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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What made these women so mad at me? Arguing for a “soft” approach in addressing the issue of female circumcision

Photo Courtesy of Elena Butti
“You are abusing us” – this was only the last of the series of accusations which showered me when I tried to address the topic of female circumcision in a focus group with Maasai women during my work in the subvillage of Remiti, part of Mtakuja, in Northern Tanzania. “Why do you want to know all this? Are you a health trainer? If you want to hold your seminar, you should give us food, and also pay us. We are losing our time here.”
Being accused of abusing your own research represents the ultimate failure for a researcher. When the women started attacking me, while I was sure I was doing all I possibly could to be a sensitive researcher, discouragement took hold of me: I broke into tears in the middle of the focus group, and the women’s effort to dry my watering eyes with their clothes (not exactly what you would call soft cotton) did not really help.

I had done something wrong. But whatI knew in advance that the issue of female circumcision was sensitive, and I had taken all the precautions I could think of to address it properly. I had made sure to frame my questions in a non-normative, open-minded and non-leading way. I had made clear from the outset that I had absolutely no intention to claim that something was right or wrong, but that I was just a student eager to learn from them. But still, something in my questions made the women react on the defensive. What was it? 

The thought kept me thinking for days, until I realised that, perhaps, it was not so much my approach that was wrong – it was the issue itself, the very words “female circumcision” pronounced by a white NGO worker. No matter how open-minded my approach was: the very action of me addressing the issues triggered associations which were, apparently, deeply problematic. The whole issue puzzled me. What had happened for female circumcision to become so critical that it could not be addressed at all, even with a non-normative approach like mine?

In this blog article, I seek an answer to this question. I first provide an account of how female circumcision (henceforth: circumcision) has historically been addressed by the government and NGOs in Tanzania. I then elaborate on how the traditional “hard” approach to the eradication of circumcision has proven counter-effective, making it virtually impossible for any Westerner today to address the issue at all. This claim constitutes the central thesis of this paper, and provides a possible explanation to the reaction of the women in my focus group. After suggesting some alternative “soft” approaches, I reflect on the inadequacy of the sole legal prohibition in order to eradicate deeply embedded practices. I conclude with a few remarks on critical reflexivity.