[Withdrawn] Alternative Rites of Passage as an Appropriation of Heritage

9:00, Monday 6 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

The practice of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/FGC) does not tend to be seen and analyzed through a heritage lens, but from a range of development, women’s health, human rights, “cultural” and/or anthropological perspectives. It is often condemned by non-governmental organizations and governments as evidence of deep-seated “barbaric,” “cultural” beliefs that must be changed or ideally swept away if FGM/C is to be eradicated, although the meaning of “culture” is rarely defined by external, or even internal players. Scholars have questioned the wisdom of framing FGM/C as “a problem of African culture,” which may undermine efforts to achieve grassroots change, and increase people’s anger at perceived assaults on their “culture.” The physical act of cutting is (or was, before it was banned) “traditionally” part of a larger process of initiation into womanhood that also involves—particularly in age-organized African societies—the graduation or raising of girls’ parents and other family members to a higher stratum of collective social being. The importance of this wider aspect, and the significance of the collective emotional, performative, and transformative aspects of “traditional” initiation ceremonies, is rarely, if ever acknowledged in local and global anti-FGM/C campaigns that centre most aggressively on stopping “the cut” itself. However, some development actors are now urging that moves to end FGM/C should not be seen as “a criticism of local culture but a better way to attain the core positive values that underlie tradition and religion.” That in itself raises key questions about what constitutes “tradition,” who gets to select the “good” parts, reject the “bad” ones and why? 

This paper will focus on the promotion and practice in Kenya of Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP), in the wider context of historical continuities from anti-circumcision campaigns in colonial Kenya and the current globalized “moral panic” surrounding FGM/C. The latter, evident in anti-FGM/C campaigns at local and international levels, has been described by Nahid Toubia (1988) as “the West [acting] as though they have suddenly discovered a dangerous epidemic which they have then… portrayed… as irrefutable evidence of the barbarism and vulgarity of underdeveloped countries [and] the primitiveness of Arabs, Muslims, and Africans.” ARP may be read as a newly invented “tradition” that aims to replicate certain aspects of the original initiation process, but without the physical cut. These aspects include seclusion and “cultural” instruction. Kenyan girls who refuse FGM/C are increasingly being encouraged to undergo this “non-FGM centred coming of age ritual,” which is also described by its advocates as “preserving many of the traditional features of the old version” (that is, initiation), an “educational tactic,” and so on. This paper will draw on fieldwork research and the wider literature to discuss (among other things) ARP as an act of appropriation of heritage outside formal heritage institutions, in which pick-and-mix notions of pastness are being incorporated into a newly constructed ritual that is presented as evidence of progress and modernity. The paper will explore the implications and efficacy of this approach, and one of the questions it asks is: whatever happened to emotion and performance?

The Open University, Department of History, United Kingdom
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