READING RESPONSE: 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.