Make your own free website on

Lia Goloff - Writings

Here are some anthropology papers and other writings of mine. 


(February 8, 2000)


Social theorists of the European tradition have long attempted to understand and explain the phenomenon of religion and its relationship to society and culture. They have posited a variety of vastly differing theories to these ends. However, the majority of the theorists that we have studied have operated under the same conceptual framework: that is, the belief in the reality of a split between the abstract and the physical. Within this dichotomization, the abstract is almost always assigned a high level of sacredness, while the physical is assigned a very low level, if it is not characterized as completely profane. This duality is assumed by most of these theorists to be a primary truth in human life that is a major causative factor in the development nature of religion. Thus, all of their theories have been informed by this rather problematic assumption.

I submit that this mind/body duality, a construct arising from the desacralization of the physical in favor of the abstract, is necessary and absolutely essential for the proper functioning of any patriarchal society. Clearly, on an abstract level, all humans possess the same sacred potential, regardless of gender. Women and men are both able to think and feel and believe, to conform to and create morals and values, in a virtually indiscernible manner. However, on the level of the physical, it is women who menstruate with the moon, carry and give birth to children, and produce nourishment for those children with their own bodies. Historically, it was not known until the last few centuries that men had anything to do with these events.

The creation of life can be considered perhaps the most sacred observable phenomenon ever known to humankind; it is commonly referred to, even today, as magic or a miracle. Women, therefore, embody sacredness in a much more obvious and perceptible way than do men. In order for men to feel an equal or usually greater sense of sacred potential than women (this discrepancy being a hallmark of any patriarchal society) the sacredness of the physical must be either downplayed or completely denied.

I am not denying the sacredness of abstractions, nor am I positing patriarchy as the sole reason for this dualism. Clearly the effects of visions and fantasies, as well as the sadness that accompanies the death of a loved one, are strong motivators, among others, for the development of the concept of a soul that lives on indefinitely. However, this absolute split between the soul and the body is not necessarily called for even after consideration of these factors. With this in mind, I proceed to a discussion of the ways in which several of the social theorists we have studied are informed by this dualistic construct.

F. Max Muller of the nature-myth school proposes the concept of naturism. He may be the only theorist we have studied who does not presume a split between the abstract and the physical. Instead, he asserts that religion arose from sensory experience, from the influence of natural phenomena in the physical world.[1] Muller was one of the first social theorists to write about religion, and it is interesting to note that as subsequent years passed, popular theories concerning religion became more and more about abstractions as opposed to physicalities. One wonders if Mullers anomalous viewpoint is due to the early time period in which he was writing or a rejection of the very culturally specific, Judeo-Christian concept of body/soul dualism. Unfortunately, one is inclined to believe the former.

Herbert Spencer maintains that while primitive people were inferior, they were also rational. This rationality he attributes to their realization that there is a distinction between body and soul. He clearly considers this split to be an absolute truth that must be realized, and this assumption informs his analysis. Thus, he proposes, the mark of any rational civilization is the body/soul split. This is consistent with my above-mentioned theory, as most known civilizations of the time were most definitely patriarchal.

Edward B. Tylor has a similar viewpoint to Spencers. He postulates that two groups of biological problems animate the primitive conception of the soul: 1. The difference between living and non-living bodies, and 2. Visions seen in dreams and trance. Because these phenomena are so unexplainable, he theorizes, man must come to the conclusion that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom.[2] This is a valid point. However, since Tylor inferred this concept from reading other peoples accounts of primitive cultures, we must take into consideration his own biases in the creation of his analysis.

In Tylors discussion of the Caribs, he explains that they connect pulses with spiritual beings, and that they use one word to signify soul/life/heart. West Australians, he says, use one word for breath/spirit/soul. He states that the connection of soul and blood is evident in Karen, Papua, Jewish and Arab religious philosophy.[3] These associations are all non-dualistic, with a focus on the embodied nature of religious experience. Yet Tylor takes these associations and applies them to his very different concept of the soul separate from the body, a belief that he has previously derived from his own specific cultural and historical circumstances.

To Tylors credit, he does discuss the possibility that perhaps the savages did not discern this split. [T]he later metaphysical notion of immateriality could scarcely convey any meaning to a savage as it appears to have been within systematic schools of civilized philosophy that the transcendental definitions of the immaterial soul were obtained so as to reduce it from a physical to a metaphysical entity.[4] Notice however that he attributes this lack of a conception of the immaterial soul to the lower evolutionary status traditionally ascribed to primitive peoples. He seems to be saying, like Spencer, that the mark of an intelligent civilized culture is the ability to realize the duality between body and soul. Operating within this construct, Tylor has severely limited his investigation. One wonders if his analysis would have been any more insightful or far-reaching had he not been operating under the assumption of a dualistic nature of the universe.

Emile Durkheims work contains similar assumptions. He asserts that [T]he real characteristic of religious phenomena is that they always suppose a bipartite division of the whole universe into two classes which radically exclude each other.[5] He posits these opposing forces to be naturism (the physical) and animism (the abstract). For Durkheim, religion is necessarily derived from abstract social aspects, especially morality. He considers nature to be too monotonous, uniform and infinite to ever give rise to anything as complex and stable as religion. Therefore, he avers that nature itself is profane, exemplified in his statements that A world of profane things may well be unlimited; but it remains a profane world, and [N]either man nor nature have of themselves a sacred character.[6]

Because Durkheim assumes the universal truth of the body/mind split, he asks the question: [H]ow could the spectacle of nature give rise to the idea of this duality?[7] He goes on to assert that there is no evidence for duality in nature, because it is infinite. Therefore, he theorizes, society and its abstract morality must be the impetus for this concept.

There are several ironic aspects to Durkheims analysis. He asks why this duality should exist while his analysis contains the main conceptual reason that perpetuates dualistic thinking, namely that nature is profane and is to be kept separate from true religion. In his own ideas he might have found the basis for the duality construct, had he been looking. In addition to this, his characterization of nature as non-dualistic, as always and everywhere of the same sort,[8] is absurd. Nature is full of opposing binaries: night and day, sun and moon, winter and summer, life and death. If ever one were to defend their view of a dualistic universe, these qualities of nature would be perhaps the most logical first step. This dualism, however, is different from the one that separates mind from body. Dualism in nature manifests itself as the existence of opposite forces that are equal and integral to each other. For example, winter is not considered more sacred than summer, and vice versa. There is no differential judgement imposed on these binaries.

The study of the anthropology of religion is a complex and fascinating topic. While the issues above can be addressed, I feel it is important that one recognizes that one can never truly know the answers to these questions. Theories can be presented and critiqued and re-presented indefinitely, and this is no doubt what makes the field such an energetic and dynamic one. I have offered my critique in an attempt to join the theorists we have studied in their continuing investigation into the nature of the sacred and the effects of religion on human life and culture.


[1]Lessa, William A. and Evon Z. Vogt. Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. Harper & Row: New York, p. 9

[2] Ibid. p. 12

[3] Ibid. p. 13

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p. 29

[6] Ibid. p. 31

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Horizontal Divider 26

Problems With Modern Western Feminist Discourse

(November 9, 1999)


Chandra Mohanty's chapter, entitled Under Western Eyes, critiques the ethnocentricity of much of modern Western feminist discourse. Mohanty argues that a singular model of the third world woman has been produced by these discourses. She asserts that within these discourses, women as a group are assumed to be a constituted, coherent group, regardless of race, class, religion, or a myriad of other factors. She argues that this implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy which can be applied universally and cross-culturally. (Mohanty 1991: 55)

Western feminism often draws on the Western concept of a universal patriarchy, which oppresses women and makes them dependent. It then uses this definition to describe all other women throughout the world with the same conceptual framework. Women are described as a singular, coherent group before even entering into the realm of culture. Thus, women's roles are not perceived as an effect of their social structures; rather, the structures themselves are perceived as a result of women's universal oppression. Mohanty states that this way of seeing the world structures it in essentialist, binary terms. By structuring the world in such a way, not only does the oppression of women seem inevitable, but also the hope for political resistance and social change often seems farfetched and distant. (Mohanty 1991: 70)

Utilizing Mohanty's cultural analysis, one can begin to compare different Western feminist works with her model of a non-essentialist anthropological method. Sherry Ortner's article, Is female to male as nature is to culture? is a good example of a comparative work. Ortner refers many times in her article to the pan-cultural devaluation of women (Ortner 1974: 73) or some similar essentialist term. Her argument is that women are symbolically associated with nature, throughout the world, and since all cultures devalue nature, as opposed to culture, it would follow that all cultures would devalue women.

This thesis is problematic. It assumes that the Western, Eurocentric culture/nature split is universal and global. It places the entire world within the framework of European culture. This essentialist perspective perceives women, as Mohanty states, before culture; that is, it situates culturally constructed notions of gender as an effect of women's universal oppression, not as a causative factor of it. This is a prime example of exactly the kind of Western feminist discourse that Mohanty is critiquing.

Anna Tsing's article, Monster Stories, presents a much different perspective on these issues. Indeed, Tsing seems to have the same ideas about Western cultural essentialism as Mohanty does. In her discussion of women charged with perinatal endangerment, she makes manifest the differences between the ways that poor and middle-class women in America are viewed. Their divergence is a reminder that the cultural construction of the female is never a unitary process. (Tsing 1990: 286)

Tsing first presents us with a historical context in which to view the issue of perinatal endangerment, specifically, through a description of this phenomenon in 18th century New England. She shows us that the hanging of women for their crimes was an effect of a very different social system than the one currently in place in America today. In the 18th century, the punishment had to do with deviation from sexual standards and norms more than anything else; this threat to society was completely linked to sexual sins and wantonness. (Tsing 1990: 285)

Then, she goes on to tell two stories of two different women who were charged with almost identical crimes. The difference between the women, as she points out, was located in their economic class. The woman who was perceived to be middle-class received four years of probation and community service for her crime. The woman perceived as poor was sentenced to ten years in prison.

The marked difference between the cultural treatment of these two women did not relate to the universal oppression of women. Instead, she argues, it was because of specific societal and economic factors that came into play in the context of the highly emotional cases of infant death. By situating each woman in her economic context, as well as explaining American ideas about class difference, Tsing shows the importance of a locally based analysis. While not ignoring the importance of sexism and the construction of gender in these cases, she refers more specifically to the multiple factors of class, identity, and race (although not applicable in these cases, race plays an important role in determining the fate of other women in similar positions, as she states) which have affected these womens lives in general and their pregnancies and deliveries in particular.

Tsing's analysis is much more in keeping than Ortner's with the formula laid out by Mohanty for a non-essentialist model of anthropology. Mohanty's belief in the importance of analyzing local and historical contexts is highlighted. Although there are benefits to be had from a careful reading of Ortner, she does universalize without reference to specific instances and locations. Tsing and Mohantys method of anthropology is a step away from ethnocentrism and one towards, I hope, a deeper understanding of what it is to be a woman and a human.

Horizontal Divider 26

Problematizing Nationalism

(December 1, 1999)


Cultural identity has been constantly negotiated within African American culture throughout the history of the physical presence of Africans in this country. Until the 20th century, assimilation was the model that was used to secure social justice for African Americans, and to validate their culture. The theory of the time was that since African Americans, like all other immigrants, had the capacity to assimilate into American culture, this proved that they were just as equal as whites, and deserved equal treatment. This assimilationist discourse, though proving useful in the 19th and early 20th centuries towards the means of procuring more freedom and equality than blacks had previously enjoyed, was soon perceived to be one which was limited by its erasure of the particular elements of African American culture. Consequently, the theories of particularism and black nationalism came into play, and exerted their effect on the struggle for equality and upward mobility. Throughout this century, these theories of black nationalism have exhibited themselves, in the Harlem Renaissance, in the Black Power Movement, and today, in such varying forms of black popular culture as hip hop, art, and literature.

Black nationalism has proven to be a powerful and effective tool for combating racism. The essentialist discourse that is so often engaged in by African American nationalists can be seen as extremely useful in constructing a collective cultural sense of self-worth and self-determination. There are undeniable continuities among peoples throughout Africa and its diaspora; language, religion and other expressive forms share many similarities which would be difficult to ignore. A reclaiming of and an identification with these elements of culture is important, especially for a group of people whose collective consciousness is filled with memories of displacement and exclusion. Stuart Hall has said that this figuring of Africa restore[s] an imaginary fullness or plentitude, to set against the broken rubric of our pasts. (Hall 1990: 225) The empowering qualities inherent in this strategy of nationalism are impossible to deny.

However, the essentialization of Africa as a hegemonic source from which all black Americans came is problematic. As was feared in the days of assimilationist ideology, essential qualities, once identified, may contribute to theories of biological racism. Essentialism, in effect, may be considered a type of racism, empowering as its effects can be. In addition, this essentialism denies the local and specific histories that came into play in each individual slave country, in each plantation, and, after slavery, in each different American community.

The Africans who were brought to the Americas on slave ships came from a number of different countries, and had distinct tribal affiliations. However, these distinctions soon merged in the Americas, due to the cultural erasing process of slavery and displacement. Africa came to represent a unified homeland that black people could claim as their own. Hall points out that it was the uprooting of slavery and transportation and the insertion into the plantation economy of the Western world that unified these peoples across their differences (Hall 1990: 227) In some ways, the construction of Africa as a homeland without reference to the existence of local cultures within Africa serves as both a response to and a collusion with the hegemonizing force of Westernization.

Black nationalism can also be problematized in its relationship to feminist ideology. Many black nationalists, male and female, have taken an extremely conservative stance on the role of women in an ideal African (and African American) society. They have invented an African past to suit their conservative agenda on gender and sexuality. (White 1995: 507) M. Ron Karenga illustrates this point perfectly in his discussion of complementarity. He poses equality as a European construct, one that is not appropriate for women of African descent to emulate. Instead, he proposes that African American women should complement their men and remain in the unequal economic and social roles that they have historically occupied. (White 1995)

It is ironic that so many black nationalists, people passionately committed to human rights, should deny those rights so vehemently to black women. This is a good example of how the oppression of women is constructed in local and specific circumstances. Black women in America are at the intersection of a unique set of discourses, including slavery, poverty and racism, as well as sexism. The construction by black nationalists of a conservative sexist and heterosexist ideology is in many ways a response to all these discourses. This locates black women in a complex place, one common to many women within a nationalist discourse. It therefore becomes difficult for black women to negotiate how to support their community while still challenging their traditional roles within that community.

For the purposes of this exercise, it is also useful to examine the history of a few modern nationalist movements. Here I reiterate my belief that nationalism can definitely be an important and positive force, one that operates in the name of revolution and social justice. However, any ideology has the potential to become dogmatic, and therefore has the potential to become dangerous. I believe that internal critique, or at least gentle reminders, within any social movement, are essential to preserving the democracy of that movement. With that in mind, I proceed.

In pre-World War Two Germany, there existed a national identity crisis. The Germanic Hapsburg Empire had ruled much of Central Europe for 300 years, and had colonized a large part of the locales that were to become Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria, and Northern Italy. Because of these years of colonialism, there were communities of ethnic Germans were living in these places, creating, in effect, a German diaspora. After World War One, the Hapsburg Empire fell apart and Germany was plunged into a deep depression. The diasporic Germans were now living in newly created countries, many of which were undergoing their own nationalist movements. Germans began to experience an overwhelming fear of not being represented, especially since their homeland was in such economic upheaval. Hitler was able to speak to these fears in German society. He addressed the corruption of German culture, and proposed a nationalist plan for unified Germany. Nationalism, in this case, lead to the genocide of millions in the name of achieving a coherent cultural identity.

But it does not end there. Oh no. Because after World War Two, quite understandably, Jews were faced with their own identity crisis. The trauma of the Holocaust and the horrific memory of six million slaughtered, as well as their previously existing diasporic condition, set the stage for Jews to embrace anew their own nationalist movement, Zionism. And what did these displaced and traumatized people do in the name of nationalism? To quote Hall We have seen the fate of the people of Palestine at the hands of thisconception of diaspora... (Hall 1990: 1990) In response to their own displacement, Jews used and continue to use Zionism as a means of oppressing and displacing the Palestinian people. Just like the Germans, the Jews saw the answer to their identity crisis in an aggressive nationalist policy, whose result was to disempower a whole other group of people.

I am not suggesting that black nationalism is headed towards these kinds of horrors. After all, E. Frances White points out that black nationalists do not have access to state power, and therefore cannot call on [it] to enforce their norms. (White 1995: 507) And I believe that this lack of access is not the only thing holding black nationalists back from performing these kinds of practices. Indeed it is hard to imagine that any group of people could succumb to such cruelty. But as in any nationalist movement, it is possible. And it is that possibility that I am concerned with.

The problematization of black nationalist ideology that I have presented is meant to serve, not as a denouncement of it, but rather as a reminder that it is important to remain aware of the effects of ones endeavors towards freedom and the establishment of identity. To preserve the ideals of equality and respect that are inherent within this important ideology, one cannot forget that all people, not just the privileged, have the capacity for the enforcement of sexism, prejudice, and other inequalities. Attentiveness to these reminders is absolutely essential to the creation of the most informed and conscientious nationalist ideology imaginable, one that can achieve the ideals of the production of a coherent cultural identity without subjecting others to repression. I believe that with a careful reading and awareness of history, gender politics, and racism, this is possible.

Horizontal Divider 26

Natural Women

(November 9, 1999)


In Embodied Progress, Sarah Franklin presents a compelling look at the symbolic systems of kinship ideology in British society which help to put into context the experiences of the individual women going through the tedious and emotionally taxing process of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). British kinship ideology is in itself culturally specific, and is familiar to the American reader through virtue of its similarity to American kinship ideology. At the core of British kinship ideology lies the assumption of a biological, genetically based heterosexual romantic norm. This assumption links conjugality to procreation and therefore family. Within this ideology, it is normal for women to have children and families; women who do not are seen as unnatural if they are childless by choice and worthy of pity if they have trouble conceiving. In either case, they are seen as failing to conform to prevailing social norms. A book written by a medical doctor in 1986, cited by Franklin, asserts that [T]he desire for family rises unbidden from our genetic souls. (Franklin 1997: 91) Social and genetic factors are inextricably linked in this symbolic system.

In the Awlad Ali Bedouin society presented to us by Lila Abu-Lughod in her book, Veiled Sentiments, the symbolic system of kinship ideology is organized around less scientific, though definitely just as socially compelling, terms. For the Awlad Ali, morality is the most significant cultural value. This morality is tied to codes of honor and modesty. Honor is defined as a concept of self-mastery, and is related to the level of independence or autonomy one achieves against both social and natural pressures. Women, because of their perceived closeness to nature in terms of sexuality, menstruation and pregnancy, are seen as enslaved to nature, as it were. Thus, their level of autonomy, and therefore honor, is significantly less than that of their male counterparts. Women of the Awlad Ali combat this inequality with their own moral code of modesty. By denying sexual and romantic desire and concealing pregnancy, they demonstrate their resistance to being controlled by nature, and thus achieve a level of autonomy which, though not equal to that of men, is still respected within their culture. (Abu-Lughod 1986)

In both of these referenced societies, womens roles are dictated, to some degree, by conceptions of the natural and of womens closer symbolic association with it. In both, social pressures for conformity are high; incidentally, this is not an unusual marker of any society. However, the most interesting difference to note between these two societies is their conceptions of sexual/romantic love. British culture holds heterosexual romantic love as a highly respected value, in the tradition of the European courtier, while the Awlad Ali see these sentiments as weak, and therefore immoral. In both, however, womens roles are restricted by their adherence to these culturally specific notions of sexual love.

Franklin also discusses the role of Thatcherism in the construction of British kinship ideology. The enterprise culture, which Thatcher helped to create in the 1980s, values highly the concepts of economic progress and upward mobility. These concepts were incorporated into British society and into the ambitions of many, who began to dream of a bigger house, better access to healthcare, and, in the case of the hopelessly infertile, a family of their own (it is important to note that only those who benefited from the enterprise culture were able to afford IVF.) Together with the idiom of economic and scientific progress, these concepts came at a perfect time for the rise of IVF. [A]ssisted conception is to reproduction what enterprise is to the national economy-a vital force for change, improvement and achievement. (Franklin 1997: 96) Both as a metaphor of progress and within the context of hope for upward mobility, IVF reinforced the political discourse of Thatcherism through the production of new concepts of kinship, as well as through the medium of womens bodies.

The political discourses set forth by Abu-Lughod are quite different. For the Awlad Ali, all relations of inequality are conceived in the idiom of relations of inequality within the family. (Abu-Lughod 1986: 81) Patron-client relations are described within an elder/younger brother context, where one is the dependent and the other his protector. The idiom of child/parent is also commonly referenced. In this way, the exploitative nature possible in an unequal economic relationship such as the one between patron and client is both downplayed and naturalized.

Sexuality is seen as a threat to the social and political order of the Awlad Ali. The reasons for this revolve around the priority of consanguinity and the importance of a patrilineal family structure. Ones paternal kin or agnate group is supposed to be the most important force in ones life. Romantic or sexual love promotes the bonds between individuals and is seen as a threat to the agnate bond. (Abu-Lughod 1986: 145) The threat of romance is diffused by the common occurrence of patrilateral cousin marriages. In this way, the coherence of the paternal kin group is maintained.

It is interesting to note that, again, in both British and Awlad Ali societies, predominant political discourses are upheld through the social control and regulation of womens bodies. Kinship is a strong metaphorical system that reinforces and is reinforced by the political context in which it is situated. The interconnectedness of politics and kinship is quite differently constructed in these two societies; yet the construction of their relation to each other is consistent, in that so many of the overarching symbols, such as social conformity and the construction of difference through the perception of natural gender roles, remain intact.

Genealogical connection, in British society, is conflated with the idea of the nuclear family, which is the basic unit of kinship. If one achieves this unit, especially if they are also upwardly mobile, within the context of the enterprise culture, their proverbial dreams have come true. In contrast to this social concentration on the nuclear family, the Awlad Ali see the paternal kin group as the basic kinship unit. In addition, the Awlad Ali believe that their ancestral blood, which is central in defining their identity, is of noble origin, and that maintaining the integrity of that bloodline is essential. Thus, the pressure to marry within ones group is even higher than is traditional within most other cultures.

While kinship is a determining factor in the lives of the members of these societies, it is evident that the ways in which it is constructed are varied and culturally specific. The ways that these notions of kinship help to construct notions of gender, and/or vice versa, are also myriad in nature. It is important to recognize the diversity with which womens and mens experiences of culture are shaped. At the same time, certain commonalities can be drawn between the two; namely, those of the symbolic associations of concepts of women, childbearing and nature.

While not defending Sherry Ortners female:male: :nature:culture theory (Ortner 1974), I must draw the conclusion that gender roles are formed, to certain extent, by perceptions of nature and the values associated with it. Biology does not directly determine the societal role of women; however, to deny the importance of biology and its effects on the cultural psyche is problematic. To structure the most accurate anthropological theory possible, it is necessary to consider all factors, biological and social, which affect the cultural construction of society and kinship ideology.

Horizontal Divider 26


Circumcision Status, Genital Ulcer Disease and HIV Transmission

(June 5, 2000)



AIDS scares me. I remember the first time I ever heard of it. It was a day in 1983 or 1984, and my father, who is a physician, picked me up from summer camp with a grim look on his face. He told me that doctors had found a new disease called AIDS, and that he was really scared for my generation. He didn't know how many of us would live, he said. He told me I needed to be careful, because when I started having sex, a man could give me AIDS. It was my first condom speech. I was eight. I can still remember the exact location on Vine St. in Berkeley, CA that we were driving on as he informed me of this terrible turn of events. I was terrified.

Since that day, millions of people worldwide have died of AIDS. And despite my father's fears for the children of America, most of those AIDS deaths have not occurred in the heterosexual population of the United States. Although heterosexual women are now the highest growing segment of the American population becoming infected with HIV, the rate of heterosexual transmission in this country remains relatively low, in comparison to the far more tragic transmissions rates for American gay men and IV drug users. These were the majority of the thousands upon thousands of AIDS deaths in this country in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. Since then, new drug combination anti-retroviral therapies have been developed that have transformed AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic lifetime disease - in the Western world. Now virtually all HIV+ Westerners, be they gay, straight, bisexual, IV drug using or clean, have access to combination anti-retroviral therapy, provided, of course, that they have access to health insurance. There is still no cure for AIDS, but the disease is much less of an automatic death sentence now than it was considered to be 10 years ago. We've bought time for our citizens and those of other industrialized nations, while we continue the search for a cure. Things are looking up. How often does a friend or family member of the average American citizen die of AIDS?

A Zimbabwean would say, "Yesterday." When I visited Zimbabwe in 1996, there was a funeral every few days among the community of the ten home-stay families who housed the ten exchange students, of which is was one. And since then it has only gotten worse. While AIDS is still largely a gay and IV drug using disease in the Western world, 80-90% of HIV/AIDS cases in Africa and Asia are heterosexually transmitted, with little IV drug use or homosexual activity involved. In these regions, women are dying at the same rate as men. These epidemiological trends are drastically different from those seen in the Western world. In most of America and Europe, the rate of heterosexual transmission, and especially female-to-male transmission, is remarkable low, especially when compared to the statistics from Africa and Asia. Yet this huge discrepancy in numbers has been virtually ignored in the public discourse about AIDS. The overriding opinion seems to be that people get it more in Africa, yes. But they're always dying over there, that backwards country, what can be done about those people anyway? But women, so many women, dropping like flies? How is this possible? The discrepancy between heterosexual female acquisition of the disease in the Western world and in Africa and Asia has brought nearly no attention to this great epidemiological public health mystery.

However, in the realm of medical research, natural and social scientists have been attempting to unravel this mystery for over ten years. In the course of my research, I noticed a chronological evolution of the way AIDS in Africa has been talked about. In the late 1980s, when much scientific information regarding AIDS was still lacking, there was a trend to associate the high rates of heterosexual transmission with cultural practices occurring in Africa. In the 1990s, more epidemiological approaches became utilized. As time went on, a clear "x-factor" began to emerge from the picture, one that explained this discrepancy in transmission rates. This "x-factor" was male circumcision.


History of AIDS Research

In a 1987 study coming out of UC Davis, DB Hardy advances current theories about risk factors for HIV transmission in Africa. The sexually related factors listed are (1) promiscuity, (2) high rates of homosexuality and anal intercourse, and (3) cultural practiced such as female circumcision and infibulation which possible increase virus transmission. Non-sexual factors included (1) blood sharing rituals (including "blood brotherhood" establishing rituals and the ever popular "ritual and medicinal enemas"), (2) sharing instruments (group scarification and "shaving of body hair") and (3) "contact with nonhuman primates." The author comes to the conclusion that "promiscuity seems to be the most important cultural factor contributing to the transmission of HIV in Africa." Male circumcision is not mentioned. (Hardy 1987)

In a 1988 study conducted on heterosexual men in Nairobi, Kenya, genital ulcers are first mentioned in connection with HIV transmission. 63% of HIV positive men reported a past history of genital ulcers, compared to only 31% of the HIV negative men. Chancroid was and continues to be the main genital ulcer disease (GUD) of import. The author connects genital ulcers and HIV transmission, and suggests that control of STDS, specifically GUD "may offer one very feasible approach" to reducing HIV transmission. Although the authors mention that uncircumcised men have higher rates of HIV infection, they do not connect lack of circumcision with GUD. (Greenblatt, et al 1988)

In 1990, a study came out of the University of Manitoba that concluded, "Over 95% of attributable risk [for seroconversion] in men with STD was either genital ulceration or the presence of a foreskin." The authors hypothesize that "genital ulcers are the major portals of entry for HIV infection and also increased shedding of virus infected cells into the vaginal secretions. However, circumcision status is still not linked with GUD. (Jessamine, et al 1990)

Five years later, in a 1995 study in Kigali, Rwanda, it was found that even though uncircumcised men typically had a lower risk profile than circumcised men (due to fewer sexual partners and residence in rural areas), uncircumcised men had 29% rate of HIV infection compared to 21% in circumcised men. In addition, although uncircumcised men were less likely to report a history of STDs, they were more likely to report GUD. (Seed, et al 1995) In a 1996 study, similar results were reported, and the recommendation was made that "male circumcision should be considered as an intervention strategy for AIDS control." It was suggested that lack of circumcision was connected to HIV through the mechanism of other sexually transmitted diseases, but is not conclusive. (Tyndall, et al 1996)

In 1998, an article was published that states, "[T]here is substantial evidence that circumcision protects males from HIV infection, penile carcinoma, urinary tract infections, and ulcerative sexually transmitted diseases. We could find little scientific evidence of adverse effects on sexual, psychological or emotional health." (Moses, et al 1998) Although this study is conclusive on the topic of male circumcision, STDs and HIV, I am not sure if the authors considered the ramifications of saying that there is no evidence for adverse effects from circumcision. Certainly it is painful, especially when it is performed without drugs. There can be long term psychological effects on the male who has been circumcised when he was completely vulnerable and trusting of his caretakers, who choose to have their babies mutilated. And there is evidence to show that sex is not as pleasurable without a foreskin. However, if male circumcision is the "x-factor" in the heterosexual transmission of HIV, these side effects of male circumcision could be more properly contextualized as harmful, certainly, but may also be a necessary harm in protecting male children and adults in the context of the AIDS world. I will discuss the implications and politics of male circumcision in America further later in the paper.

In March of 2000, a study was published that supports "the contention that male circumcision may offer protection against HIV infection, particularly in high risk groups where genital ulcers and other STDs 'drive' the HIV epidemic." (O'Farrell 2000). Then, on March 30, 2000, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study of heterosexual couples in Uganda. The emphasis of the study was on viral load and heterosexual transmission of HIV. The study received a lot of media attention, because it was the first to prove conclusively that the higher the level of HIV in a person's blood, the more likely it is to pass on the virus through sex. It also received attention because of the study's ethics: HIV infected individuals were not treated for HIV and the partners of HIV positive individuals were not informed about their HIV status. But the most remarkable statistic, I think, is the one that was virtually ignored. "Forty of the 137 uncircumcised men in the study got HIV over the two-year period. Not a single one of the 50 circumcised men in the study was infected. Not one." (Slack 2000) The conclusion is also advanced that "the rate of male-to-female transmission was not significantly different from the rate of female-to-male transmission (12.0 per 100 person-years vs. 11.6 per 100 person-years)." (Quinn, et al 2000)

These are staggering results. The fact that women can transmit HIV virtually as easily as they can contract it has huge implications. In the West, where female-to-male transmission is rare, men will most likely be infected by homosexual sex or IV drug use (of course this is not always the case). Therefore, heterosexual women will usually only contract HIV from her male partner if he is infected through these mechanisms; the likelihood of his having contracted HIV from his other female partners is very low. This is what keeps the heterosexual transmission rates as low as they are here. It is basically a one-way transmission route, from infected men to women. The fact that it does not usually go from infected women to men means that the exponential explosive growth and spread of the epidemic that we see in Africa and other regions does not occur in the West. When women can pass it to men who pass it to women who pass it to men... it makes perfect sense that in Africa AIDS is a primarily heterosexual disease.


The Case for Circumcision

The presence of the male foreskin seems to be the most important factor when looking at HIV transmission rates throughout the world. It accounts for all the major geographical discrepancies. In an article published in the East Bay Express (May 19-25, 2000) Gordy Slack discusses these discrepancies in further detail. For example, the HIV infection rate in Thailand is 2.23%, while in the nearby Philippines, the rate is only .06%. In the Philippines, they circumcise male children. In Thailand, for the most part, they do not. In California, they have found "very few cases of female-to-male transmission of HIV... among a population born at a time when about ninety percent of males were being circumcised." In fact, circumcision was popular throughout the US during the 1970s, which might well be the reason for the low rates of heterosexual transmission in this country, especially female-to-male rates. (Slack 2000)

In Europe, where most men are not circumcised, there is a relatively higher rate of female-to-male transmission. This points even more conclusively towards circumcision as the elusive "x-factor," since economic and cultural factors are virtually constant in the United States and Europe. However, the rate of female-to-male transmission in Europe is tiny compared to that of Africa. This illustrates that there are more factors than simple circumcision to examine. The economic state of a country has much to do with the health care available to its citizens. Africa is much poorer, in general, than Europe. The health resources that are available in the West, especially to treat chronic STDs, are not available to them. The cultural position of women is also a factor. Often they are not educated about how to take care of themselves and their families within the context of the AIDS epidemic. Men are not educated about this either. Another factor could possible be that cleaning facilities and customs do not allow for "proper" cleaning of the foreskin, which can lead to increased rates of infection.

The lack of male circumcision is also positively associated with urinary tract infections (UTIs). In 1987, a study was performed that showed that uncircumcised boys were 20 times more likely to have UTIs in their first year than their uncircumcised counterparts. Motivated by this data, the American Association of Pediatrics put together a Task Force on Circumcision in late 1987. In addition to the UTI data, they found evidence to show that being uncircumcised gives men a higher risk of developing penile cancer. The task force also found that circumcision significantly reduces men's chances of contracting various STDs. Clearly, there are major health benefits to be had from circumcision, which predate the AIDS epidemic.

So if we have known that circumcision status and HIV transmission are correlated for over ten years now, why hasn't anything yet been done about it? For example, the Johns Hopkins Media/Materials Clearinghouse, with a collection of over 30,000 publications, has not one publication that mentions the connection between male circumcision and AIDS. As Slack says, "What the hell is going on? Why is everyone ignoring the elephant-sized foreskin in the living room?" (Slack 2000)

There are several factors that Slack proposes for this rather major oversight. First, he says, there is a kind of "biomedical fixation" extant in the medical research community. The focus is on new drugs, new treatments. Something as "soft" as circumcision does not fit into the current cultural context of the medical research community. Also, there is new emphasis on clades. It is currently being researched whether or not different clades are more easily spread through heterosexual contact. I would propose that the African clades themselves are not more specific to heterosexual contact, it is more likely that we see these clades expressed in an overwhelmingly heterosexual population, because of other factors. But more research must be done for a conclusive answer to that question.

The second, and more culturally oriented factor that Slack says is holding back the circumcision information is cultural sensitivity regarding circumcision. It is a hotly debated topic. Most people assume that since Jews and Muslims are so adamant about circumcising, people from other cultures would be just as adamantly opposed to it. However, Slack cites the words of medical anthropologist Daniel Halperin from UCSF's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, who states that this is usually not the case. His research shows that men, specifically those living in these hard-hit African nations, are often excited to get the procedure done. "'For men in Africa who are at risk of dying of AIDS, keeping their foreskin is the last thing in the world they are worried about,'" says Halperin. Slack goes on to venture that while the American anti-circumcision movement has a kind of romantic, back-to-nature feel to it, "circumcision has a kind of urbane modern appeal in some parts of uncircumcised Africa." (Slack 2000)

Although the circumcision issue is being largely ignored in the US and Europe, traditional doctors in Africa are beginning to take notice of this phenomenon. This makes sense, since they are the ones living amongst the epidemic and have first-hand knowledge regarding which people most commonly gets infected. Traditional healers are beginning to recommend circumcision as a preventative measure. And in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, "private clinics... are advertising foreskin removal as 'a way to alleviate chronic STD infection and prevent AIDS.'" People in their own communities are beginning to effect change, and I think that this is essential to a global effort to fight this disease. A South Africa traditional healer leader told an anthropologist, "'When tradition and the health of our people are in conflict, it is tradition we must sacrifice.'" (Slack 2000)

This is compelling information. If people in Africa are willing to get this procedure (circumcision) done, and if it will stop the spread of HIV, then it seems logical that educational information about circumcision should be distributed among people who do not have access to such information. It is a simple procedure, and it takes only 15 minutes. Under anesthesia, it doesn't hurt. Certainly there can be serious psychological effects for men undergoing this form of sexual mutilation. But when compared to the psychological effects of contracting HIV, well, one must choose. Additionally, in terms of low-cost prevention, while circumcision isn't free, it's a lot cheaper than combination regimens of anti-retroviral drugs and other medicines to control opportunistic infections.

There has been much debate recently about American pharmaceutical companies and the availability of their drugs to people in Africa and other "third world" countries. Several companies lowered their prices last month (May 2000) to try and accommodate Africans who need their medications, specifically in South Africa. However, a decrease from $600 a month to $250 a month will not mean much to the person who makes $1 a day. South African President Thabo Mbeki has argued that South Africa does not need expensive drugs as much as it needs economic support. He has indicated poverty as the main factor for the explosion of HIV in his country. This position has sparked much debate, but it is not difficult to see the truth in what he is saying. But the focus is still on the pharmaceutical companies. Today on the CNN website, Reuters said this: "South Africa said Monday it would lobby international drug companies to implement promised price cuts and provide technical assistance to help combat the AIDS epidemic." (CNN website, 6/5/00) These costly political battles look striking in the news, but whom they are really helping? Besides the media and the American government? In order to stop the AIDS epidemic in Africa, more drastic, grassroots steps must be taken. It is prevention that should be the focus, not treatment. Treatment is important, but each one of the 4.3 million HIV positive people living in South Africa alone could not possibly receive sufficient drug treatment. There simply aren't the resources for that. While drugs are a good band-aid, more needs to be done. It is amazing to think of the implications of circumcision as a preventative measure to prevent the transmission of HIV. Think how much money would be saved if this were true. Think of the ease of the procedure. Think how many lives would be saved.

In the wake of this new information, it is even more fascinating that circumcision has been practiced for so many thousands of years. The Jews and Muslims must have noted the health benefits in terms of UTIs and STDs, for why else would they begin such a practice? Even the covenant of Abraham with God may have arisen out of this practice, which began for public health reasons. Some scholars have suggested that circumcision entered Christian culture in the last century because it stops little boys from masturbating. While this may have seemed like a good solution, it has not proven very effective (as any of my male circumcised friends could attest to). And although circumcision may be used sometimes as a mechanism of sexual control, just as female circumcision can be, I believe the health aspects are still essential to examine, especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic.

A Brazilian oncologist that Halperin spoke to had similar ideas about circumcision as an ancient practice arising from public health needs. This oncologist has to amputate cancerous penises every week, and it strongly in favor of circumcision. He told Halperin, "Those Jews were so smart; thousands of years ago they figured out this way to prevent health problems." Halperin expresses that this was one of the things that changed his conception of circumcision from a savage ritual to a "health/cultural innovation ahead of its time." (Slack 2000)

Circumcision faces its own struggles in this country. An integral part of the men's movement, the foreskin restoration movement, insists that the prepuce represents "nature, wholeness, and freedom from authoritarian control." Theoretically, I support the men in this struggle. Indeed, the idea of cutting a baby boy's penis seems horrifying. I actually had vowed that I would never circumcise my boy children before I began my research. But now, I feel differently. The men in the foreskin restoration movement must also understand that what to them represents freedom and nature represents to millions of others suffering and death. This is another case when those people who have economic control (middle to upper class American men, in this case) also control the information and popular ideas about important issues. But here, I hope, the scientific evidence will eventually be heard over the drumming and Iron John stories.


Impacts on Development

However, if circumcision becomes proven to be the "x-factor," the question arises of what we will do with that information. How will we distribute this information in Africa without forcing men to get circumcised? That would clearly be against any ethical norms currently established in the medical research community. We could not force anyone to get circumcised. But there is a potential for cultural insensitivity in this context. Just as missionaries introduced concepts of hell and shame, and Western colonialists helped to introduce capitalism, will we similarly introduce male circumcision as the right way? Humanitarians would say that we are helping the Africans. But so would the missionaries and capitalists say that about themselves. There is a problem with cultural colonization in any development work. Those of us who want to do development work must constantly be aware of that potential. How will we educate people about circumcision without imposing our own cultural norms and constructs onto the affected society?


Female Genital Mutilation

It is ironic that a focus on male circumcision as protection against HIV infection in Africa should come now, right in the midst of the attention given to female circumcision in Africa. Female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM), however, is a very different procedure. Instead of merely the removal of some skin, the entire clitoris is excised. In 15% of the cases of FGM, the women are infibulated as well, the opening to their vaginas sewn up to make them tight and virginal, and to ensure that the woman will be faithful. This is necessary so their husbands can know that their wives' children are genetically their children as well; and this is necessary for the passing down of property from father to son. Essentially, the nature of the economic patriline is reliant on the excision and infibulation of women's genitalia. This is also a practice that has gone on for thousands of years, but unlike, male circumcision, there has been no scientific evidence to show that FGM is in any way beneficial for women's health. Perhaps this evidence will surface in a few years, the way this information about male circumcision is surfacing now. However, that seems less likely (unless the inability to achieve sexual pleasure could be considered beneficial to womens health).

However, even if there are no health benefits from FGM, and even if it adversely affects women's health, FGM, within the context of these African communities, is an integral cultural concept upon which many culturally specific norms and traditions are established. It lays some of the foundation of some African cultures. When humanitarian health workers in Africa try to stop the occurrence of FGM, they must also be aware that the practice is deep rooted in metaphor and culture. In my opinion, the best way to approach this problem is through working with an already established group of African women who are working to effect change within their own communities.


The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity

Just as we utilize post-modern culturally sensitive theoretical frameworks to deal with female genital mutilation, so must we now use these same frameworks to view the issue of male circumcision. Although it may seem like a miracle cure (just one cut and you're safe!) it is much more complex than that. There are intricate cultural structures already in place in most African societies. And humanitarian health workers must be extremely careful not to disrupt these structures, to the fullest extent of their abilities.


A Final Thought

I wonder, incidentally, what the relationship has been between HIV and other STDs over the years. Since HIV seems to pass most easily through STD sores, and since HIV and STDs are often found to be prevalent in the same places, I wonder if HIV evolved mutualistically with STDs, especially genital ulcer disease. It would make sense; HIV is a highly sensitive virus that dies upon any contact with air. GUD ensures that the virus can pass from body to body, undisturbed. If this hypothesis could be proven, it would have to be said that this was a brilliant move on the part of HIV, to hook up with GUD like that. Now that the relationship between the two is in the public discourse about AIDS, perhaps someone will research that aspect of the development of HIV.



Male circumcision, GUD and AIDS. What a triad. These three synergistic elements are only now beginning to be truly connected in the scientific literature. Now, all we can do is wait and see. Once this information is passed on to the affected communities in Africa and throughout the world, we will see if circumcision becomes more popular in these regions. If it does, then we will see if circumcision really is the long sought after "x-factor." Of course, this could all be hypothesized falsehood. It could be that economics have everything to do with the discrepancies in AIDS rates between the West and the "Third World." However, the information discussed in my paper is compelling and important enough to present. The connection between HIV and male circumcision can no longer be ignored, and I think that it is essential to examine this connection to look for possible preventative strategies for the management and treatment of the AIDS epidemic. This information has been dismissed for too long. As Halperin says, "The anti-circ people ask us how history will judge is for circumcising so many kids. Well, I wonder how history will judge us for allowing such a potentially powerful HIV intervention to go unexploited."

Horizontal Divider 26

Final Exam: Letter to the Editor

(December 8, 1999)


I have just completed the very popular ethno-history of late 20th century Earth. I found it troubling, to say the least. I am a native of this time period, and I think that the author, who, by the way, I respect greatly, is mistaken about several things. Her main problem, as I see it, is that she has taken modern, Y3K era notions of power and inequality, which rely heavily on technological breakthroughs not achieved until the 25th century, and has projected these notions onto her understanding of the culture of late 20th century Earth. This is problematic for a variety of reasons.

The author theorizes that all life and culture in the late 20th century Earth (from now on I will refer to this time period as L2C) exists in the free-floating, transcendent form of ideas and information (Hayden 1999) and not in physical bodies. She also states that because of this state of things, there existed no inequality. Although I would love for that to be true, unfortunately, that was simply not the case in L2C. Power and inequality existed, and they existed in very embodied ways.

In order to make sense of these criticisms, I feel that I must present to you a more accurate picture of what L2C was like. It was a very different place than the world we inhabit today. Every day an average person would encounter anywhere from fifty to two hundred people, in their real physical forms, in the course of their daily activities. There was an incredible amount of physical interaction and love and desire especially were expressed physically. The reality today is that we have, over the last few centuries, lost all residual ability to reproduce naturally, and must now rely upon genetic engineering and artificially created babies for the perpetuation of our species. Our only sexual experiences, regardless of sexual preference, are had through the medium of virtual reality. Therefore, people living today may have a hard time imagining L2C Earth, when sexual intercourse was not only still the primary means of creating human life, but was also experienced on a real physical level. The effect of this context of sexuality is significant; and I believe that if the author was more aware of this effect on the time period in question, she may have framed her analysis differently.

Within this context, when embodied sexuality was significant to people, it had an incredible effect on every form of interaction imaginable. The dominant discourse of sexuality relied heavily on ideas of the natural, and people grounded their sexual identities in conceptions of the historical sexual practices of all the peoples and cultures who had existed before them, who were considered to be models of the natural. This sense of continuity and tradition was comforting to us then, and the dominant discourses of sexuality were used extensively in the production and negotiation of cultural identities through the bodies we inhabited. In order to prove my point I will present you with several examples of the ways in which power and inequality were played out through physical bodies. To further support my points I will bring in the work of several theorists who wrote in the L2C about the specific ways in which culture was in fact embodied.

The first example is that of female circumcision. Most people today are still familiar with this concept, and I will not pain you with an explanation of the mechanics of the practice. Female circumcision was an incredibly problematic issue for us anthropologists in L2C, precisely because of its quality of embodying culture. There are several different aspects of this embodiment that I will discuss.

Female circumcision arose from, or is dialectically related to, the cultural discourses of the peoples who practiced it. In most, if not all of these cultures, there were specific notions about gender and sexuality that were inextricably linked with the practice. Especially relevant are cultural conceptions of virginity, femininity and cleanliness.

Virginity was a highly valued trait in the women of these societies. Female circumcision, it has been theorized, was used as means of ensuring womens virginity at marriage, especially in the societies where the women were also infibulated in addition to being excised. In the cultures where women were not infibulated, the association of excision with the control of womens sexuality was still quite strong. The practice was thought to ensure a womans faithfulness during marriage; an uncircumcised woman was considered unmarriageable. Thus, the reproductive potential of women was controlled, and this ensured that her babies would be of her husbands seed. This was absolutely essential in societies where property and wealth were passed down in a patrilineal kinship system. Paternity needed to be irrefutable. From this analysis, we can see that specific cultural ideology was firmly entrenched and played out physically in the bodies of the women in these societies.

This ideology tended to be read by Western scholars as inherently patriarchal. However, several feminist theorists of the time helped to problematize that assumption by questioning the validity of placing Western constructs onto the cultures of non-Western peoples, and by pointing out the empowering quality of the practice for the women who underwent it. For example, Janice Boddy, a L2C anthropologist, theorized that female circumcision is an assertive symbolic act by which women emphasize their fertility and their ability to found a family or lineage section. (Boddy 1997:321) Boddy also pointed out that metaphors of enclosure, safety and fertility were associated with femininity in these societies, and that these metaphorical connections were strengthened by the practice of female circumcision. Although this differs slightly from the above interpretation of the practice as sexist and patriarchal, the fact that female circumcision stands as an embodiment of culture remains the same.

By the mid-20th century, female circumcision had also become a means of resisting Western colonialism. This was manifested, in one case, in Kenya. The Kikuyu culture in Kenya had practiced female circumcision for as long as they could remember. However, when British colonialism took hold and Christian missionaries and other Western colonizers attempted to abolish the practice, President Kenyatta took a strong stance in favor of female circumcision. For him and many others, the practice was a signifier for Kikuyu tradition, and to give it up would essentially mean giving up Kikuyu national and cultural identity. Thus, female circumcision was again used as a manifestation of cultural ideology, this time as a form of resistance. And though this post-colonial ideology is different from the above-mentioned ones, circumcised women stood, as always, as a physical embodiment of cultural ideology. (Martin-Shaw 1995)

Another example of the ways in which culture was embodied in the L2C can be seen in an examination of the United States-Mexico border and the specific discourses associated with it at that time. The border itself was a physically demarcated space with enormous cultural significance. The United States, in the L2C, was an economically prosperous, capitalist nation with a large amount of foreign investment. It also used an abundance of cheap labor from so called Third World countries, including Mexico. Labor was not so cheap in the U.S. and so many people from Mexico attempted to cross the border into the U.S. in order to get better paying jobs and better lives for their families. Because of this capitalist economic system and the inherent inequalities of wealth in the two nations, the border, as a physical space, came to signify and embody the dominant discourses of power and inequality between the U.S. and Mexico.

Melissa Wright, another theorist, wrote in the L2C about the border as both an actuality and as a metaphor within one of the factories that operated in Mexico near the border, otherwise known as maquiladoras. The physical space of this factory was clearly divided into two sections: one American and one Mexican. In the American section, there were executive offices and the signs were in English. In the Mexican section, where all the workers resided, there was Mexican music playing, and all the signs were in Spanish. The existence of these two spheres exposed, for Wright, a concerted effort to reproduce in the firms social and spatial arrangement the hierarchy of Mexicans to Americans articulated in larger border discourses. (Wright 1998: 119)

Within these factories lay even subtler idioms of border ideology, manifested in conceptions of the Mexican women, or mestizas, who worked there. These mestizas were generally perceived to be sexually chaotic, Third World women. In the L2C, it was not uncommon to see this sexually chaotic construction applied to all Third World women, and this construction tells us much about the ways in which sexuality was seen as a threat to the dominant discourse of capitalism and patriarchy. However, the ways in which this construction was used specifically in imagining the U.S.-Mexico border can be seen also as an embodiment of cultural ideology.

These sexually chaotic mestizas were associated with Third World poverty and society. Thus, they were always suspected of being prostitutes. They were not allowed to move up the corporate ladder, and there was massive pressure on them to stay on the Mexican side of the factory. There was a specific culturally constructed discourse that circumscribed American professional business ideology, and traditionally defined and perceived mestizas did not fit into that discursive expectation. In order for a mestiza to have any hope of achieving a level of economic success within this capitalist system, it was essential that she learn to fulfill the expectations of that ideology by performing the identity of an American woman. This ideal American woman was perceived to be professional, English speaking, and above all, sexually non-threatening.

Wright uses a woman named Rosalia who worked in a maquiladora as an example of this performance of identity. Rosalia was a woman from Mexico who was able to move up to a relatively high position within the hierarchy of the factory. She was able to do this because she learned how to resignify herself, from Mexican to American. This resignification was almost completely in terms of physical changes. She bought American clothes, wore her hair and makeup in an American style, and enrolled in intensive English classes so that she would not only look but also sound more American. She began planning to move to the U.S., and to look for schools in the U.S. for her children. Her performance as an American woman was successful.

That these physical changes were the means by which Rosalia could resignify herself within the context of American capitalism reveals the ways in which economics, and specifically capitalism, could be embodied, especially in the bodies of women. The bodily presentation that Mexican women chose to display was absolutely essential in determining how those in power would perceive them. Thus, the power inequality that was circumscribed by the U.S.-Mexico border could be crossed if one crossed also the metaphorical border of appearance and presentation, in physical terms.

Jessica Chapin, a L2C queer theorist, also wrote about the U.S.-Mexico border, recasting it in terms of heterosexist norms. She theorized that the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico could be seen as an economic marriage of sorts. (Chapin 1998: 409) For Chapin, the idioms of vulnerability and penetrability associated with Mexico were synonymous with cultural constructions of femininity. The economic power and impenetrability of the U.S. was therefore symbolically associated with masculinity. Chapin shows with this analysis how notions of physical bodies in engagement with their sexualities could be so pervasive that they could produce a coherent physical border based on those norms. Again, ideology, this time heterosexist ideology, was manifested through both physical bodies and physical space.

Chapin also discusses the ways in which border guards attempted to identify aliens from Mexico who were trying to enter the U.S. They read national identity from a number of signs that they perceive to be significant. These signs were all related to appearance and performance of identity, and included such markers as clothing, makeup, language and manners of movement. A person wearing too-bright lipstick or too-new jeans was immediately under suspicion of being an illegal alien, a Mexican citizen attempting to enter the U.S. illegally. Although scores of American citizens and legal immigrants were harassed under these guidelines, the U.S. border patrol continued to use these signs as the most reliable means of determining national identity.

This discourse of identity as embodied through appearance reached Mexicans who were planning on entering the U.S. illegally. These Mexicans talked about crossing the border illegally in terms of dressing up, dissembling, and manipulating their appearances through changing the way they walk, talk, or dress. (Chapin 1998: 416) Again, we see that power relationships and dominant ideologies were specifically embodied, this time in the appearance of the Mexican citizens who desired to cross the border.

I hope that these examples have been helpful to your readers. Indeed it is difficult these days to imagine the world I have just described. But I hope that I have shed some light on the truth of the embodiment of culture so prevalent in the L2C. And I hope that the author of this book and her colleagues will take these statements into account before they write any further ethno-histories of late 20th century Earth. Thank you.

Horizontal Divider 26

On Boddy and Female Genital Mutilation

(November 11, 1999)


In Janice Boddy's chapter, Womb as Oasis, she discusses at length the symbols which help to define womanhood in the Hofriyat culture. Her reference to the interwovenness of concepts contructing womanhood (Boddy 1997: 322) pertains to the many different levels that the concepts of enclosure, purity and cleanliness manifest themselves in every day life, and emphasizes their relation to the construction of culturally specific gender roles. This analysis is different from all the others I have read, and I appreciate the innovative approach that Boddy takes in her treatment of the issue of female genital mutilation.

There is an abundance of metaphors in Hofriyat culture which pertain to the very concepts associated with female circumcision: enclosure, purity and cleanliness. Boddy observes the metaphorical connection between young girls and water birds, which are held to be pure birds. The idiom of moisture is heavily reinforced by this and other concepts held by the Hofriyat people. In theories of conception, women are thought to contribute the flesh and blood (wet) to the fetus, while men are thought to contribute the bone(dry). Boddy also discusses the role of the gulla, a gourd which retains all its moisture, and its symbolic association with the womb. It also offers a symbol for enclosure. Women are traditionally associated with the inside, and men with the outside. This is not a novel concept, of course. It appears throughout the world in a myriad of cultures. However, in Hofriyat culture, this symbolism is carried further by the association of the hosh, the house, and therefore enclosed space, with the womb (house of childbirth). All hoshs are considered clean and safe places. Thus, to construct the womb as a social, safe place, there rises the need to enclose the womb somehow; namely, by infibulation.

Boddy theorizes that the practice of infibulation is in fact empowering to women by virtue of their societal norms. She calls it an assertive symbolic act, by which women emphasize their fertility and their ability to found a family or lineage section. (Boddy 1997: 321) The association of FGM with fertility is unmistakable, read in the idioms of wetness, safety, and fecundity linked with the practice. The fact that FGM is actually dangerous to fertility is perhaps the most potent means by which to challenge its prevalence. These idioms might well fall apart if the Hofriyat were to recognize the threat to fertility that FGM poses. However, as Boddy points out, the practice and its associated idioms are so prevalent in daily life that to destroy the link between enclosure and fertility might contribute to the breakdown of their traditional culture, and that possibility needs to be taken into account when doing any kind of work involving the abolition of female genital mutilation.

Please feel free to contact me at: