Engaging anthropology — without apology

In response to my blog on 8 June, 2022, my friend and colleague Dr. Diana Fox, professor and chair of the anthropology department at Bridegwater State Universty, responded:

“Tobe, this is such a powerful piece. I do believe that feminist anthropologists have changed their relativism and Geertzian views, although honestly, since The Female Circumcision Controversy, tragically misnomered, I haven’t followed closely my own discipline’s approach outside of my close colleagues. In general, relativism today is regarded not as a moral philosophy that excludes ‘outsider/insider’ anthropological possibility of condemnation but a methodology for understanding and documentation as you have done and continue to do. The embrace of human rights by anthropology (moving beyond early Herskovitzian ‘western imposition’ narratives in a skewed effort to break away from our discipline’s colonial past) employs relativism to better understand transformational intervention. And influenced by Black feminist scholar-activism we need to ask, what have we learned from this to ramp up these kinds of interventions so that the finish line doesn’t keep disappearing? How can we draw parallels with broader violence against girls and women, challenges that never seem to end in the face of persistent misogyny while also being attuned to disrupting local narratives that normalize widespread misogyny through cultural processes?”

I answered: “THANK YOU! You won’t mind if I quote your response in another blog? I came across at least one letter to the editor of an anthropology peer-reviewed journal deploring the appearance of wishy-washy ethics among members of the guild. But that was a long time ago. What you’ve given me is good news!”

See profile for Fox, Diana

“Yes, of course,” Diana wrote back. “My brother is an international human rights lawyer and there is an enduring perception among his colleagues that Anthro remains where it was decades ago. I’m glad to be able to offer some news. My own colleague, at BSU from Senegal, who teaches about FGM through the lens of human rights in her global health and African ethnomedicine courses and shows Sembene’s film, is a good example of how that false dichotomy (interrogated in your piece) between academics and activists is being disrupted. Share away!”

So — here we are, thrust into a potentially heated discussion.

And because a post is incomplete without a visual, here is the reason I’m concluding this blog in Berlin. We are mourning the passing of Ika Hügel-Marshall whose benefit to and influence on the movement to recognize Afro-Germans and fight bias cannot be overstated. As Dr. Dagmar Schultz’s partner, — both women were close friends of Audre Lorde–, Ika also supported our work against FGM. (You’ll find Dagmar in earlier posts about the baby steps of German activists to end excision and infibulation. In 1982, she joined me in Senegal at perhaps the very first African university conference on ‘harmful traditional practices’, especially FGM, organized by Awa Thiam, author of La Parole aux négresses published in 1978.)

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