Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs. Saida Hodžić, Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, 416 pp.
Saida Hodžić’s The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs provides a compelling feminist anthropological analysis of the waning of female genital cutting in Ghana. Based on extensive periods of fieldwork from 2002 to 2009, Hodžić integrated herself into the daily activities, formal and informal, of two NGOs, GAWW (Ghana Association for Women’s Welfare) and RHI (Rural Help Integrated). This ethnography sits at the intersection of feminist anthropology, medical anthropology of reproduction and health, anthropology of policy (“social life of law”), and anthropology of humanitarianism and human rights. Among the themes explored are governmentality, biopolitics, cultural pathology, carceral feminism, sovereign violence and governance by extraction as forms of “slow harm,” cultural significance of blood loss, and the instability of “punitive rationality” in human rights questions.
The word “twilight” has several meanings, all of which carry significance for Hodžić’s analysis. Twilight is, of course, the part of the day when daylight is almost gone but the sky is not yet dark. The sun has set on cutting in Ghana; indeed, during Hodžić’s research, anti-cutting efforts were intensified and movements for new legislation were dawning. Cutting was criminalized in Ghana in 1994, and Hodžić was able to scrutinize efforts around the law’s expansion of liability and punishment in 2007. Among the questions she considers are: “Are efforts to end female genital cutting a problem, and, if so, what kind of problem are they and for whom? For whom is the ending of cutting a problem and why?” (p. 2). What purpose is there in claiming practices continue underground; that there is resistance to anti-cutting campaigns; and that laws against cutting have failed, even when cutting is in its twilight? Her goal is to use ethnography “to transform what can be said about cutting” (p. 22), not to settle the question of whether intervention is necessary.
According to Merriam-Webster, twilight may be defined a second way as a “period of decline.” Though cutting is ending, Hodžić’s research reveals a consistent refusal to acknowledge this decline by both transnational organizations, who view the African continent as one with intractable, often cultural, problems, and regional NGOs and other development organizations, whose continued existence and motivation are predicated, similarly, on the inevitable failure of anti-cutting laws among “unruly and ungovernable northern Ghanaians” (p. 262), despite evidence to the contrary. This refusal has also beset scholarship of cutting and global feminist activism against it. Additionally, discourses of cutting’s continuation among northern, rural Ghanaians serve as a lens through which the Ghanaian state defines itself as modern, democratic, and law-abiding, while those who cut are portrayed as tradition-bound, backward, and, ultimately, foreign and Muslim. Hodžić’s analysis adeptly takes on these refusals to acknowledge a decline.
A third meaning of twilight offered by Merriam-Webster is “an intermediate state that is not clearly defined.” Throughout Hodžić’s analysis, we see NGO workers, nurses, police, judges, and others involved in anti-cutting measures occupy a fraught space of intermediate harshness that Hodžić terms “governmentality against itself.” Hodžić thereby paints a multifaceted and ambivalent picture of these individuals as both agents and subjects of governmentality. In one moment, NGOs workers may be sensitizing northern Ghanaians against “harmful traditional practices” while, in the next, struggling to respect Ghanaian culture and practice “cultural triage” as they separate the “good” practices from the “bad.” Similarly, NGOs may desire the law’s potential deterrence of circumcisers and those who seek their services, yet later disidentify with the law when it is actually enforced as multi-year prison sentences. While individual NGO workers would often cry out in disgust if punishments were not harsh enough—“She should have been given a death sentence!”—their repugnance belies the complexity of their deeper feelings on the matter.
Chapter 5 is among the book’s standout chapters and examines discourses of blood loss, both related and unrelated to cutting, among rural women in Bongo District of the Upper East Region of northern Ghana as a commentary on the structural violence they face in contexts of scarcity. What does it mean to save lives through successful anti-cutting initiatives but not save living through a broader concern for issues not owed to cutting: anemia, the struggle for food, unemployment, and unproductive land? For women in Bongo District, blood is both vital and scarce such that cutting is no longer tenable not because of what NGOs say cutting is—dangerous, outmoded, uncivilized—but because of what bodies are not—healthy enough to withstand cutting and become stronger afterward. Hodžić shows how anti-cutting campaigns focus on only one form of harm, one that may not be the most chronic, severe, or relevant, and in so doing make women no less vulnerable to suffering.
Throughout the book, Hodžić describes extensive efforts by NGOs to sensitize northern Ghanaians against “harmful traditional practices” like cutting. Whether in workshops for nurses who become less caregivers than modernizing agents or training programs for community health workers or public health outreach, harmful traditional practices are invoked and blamed for all manner of social ills. These discourses culturalize scarcity and ultimately blame northern Ghanaians for their poverty; simultaneously, they reify the barrier between the modern, educated South and the backward, tradition-bound North. By and large, as a result of these initiatives, cut women receive “more attention but less care” (p. 129). Former circumcisers feel punished, having been provided nothing to replace both their income and the life-sustaining power from the ancestors that circumcisers received by carrying out their divine call to cut.
Hodžić’s commentary is also one on our discipline, as the book directly takes on what she refers to as “the fallback position,” “an anthropological and feminist safe space” (p. 23) that situates the anthropologist as “above” imposition and deferent to the local as the site of change. From that position, the anthropologist can critique the ethnocentrists, neocolonizers, “saviors.” Hodžić asserts that owing to a legacy of suspicion of the “global sisterhood,” feminist scholars frequently occupy a similar fallback position. However, in maintaining the fallback position in what amounts to a “self-imposed silence” (p. 21), both anthropologists and feminists explain very little. They also, Hodžić shows, invoke questions, taxonomies, and sensibilities that are part of colonialism’s enduring power–knowledge. Of course, it’s not from the position of intervention (or not) into cutting that Hodžić writes; it is from a place that wonders what we lose “from a hands-off position, with its correlative injunction that freezes critical feminist anthropology while the rest of the world is on the move” (p. 24). Hodžić’s examination is one very much “on the move,” as she grapples with the complexity of cutting in Ghana in a way that defies the comfort of the fallback position.
I have taught this book successfully to undergraduates. It is conceptually dense, but the more ethnographic chapters in the middle tend to be a digestible read. This book is invaluable for courses on the anthropology of human rights for both teaching the drawbacks of uncomplicated discourses of harm as well as the value in anthropological contributions to one of the most debated feminist and reproductive health issues, one that has often been invoked to test the limits of cultural relativism. Overall an excellent case study to demonstrate how neither universalist nor relativist claims to human rights discussions are alone satisfactory, Hodžić’s ethnography illuminates the stumbling blocks of other inquiries into cutting and reveals its complex, if twilit, contours.