Reply: Feminist Anthropology as Fugitive Practice

I cannot thank the readers enough for their thoughtful and thought-provoking commentaries on The Twilight of Cutting. The beauty and creative rigor of their engagements is inspiring and humbling. Together, the commentaries raise important questions about the objects and endpoints of anthropological analysis, the modes of feminist critique, the political potential of feminist anthropological sensibility, and the challenges of legitimizing unsettling work.

I wrote this book to expand what can be said about female genital cutting as an object of political concern, seeking to understand how the desires to end cutting became as African as they are “global.” The so-called field co-evolved with my research. African (and African immigrant) activist women are now globally prominent, but are given a platform only when they can be slotted into specific, uplifting roles – the activist girl, the reformist teacher/imam/social worker. The terms of their inclusion reproduce imperial power formations in that they are treated as what Spivak (critiquing and repurposing anthropology) calls “native informants”–people who are stripped of humanity by the very gesture that grants it to them. What kinds of social worlds exceed these roles and gestures? I took it as a challenge to explore this question ethnographically.

Shifting a conversation entails saying the unexpected, something we are not already prepared for. How do we not only say something unexpected, but get it heard? As Wendland writes, female genital cutting incites a kind of fascination and antipathy, often expressed by the verdict that enough has been said, which forecloses and delegitimizes unsettling inquiries. To say something about cutting, African activism, and the entanglements of anthropology and feminism in colonial and postcolonial body politics meant addressing myself to multiple audiences and publics without knowing what they would be hospitable to. It also meant articulating a different kind of an object of analysis while trying to illuminate a world that exceeds existing interpretive frames—a world that troubles the distinctions between the here of writing and there of fieldwork; a world that is shaped but not confined by geopolitical and disciplinary boundaries.

My main object of analysis, beautifully illustrated by Pigg, is the “negative space” of problematization. I examine how and why cutting and its endings became objects of thought and action in postcolonial Ghana, where governmental (NGO/state/donor) problematizations shape the governance of everyday life by assembling biomedical, anthropological, and feminist knowledge. As an ethnography of category making, Twilight tracks the interstices of lived, embodied experience, and the governmental will to know, feel, regulate, protect, and punish.

My analysis begins with problematization, but my end point is politics. What kind of politics is unfolding and what kind of politics is yet to unfold? Shell-Duncan writes about emerging contestations of zero tolerance policies and criminalization that have made headlines all over the world. Today, in Kenya, a country whose struggle for political independence was shaped, in part, by opposition to British anti-cutting campaigns, a woman doctor is taking the anti-criminalization fight to the courts. Her oppositional work is legible as politics because it uses the language of liberalism to contest its own blind spots and shortcomings.

My main interest is in showing that there is more to law than liberal politics and more to opposition to law than reversals. The politics of cut Ghanaian women is not a liberal politics that can be waged in court; they are not interested in decriminalizing cutting. The target of their desires and grievances are the terms of political inclusion that bring them into the fold of national and transnational governmentality only to exploit them. I am drawn to examining the opposition to politics understood as this broader exercise of governmental power. Problematization unwittingly reconfigures the ethics of social relationships and foments political opposition from within (“governmentality against itself”). The civil servants and NGO workers who contest criminalization of cutting do so not in courts, but in their daily practices of rule; those most involved in enforcing them eventually disidentify with the brutality of sovereign violence.

Drawing a negative space performs a gesture of its own: it allows two shapes to come into view. Indeed, throughout the book, my main mode of analysis is both/and. For instance, the fleshed body is crucial to my analysis but I illuminate a fleshed body that has already been materialized by governmental power. The point is that there is no body prior to body politics, and that there is no body politics of cutting without anthropology and feminism. I take anthropology and feminism as ethnographic objects in their own right. As forms of knowledge and practice, anthropology and feminism have participated in imperialism and its ongoing debris, and, have helped constitute the very object (the problem of female genital cutting/FGM/ circumcision) that is too often imagined as existing “out there,” external to knowledge production. In shaping the category itself, they have also shaped the experience of it.

This argument is not a denunciation of these fields. Anthropology and feminism were formative of colonial logics, taxonomies, and practices of rule and have helped carry them into the presentat the same time as they also challenged both imperialism and its postcolonial rearticulations. Understanding that we have helped make the problem of cutting, that we are fully constitutive of it, makes for a messier, but also more productive and self-aware political terrain for research and writing. Much of the book pivots around the implications of this argument – that the people, institutions, and knowledge practices inside of power are also often the fulcrum of opposition to it.

Grewal invites us to reconsider the reach and politics of feminist anthropology. Historically, feminism and anthropology were often understood as related but incompatible fields that could not meaningfully challenge each other. A generation of anthropologists sympathetic to feminist studies but at a critical distance from its Eurocentric instantiations and abuses of anthropology have shaped the notion of a tension between fields conceptualized as fundamentally different. I pursue a different, less canonized story about the interstices of feminism and anthropology and their potential to shift each other’s trajectories. Rather than rejecting feminist theories of governance feminism and left legalism, I show them to be insufficient and wrong-headed, because they are unaware of how their alignment with neo-imperialism shores up the Global North’s moral and epistemic privilege. Twilight offers an alternative to theorizing from a distance: a feminist anthropological sensibility for analyzing nearby and from the South.

My own critique of feminist theory is neither external nor entirely internal to its object, to paraphrase Wilson’s helpful wording. I carve out a third, both/and space that is grounded in anthropology and feminism but challenges some of their most sacred premises. I respond to what Joan Scott calls the feminist impulse to self-critique that disturbs settled expectations and examines the very categories that organize feminist thought and action. The point of self-critique is, Scott writes, “not to tear down or destroy but, by bringing to light the limits and inconsistencies that have been studiously avoided, to open up new possibilities” (Scott 2008, 7).

The feminist self I invoke here is a non-identical, feminist bastard self. “Profane on a sacred land” (Trinh 1989, 1). I have been inspired by a genealogy of postcolonial analysis that takes both feminism and anthropology seriously but challenges them both, and is, in some sense, a fugitive from both. This sensibility derives from anthropological practice and postcolonial feminist analysis, but unsettles their organizing principles. This is a fugitive sensibility that does not seek to be faithful to the originating commitments of the two fields.

Grewal asks of The Twilight of Cutting if there is “any feminism left standing either as politics or as the site of enunciation?” Feminism as a site of enunciation (if to enunciate is to make a definite or systematic statement) lives on, but I see enunciation as a beginning, an accompanying political principle, a guiding force, an object of analysis, and many other things, but not a final conclusion or a point of arrival. An ethnography of feminist activism studies what is done with enunciations. For, ultimately, what matters is not what is said, but where and how it is said, to whom, and, as I argue in the book, what is done with it. This awareness – that my enunciations are far less socially consequential than those of Ghanaians who are implicated in governance of everyday life – shapes how I think about the rhetorics and value of political enunciations. I see much that is damaging and wrong in anti-cutting campaigns and show how Ghanaians are addressing those wrongs at the national level. How can those of us who reside in the global North live up to our responsibility for what is done here? This is why I argue that repositioning feminism is more important than taking a feminist stance. Feminist anthropology as a fugitive practice is as unsettling as it is unsettled.

Finally, then, when do we know that we know enough? I would not wish for my book to be the final word – nor will it be, for there is a new generation of scholars who ask new questions that take cutting as a point of departure or insist that anthropology and feminism are yet to be decolonized. We may yet be surprised by what we do not know. We should hope to continue to be unsettled.


Works Cited 

Scott, J. W. 2008. “Introduction: Feminism’s Critical Edge.” In Women’s Studies on the Edge, edited by J. W. Scott, 1-13. W. Durham: Duke University Press.

Trinh, T. M. 1989. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Saida Hodž is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. She has conducted research in Ghana, the United States, and Europe on the intersections of human rights and humanitarianism, science and global health, the underside of violence, and asylum and refugee governance. She is currently writing an experimental ethnography titled Humanitarian Encounters: Affective Afterlives of War and Violence and starting new field research on the environmental and social cost of Bosnian weapons production.