with it and are (however unbelievably) passe about it, why even bother? Why should researchers fight someone else's battle when it isn't wanted? In fact, the question is: is this even a battle to begin with, and is it worth fighting?


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