Books

Remarks on The Twilight of Cutting

I]t may be useful to wonder which of the idealisms that make our hearts beat faster will seem wrong-headed to people a hundred years from now.

– Doris Lessing, African Laughter

As a subject engulfed in high-stakes controversy, female genital cutting presents daunting challenges to a researcher as attuned to subtlety and complexity as Saida Hodžić is. Even its name is political, with ardent lines drawn between “female genital cutting,” “female genital surgery,” “female genital mutilation (FGM),” or the simple “excision.” In actuality, Hodžić’s book, The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs, is not really “about” cutting. The body politic is its focus, not the fleshed body. Yet because cutting is the referent of this particular politic, Hodžić’s project cannot escape the storms surrounding this “harmful traditional practice” and such buffeting shapes the content and form of her book. For example, each chapter of Hodžić’s book begins with a list of remarks from interlocutors about her topic or her identity. Unmarked in the table of contents, these verbal epigraphs catalogue the competing demands placed on her research. The best brief commentary I can offer on this rich, multifaceted ethnography is to elaborate on the spirit of these epigraphs, specifically on the paradoxical feminist pressures that contour this work.

Feminist ethnographic practice insists that the investigator face the power inequalities inherent in research, particularly when it is a white scholar from the global North (albeit a migrant from the fraught zone of the former Yugoslavia: see, “Where are You From?”). Hodžić draws on a feminist vision for the outside researcher to act “next to” their subjects, meaning in her case, in an empathetic relation to the advocates working to end the “harmful traditional practices” of female excision as well as to the villagers who have been more inclined to practice cutting, albeit less and less. The advocates with whom Hodžić works have no patience for relativist references to intricate cultural meanings of cutting. “You’re an anthropologist – I know you will write in support of culture. That’s what anthropologists do,” reads one of Hodžić’s epigraphs.

Apart from a few old traditionalists in northern Ghana and some die-hard cultural relativists, who could argue with wanting to preserve the clitoris? Apparently, other feminists could. This feminist approach, more prevalent in the Western academy than in Ghana, targets an assemblage of liberal governance as the paramount object of critique–including global governmentality and Western hegemony—which brings efforts concerning women’s rights into their sites. Such work is especially sensitive to racial connotations in discourse, such as associating barbarism with black people or Muslims – connotations echoed in anti-FGM advocates portrayals of northern Ghana, as Hodžić shows. Most of the feminist critique of liberal governance tackles political discourse emanating from the Global North. Hodžić trenchantly points out that the critiques of global liberalism, or left legalism, are external to their objects, and for the most part do not consider “local” advocates. Indeed, non-Western NGO workers, who are educated and urban but generally not “elite” in any material sense, are tricky to place within these critical analyses. The logic of prevailing critiques of governmentality risks treating Ghanaian feminists as cogs in the machine of neoliberal modernity. Hence, the feminist paradox. When brought to bear on non-Western feminists, the anti-imperial feminist analytic clashes with feminist efforts to design anti-imperial research. To counter racial, economic, and global inequalities, feminist ethics ask the researcher from the Global North to be alongside those studied, to respect their agency and intellect, and to implicate oneself in systems of power. How Hodžić carved a path through this feminist rock and hard place was via the nitty-gritty ethnographic research itself.

Hodžić applies the analytical critique of liberalism to the anti-FGM campaign, noting its “othering” discourse and the ways Ghanaian advocates articulated punitive legislation as a solution to the weak state and advocated for “zero tolerance” criminalizing measures. She explains how an ensemble of US politicians, international aid agencies, Ghanaian feminists, medical authorities, and various modernizers defined cutting out the clitoris and labia minora (that is, Type II FGM) as a severe problem, calling for serious measures to eradicate it. While emphasizing the construction of this problem, Hodžić’s analysis hinges on facts, notably that already relatively low rates of cutting in Ghana have declined further–the “twilight” of the books’ title. Why the anti-FGM campaign insists that the problem endures (that it is going “underground”) becomes an interesting puzzle. Striving, rather than ending, seems to be their aim.

While drawing on contemporary feminist theory about liberal governance, Hodžić’s feminist research praxis results in challenges to the commonplace foil of a miasmic and homogenous global liberal juggernaut. Treating law as a social object, Hodžić shows that Ghana advocates have their own relationship to legalism and that they reflect and change their minds. This rich ethnography has much to say about civil society and feminist problems in a 21st century post-colonial nation. To paraphrase her subtitle, “Life after NGOs,” Hodžić’s’s work offers a model for “Research after the Critique of NGOs.”


Ara Wilson is an Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies at Duke University. In addition to The Intimate Economies of Bangkok: Tomboys, Tycoons, and Avon Ladies in the Global City and articles based on long-term fieldwork in Thailand, she has conducted research on transnational sex/politics found for example in 1990s NGOs or the World Social Forum. 


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