Stonehenge: songs
Sacred territories: astronomy, ritual and the creation of landscape at the passage grave sites of Neolithic Ireland

Rethinking circumcision as a traditional practice

This paper was originally given to the annual University of Calgary Chacmool archaeology conference in September 2004. It was subsequently published in the conference proceedings: Que(e)rying Archaeology, Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, Michelle Janse-SMekal (Eds.), University of Calgary, 2009.

Traditional vs Modern

Morocco December 2011 058Female circumcision (FC) is currently practiced widely across much of the Middle East and northern and central Africa. There is an extensive debate about how best to understand and respond to FC, which extends across academic, humanitarian and activist discourses. This paper argues that while this debate frequently places the practice in the context of assumptions about ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, these assumptions often have not have been subject to critical analysis. Specifically, it argues that attempts to read female circumcision as a ‘traditional’ rather than a ‘modern’ practice can work to obscure a fuller understanding of the phenomenon and may actively deny the sexual rights of vulnerable women. It therefore suggests these conceptual divisions need revision if we are to develop a fuller understanding of female circumcision, and its justification.

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Female circumcision: historical evidence

If it is relatively easy to debunk the notion that invasive circumcision of young girls in Africa and the Middle East is an extensive time-honoured 'traditional' practice, what does the historical evidence actually tell us about the real nature of these practices? It points to a complex history, with roots in the development and spread of Judaism in the Middle East and East Africa in the first millennium BC and which appears to have been influenced decisively by the arrival of the Portuguese and the development of Islam on the East African coast and its trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a subject I will return to in further detail later.