Erin L. Han*

DEBATING WOMEN’S EQUALITY. By Ute Gerhard. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 2001. Pp. 180.

Abstract:  Ute Gerhard’s book, Debating Women’s Equality, emphasizes the continuing importance of equality to the women’s rights movement. Gerhard tackles the feminist equality-versus-difference debate and concludes that both concepts are vital to women’s efforts to achieve status that is both equal with men but uniquely female at the same time. She directs her theories to the feminist movements in Europe, and concludes that women must primarily use law to claim their rights. This Book Review tests the applicability of Gerhard’s Western feminist theories to the anti female circumcision movements in Africa, and particularly focuses on the limitations of law as a method for claiming women’s rights in circumcising communities. Through this analysis, this Review illustrates the limited applicability of Western feminism to the experiences and goals of African feminists and suggests alternate, non-legal approaches to eradicate the practice of female circumcision in Africa.


In her book, Debating Women’s Equality, Ute Gerhard seeks to reconcile feminist theories that urge women’s equality with those that recognize and celebrate the differences of women, as a gender.1 Gerhard argues that equality and difference can and should go hand in hand, and that an understanding of differences between the genders is the best way to ensure equality of experiences for women and men alike.2 The realization of equality, as a standard for measuring justice, is a primary focus of this book.3 Moreover, Gerhard urges [*PG202]women to gain this equality through legal means, reshaping law and concepts of law and “human rights” in the process.4

In this European feminist book, Gerhard criticizes the American feminist equality discussion as inapplicable to the same discussion in European countries.5 However, she fails to analyze the application of her own European view of equality, and her reliance on legal measures for its realization, to non-Western feminist and cultural frameworks. This Book Review critically analyzes the limitations of Gerhard’s legal, “rights-based” approach to women’s equality in non-Western countries where women themselves are largely responsible for upholding and perpetuating certain types of inequality and abuse.6

This Book Review will explore the limitations of Gerhard’s approach through a case study of the international women’s movement against the practice of female circumcision7 in parts of Africa. Part I [*PG203]will provide the background necessary for a discussion and analysis of female circumcision. Part II will address the theoretical complexities that female circumcision poses for (European) Western feminists, such as Gerhard, particularly the applicability of the public/private distinction.8 It will also question the usefulness of the “equality-versus-difference” debate that Gerhard articulates,9 in the context of female circumcision, where women use their gender difference to justify and uphold unequal treatment.10 Part III of this Book Review will discuss the limits of Gerhard’s emphasis on legal means for gaining equality, as it is applied to the international and local movements to end the practice of female circumcision in Africa.11 Law has only limited potential to eradicate a culturally embedded practice such as female circumcision. Efforts to criminalize these practices, especially where they bear the aura of Western intervention, have in most cases been ineffective and even counterproductive, causing the practice to become even more entrenched. Women’s efforts to gain equality in communities that practice female genital cutting must embrace culturally sensitive and innovative non-legal strategies, both as a precursor to and alongside efforts to eradicate female circumcision by law.

I.  Female Circumcision: Definitions, Rationales, and Debate

Female circumcision is a prevalent practice among the populations of many African and Middle Eastern countries.12 The practice varies widely among different communities and people groups, ranging from “sunna,” the most mild form, which involves the cutting of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris, to infibulation, which involves the cutting of the clitoris, labia minora, and a large portion of the labia majora before sewing together the two sides of the vulva, leaving only [*PG204]a small hole the size of a reed for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.13

The underlying rationales for this practice also vary greatly among practicing communities.14 In Kenya and parts of Uganda, female circumcision occurs when a girl becomes a teenager, as a rite of passage into womanhood before she is married.15 In Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, Eritrea, and Somalia, female circumcision occurs at a much younger age.16 The goal in many of these communities is to protect a girl’s virginity,17 which is vital to ensuring her prospects for marriage.18 In communities where polygamy is prominent, female circumcision is also intended as a tool to curb women’s sex drive, thus easing the pressure on the husband to satisfy all of his wives sexually.19 Cultures have also practiced female genital cutting as part of an aesthetic preference for “smoothness” where female genitalia should be;20 per[*PG205]ceived or actual preference by men for “tightness” during intercourse;21 and medical misconceptions concerning a woman’s genitalia.22 Contrary to popular perception, female circumcision is not solely an “Islamic rite;” Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Copts, Animists, and atheists all practice various forms of female genital cutting.23 While female circumcision is most frequently carried out by Muslims, there is actually no requirement in the Islamic religion for this practice.24

Numerous international treaties and covenants either implicitly or explicitly hold that female circumcision practices constitute an abuse of women and a violation of their human rights.25 While it has been successfully argued that many female circumcision practices are prohibited as “torture” under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)26 and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,27 [*PG206]international covenants dealing specifically with women’s rights have been even more explicit in condemning female circumcision as a human rights abuse.28 Article 2 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women specifically identifies “female genital mutilation” as a practice that must be condemned and eradicated by all states.29 In addition, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) guarantees to women several health rights including: the right to have one’s health and reproduction protected and the right to adequate health care.30 The health consequences to circumcised females (particularly those subjected to more severe forms of cutting) include the following: intense pain, resulting from lack of anesthesia; shock; hemorrhage; discomfort, infection and other complications arising from retention of urine and menstrual discharge; fever; tetanus and genital infections from unsterilized instruments; the formation of obstructive genital scar tissue; sterility; cysts; painful intercourse;31 loss of at least some sexual pleasure during intercourse; and obstructed labor, which may result in a high number of still births or birth defects.32 Clearly a practice with such horrific health consequences and little to nothing in the way of health benefits constitutes a violation of women’s right to adequate health and reproductive care, as guaranteed under CEDAW.33 Furthermore, both CEDAW and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women specifically state that custom and tradition may not be used to excuse practices that are forbidden by these covenants.34

[*PG207] African feminists generally do not deny either the seriousness of circumcision nor the need to work for eradication of the practice.35 Rather, they object to the demeaning and imperialistic way in which some camps of Western activists have approached this issue.36 This Book Review attempts to blend the views of Western and African feminists.37 While this Review argues for the abolition of female circumcision, eradication efforts must be conducted in a way that is respectful of African women and their diverse cultures.38 Micere Githae Mugo perhaps best sums up this approach as follows: “[m]y rejection of circumcision is not a moral judgment of those who practice it.”39

II.  Theoretical Complexities Surrounding Female Circumcision and Western Feminism

A.  The Public/Private Spheres

The practice of female circumcision, deeply rooted in cultural tradition, introduces complexities that are distinct from traditional targets of feminist activism, such as domestic violence or rape, and hence eschews categorization by many of Gerhard’s feminist theories.40 In her final chapter on women’s human rights, for example, Gerhard addresses the familiar feminist recognition of the “public/private sphere divide.”41 According to this theory, abuses against women take place in the “nonpublic, intimate, private sphere of the family, where they are tolerated and go unpunished, and thus are not subject to public law or protection by the state.”42

Female circumcision, however, is difficult to articulate as either truly public or private, in the sense implied by Gerhard.43 Far from being a secret, private matter, traditions surrounding genital cutting, such as protection of virginity, are seen as a community responsibility.44 Indeed, a large, community-wide celebration often accompanies [*PG208]a young woman’s circumcision.45 The stamp of “public” sanction on female circumcision practices has recently become even more pronounced, as some health professionals, charged by governments and activists to end the practice, have instead encouraged families to have their daughters circumcised in the more sanitary setting of public health clinics.46

Furthermore, the “public/private” dilemma that is mentioned by Gerhard typically focuses on gender-based abuses that women experience in the private sphere at the hands of men.47 Thus, another important nuance to female circumcision is that the practice is primarily performed by women, on other women.48 Male preferences for wives who have been cut and/or infibulated propel the practice of female circumcision, in that women strive to meet these preferences to ensure prospects for marriage.49 However, it is women who perform the actual procedures50 and women who riot the loudest against abolition.51 In countries such as Kenya, where a girl is, generally, circumcised as a teenager, she will often voluntarily request for the procedure to be performed rather than having to be outwardly coerced to follow tradition.52 Thus, the public/private dilemma, which has been central53 to feminist understanding of women’s experiences with abuse, may have limited applicability to cultural traditions such as female circumcision.

[*PG209]B.  The Role of Equality

Gerhard’s understanding of the relationship between difference and equality is another example of Western feminist doctrine that does not easily translate to non-Western cultures that practice female circumcision.54 For Gerhard, difference is not the antithesis of equality; rather, an understanding of difference is essential both to ensuring and understanding a concept of equal treatment of the genders.55 In Gerhard’s own words, “The principle of equality assumes that men and women are different and that they will not become identical as a result of equal treatment, but will be able to preserve their difference.”56

Gerhard’s discussion of an ideal equality, which is crafted and instructed through difference, is of little current significance to the female circumcision issue, where most women in these communities must first be convinced that equality of treatment is something that they deserve or even want.57 Far from instructing a greater understanding of equality, difference is still used in these communities to justify unequal, and in this case, abusive treatment.58 In a nod to cultural relativism, Gerhard states, “A decisive step for women from non-Western cultures in demanding human rights was . . .  that they themselves began to define the substance and meaning of their cultures, using their own experience and legal systems to confront patriarchal practices and interpretations.”59 Gerhard is certainly right to applaud the activist work of hard-working non-Western feminists,60 such as African women who are seeking to end the practice of female circumci[*PG210]sion in their countries. However, it is important to recognize that for the general population, change and equality are a long way off and, for many women, not even desired.61 “Equality,” however it relates to difference in Western feminist thought, is an ideal, even for African women activists, that must be taken alongside tradition in countries that practice female circumcision.62

The failure of anti-circumcision efforts in Uganda illustrates that, for many African women, the desire for equal treatment may be some time in coming.63 In Uganda, activists sought to eradicate female circumcision through the use of social marketing messages to community leaders in areas that practiced female circumcision.64 In many areas, the effort initially worked.65 Community leaders agreed that the costs of female circumcision outweighed the cultural benefits and publicly denounced the practice.66 However, within a year, female circumcisions returned as a part of community life, largely at the request of teenage girls, who could not understand why they should not participate in this historically important rite.67 The observations of Ellen Gruenbaum, made during her extensive research trips to Sudan, illustrate that notions of equality between men and women are almost inconceivable in areas of this country.68 Gruenbaum noted that female circumcision, however painful, is rarely questioned by practicing women, who treat the practice as an inevitable component of womanhood, similar to the pains of childbirth.69

In other communities, the particular form of circumcision practiced by a group might represent a key distinction between that group and outside communities, with the more intrusive forms of circumcision correlating to elevated group status.70 In this way, gender differences not only propel unequal treatment of women within their communities, but this treatment might become intrinsic to a commu[*PG211]nity’s very identity.71 In such a community, understanding and appreciating the differences between men and women, as Gerhard suggests, are unlikely to change the position of women, since pointing out these differences will more deeply entrench the reasons for their subordination.72

Women must first be seen as equal to men by virtue of their shared humanity.73 Only then can African women claim their rights alongside men in a way that recognizes and celebrates their uniqueness as women.74 With these theoretical nuances in mind, female circumcision provides a particularly interesting case study on which to test Gerhard’s reliance on law outside of the context of the West.

III.  Eradicating Female Circumcision by Law: Limitations and Alternatives

A.  Limits of Law and Criminalization

Gerhard stresses law as a vehicle to change,75 yet law has thus far had limited success in efforts to eradicate female circumcision, due to strong motivation to break such laws coupled with their general lack of enforceability.76 It is important to remember that in a community where genital cutting of some variety is a prerequisite to marriage, and where marriage is the key to survival, the decision to defy the law might seem like a rational choice to well-meaning parents and midwives.77 This choice becomes even more rational in light of the difficulty most governments have had in enforcing anti-circumcision laws.78 Efforts to criminalize have proven to be largely unenforceable [*PG212]when they run against a cherished social more79 and when the majority of the population would qualify as “criminal” under the new law.80

Not only have efforts to criminalize female circumcision proven ineffective, but in many cases they have exacerbated the plight of African women.81 Initial efforts in several countries to curb female circumcision through law resulted in enormous backlash from the local populations82 and health care professionals.83 Instead of ending the practice, families reacted by circumcising their daughters at even younger ages, often “at night by lamplight.”84 Under these circumstances, a girl who is already at enormous risk for infection due to the unsanitary conditions in which many circumcisions are performed, may be unable to seek professional medical help after the cutting has taken place, for fear that her parents will be criminally prosecuted for allowing the procedure.85

While law certainly does have some value as an instrument of social change,86 history has made it clear that change must come not by [*PG213]law alone.87 The most effective approach to eradicating female circumcision is one that combines legislation and work by grassroots organizations to change the tide of public opinion on the subject and to provide women with opportunities for survival outside of marriage.88 Change in “norms” and attitudes will lay the groundwork for legislation that will effectively outlaw, or at least limit, practices that are harmful to women.89

B.  General Guidelines for Successful Legal and Non-Legal Initiatives

There are three general guidelines that ought to be applied to any plan for eradication of female circumcision.90 First, whenever possible, efforts towards change must be implemented at the grassroots/community level.91 Most early failures at outlawing female circumcision were initiated by European colonial governments.92 These laws failed largely because they lacked support by the local peoples who practiced genital cutting.93 Outside judgment and interference have the tendency to appear patriarchal,94 and so African feminists generally prefer to work on the problem themselves,95 free from outside interference.96 Thus, international concern about genital cutting is best channeled towards supporting African women in their grassroots efforts at legal and non-legal change within their practicing [*PG214]countries.97 This approach avoids imperialism, while encouraging change to arise from the work of women who best understand the problem and who have a personally vested interest in seeing change occur.98

Second, rather than limiting their message to circumcision practices, activists should incorporate other issues that are already recognized and important to African women as part of integrated outreach programs.99 In many African countries, experiences of hunger and war, which are shared by women and men, often rank higher on women’s lists of human rights concerns than do “women’s issues” such as female circumcision.100 African feminists and grassroots organizations argue that anti-circumcision efforts must take this reality into consideration.101 Rather than pouring all of their resources into the eradication of a practice which many participants support, governmental and non-governmental organizations must gain legitimacy by giving equal attention to other important issues, such as needs for health care facilities and training, access to public education for girls, and access to clean water, which also affect the health of African women.102

Finally, in considering any particular policy, it is important to remember that female circumcision is a widely varied practice, involving not only different techniques and types of cutting, but motivated by different cultural stimuli.103 While it is outside the scope of this Book Review to discuss recommendations and policies for each country where female circumcision is practiced, activists with a focus on one of [*PG215]these communities must engage in further research so as to formulate a plan that will be both meaningful and effective in that area of the world.104

C.  Non-Legal Eradication Efforts

1.  Education

The modern movement against female circumcision has come to recognize the centrality of education in policies geared towards eradicating any and all forms of the practice.105 History has shown that legal efforts to change local traditions are ineffective, if not counterproductive, where they are not preceded by attempts to educate local populations as to why these traditions are harmful.106 Whether females are circumcised in an effort to ensure their chances for marriage,107 or as a symbol of one’s passage into adulthood,108 social standing and/or survival serve as powerful reasons to disobey anti-circumcision laws.109 An effective educational campaign against genital cutting will lay the groundwork for later efforts to criminalize the practice.110

Efforts to educate against female circumcision have necessarily gone through an evolutionary process.111 In the 1980s, activists in the movement against female genital cutting believed that education would initially be best received as a health issue, as opposed to a human rights or feminist issue.112 In many communities, female circumcision is justified through erroneous health beliefs.113 Activists be[*PG216]lieved that health-based education aimed at disproving these beliefs would be more useful to discourage the cutting than would be an education program that offended cultural beliefs by focusing on critiquing the traditional role of women in the targeted society.114

In more recent years, however, activists have begun to address the situation of women with increased boldness, not only from the perspective of health but also with a broader focus on the empowerment of women within circumcising societies.115 The reason for this shift is that activists are concerned that pure health instruction may leave communities with the conclusion that circumcision is an acceptable practice, so long as it is performed in as sanitary a way as possible, such as in health centers.116 Because activists are concerned not only with the physical harm of female circumcision, but with its intended purpose to curb the choices and sexual practices of women, current efforts have taken on a more ambitious agenda by seeking to empower women to claim an equal status with men in society.117

2.  Socio-economic Development

In addition to education, economic and social development initiatives in African communities serve as important non-legal methods to elevate the status of women.118 As discussed above, laws prohibiting genital cutting have been ineffective where an uncut woman is unmarriageable and where marriage represents her only hope for survival in her community.119 The key is to foster general education and career opportunities for women, so as to decrease their dependence on men for their livelihood.120 Once women perceive viable options for security and survival besides marriage, the health risks of genital cutting will pose a more compelling reason to cease the practice.121

[*PG217] However, economic development programs are only as successful in ending female circumcision as they are in elevating the status of women vis vis men.122 Where economic development betters the situation of men, without also empowering women, circumcision of women might become even more entrenched in the community.123 This is seen in the recent development of irrigation projects in Sudan, where the projects were structured with male heads of households commanding family labor.124 This kind of situation might result in a further entrenchment of female circumcision if the increase of male wealth and power leads to an increase in the practice of polygamy, which is often seen as a symbol of male status.125 When adopted, polygamy has the potential to encourage stricter circumcision practices as a result of competition among wives to please their husband sexually.126 If the position of women is to be bettered and circumcision is to be discouraged, economic development programs must specifically target and empower women by introducing or supporting schools, clinics, and employment opportunities for women and girls.127

3.  Innovative Methods

A recent tactic that has enjoyed considerable success in ending female genital cutting is the introduction of alternate rites ceremonies.128 This approach, the product of a collaboration between a Kenyan grassroots organization and an international non-profit organization,129 has been effective in communities where circumcision of women is practiced as a “coming of age” ritual.130 The key to the suc[*PG218]cess of this approach is to design a ceremony that is a blend of traditional symbolism and values with an empowering program of modern reproductive and developmental education.131 A typical celebration may incorporate traditional dances, singing, and feasting, but omits the customary genital cutting.132 Alternate rites programs have met with a positive response from local communities in Kenya,133 where alternate rite ceremonies are called “Circumcision through Words.”134 These ceremonies include a week of seclusion during which the girls learn about cultural traditions concerning their roles in the community as women and mothers.135 In addition, the training incorporates instruction in modern health, hygiene, reproductive issues, communication skills, self-esteem, and dealing with peer pressure.136

The success of “alternate rites ceremonies” in certain communities demonstrates the need for continued innovation in developing non-legal techniques to address the practice of female circumcision.137 Future innovation might harness popular culture through contemporary theater, music, and films.138 These popular forms of communication and expression can be used to eliminate one of the primary motivating forces behind female circumcision by changing aesthetic preferences and ideals that favor a circumcised woman.139 Changes in cultural ideals are a necessary precursor to legislation seeking to regulate or eradicate female circumcision at a local level.140

[*PG219]4.  A Return to Law

Despite the discouraging start for anti-circumcision legislation in many practicing countries, there are two primary areas in which a renewal of such legislation, introduced alongside non-legal strategies, currently show the most promise: the criminalization of female circumcision in clinics and hospitals141 and the utilization of international human rights covenants and discourse to address female circumcision.142

a.  Criminalization of Female Circumcision in Hospitals and Clinics

While health education remains a crucial component of efforts to educate against female genital cutting, these efforts should not proceed without laws in place that criminalize relocation of the practice to clinics and hospitals.143 Experience has shown that health-based activism works to an extent.144 That is, local citizens recognize the health problems associated with the performance of these procedures in unsanitary conditions by unprofessional practitioners using rudimentary instruments.145 Rather than abandon circumcision, however, many families have instead turned to health professionals at medical centers to have their daughters circumcised.146 Health workers are tempted to perform these procedures out of fear that a girl will be circumcised anyway, with or without their professional assistance.147

[*PG220] While medicalization is an attractive solution for saving lives in the short term,148 in the long term, medicalization could further institutionalize female circumcision in practicing societies.149 The danger is that medicalizing female circumcision not only represents a form of official sanction, but also bestows an aura of safety by removing many of the sanitation-based health concerns.150 Nonetheless, the fact remains that no matter how hygienic the hospital setting is, there may still be severe consequences for a woman’s physical health and sexuality as a result of the removal of healthy tissue and/or infibulation.151

A more compelling “medicalization” argument is a proposal to allow health professionals just to nick a patient’s prepuce, a procedure which would let out a single drop of blood and respect the symbolism of the practice without incurring negative health consequences.152 While appealing on cultural grounds, this proposal has been largely rejected by the World Health Organization (WHO) and by a number of African commentators and organizations.153 There are two problems with allowing the institutionalization of a seemingly harmless practice of this nature. First, even Professor Obiora, an outspoken African advocate of medicalization, admits that institutionalization in health centers of this symbolic version of circumcision presents a “slippery slope” between symbolic procedures and those which result in damage through the removal of tissue.154 Secondly, given the scarcity of clinics and health services, there is little likelihood that families would actually go to the trouble of bringing their daughters to professionals for such a simple procedure.155 Particularly in communities where groups of girls go through circumcision at the same time, there is a very real fear of transferring HIV through even such a [*PG221]seemingly harmless procedure as a nick or prick to the prepuce.156 Given the dangers inherent in medicalization of even mild circumcision procedures, legislation against female circumcision in the clinical setting by health professionals is important to promoting better health and education in circumcising communities.157

b.  International Human Rights Covenants

International human rights covenants and discourse suggest another possible avenue for legal involvement in anti-circumcision activism.158 Through international covenants, states join together to express their support for certain principles and expectations of how women ought to be treated in the global community.159 These expectations are recorded in written covenants, which may be binding on signatories and may exert moral pressure on non-signatories.160

The primary limitation to this approach is that international human rights agreements are dubiously effective.161 Nonetheless, there are possibilities for a measure of success through the use of international legal agreements.162 The very process of creating international consensus on an issue such as female circumcision creates a forum for discussion and brainstorming among policy makers around the world who are interested in new ways to enact change.163 Once a consensus is reached, African policy makers and activists can return to their respective countries with a more impressive moral mandate to address circumcision practices within their respective populations.164 Finally, and most importantly, international conventions provide powerful [*PG222]rhetoric to fuel grassroots efforts in practicing countries.165 Thus, while direct outside influence on national legislation has not been effective, less direct involvement by the international community for the eradication of female circumcision has the potential to support African activists in creating a mandate for eradication from their own people.166


To Western and African feminists alike, the goal of eradicating female circumcision around the world represents more than a desire to end physical pain.167 It is a movement to empower women in society to claim their equality with men as fellow human beings and eventually to further realize equality by embracing their uniqueness as women.168 In this way, Gerhard’s focus on equality, which she regards as “indispensable as a standard of justice,” will continue to shape the empowerment of women in society, as the practice of female circumcision is brought to an end.169

Law is one way to urge greater equality, in that normative values ideally form the background for well-intended legislation.170 However, anti-circumcision activists must be careful not to use law in a way that re-victimizes African women.171 In their outrage at this practice, Western feminists have turned too quickly to the institution of the law to try to end the cutting of their “sisters” in Africa.172 In so doing, since women are both the recipients and practitioners of circumcision, the victims become repainted and villainized as the abusers.173

[*PG223] Clearly the answer is not to throw all African midwives and mothers in jail through Western-imposed criminal laws. The answer is to educate women not only about why circumcising is a “bad health practice” but as to why, despite differences between the genders, women are entitled to autonomy over their bodies and over their personal decisions, both in society and in the home.174

Western feminists are only starting to realize what African women knew all along—that criminalizing circumcision or even educating against it will offer little protection until women have somewhere besides men to turn for security and sustenance.175 While Gerhard’s insistence on legal remedies may be shortsighted in the context of communities that practice female circumcision, she accurately identifies the source of women’s plight when she states that, “subordination, legal incapacity, obedience, hierarchical division of labor, and the authoritarian nature of sexual relations” are the “substance and core” of women’s dilemma.176 By targeting aspects of society, aside from circumcision practices, where women have been disempowered, activists get to the core of Gerhard’s equality-based concerns and move one step closer to ending the circumcision of women.177 In the words of Sudanese Women’s Union leader Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim:

[C]ircumcision is not the cause of a problem, but is the result of a situation . . . . The cure is not to spend lots of money to convince women to stop . . . . The solution is to educate women, raise their consciousness . . . so they will not feel in need to circumcise to keep respect.178

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