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In addition to the immediate risks of bleeding, shock, and sepsis and the longer term risks of infertility, infection, and obstructed labor, there is an increasing concern in medical circles that unsterilized instruments may be spreading the AIDS virus, particularly when group circumcisions are performed.
In her essay "Traditions Against Health: The continuation of one of these traditions remains baffling to those who understand its consequences, feel its impact on their lives, and suffer from its application" Koso Thomas Numerous groups in Africa today are grappling with these practices, which have proven harmful to women and girls, in an attempt to end them once and for all. Increasingly, female circumcision is becoming a focus of eradication programs throughout those African communities in which it is practiced.
The well informed efforts of African men and women to extirpate female circumcision are an obvious sign of significant social transformations that testify to new and emerging forms of internal self criticism and cultural change. Organizations have adopted comprehensive strategies to persuade people to abandon the practice by articulating this initiative in culturally acceptable terminology and by employing legal, medical, political, and economic means to foster women's political representation and ability to partake in decision making processes.
However, these organizations are well aware that female circumcision cannot be targeted for eradication in isolation from other equally pressing problems affecting the welfare of individuals and communities.
Any meaningful discussion dealing with the question of female circumcision should heed the importance of terminology. As David Palmer argues, "language is the stage on which consciousness makes its historical entrance and politics is scripted" Palmer Attention to language is vital to understanding the political and ideological debates that surround the subject of circumcision.
As the chapters in this volume make clear, the debates on what terms to use to describe these practices extend well beyond words. These practices, which have commanded the attention of Christian missionaries, colonial governments, human rights activists, health providers, and feminists, have come to be widely known as female genital mutilation FGM.
The Technical Working Group of the World Health Organization agreed that the adoption of Female Genital Mutilation FGM as a standard term for these practices is essential for research, training, planning, policy making, and formulating appropriate legislation at all levels WHO Participants stressed that the term FGM should include the physical, psychological, and human rights aspects of the practice WHO Some nongovernmental organizations have chosen to adopt female genital cutting FGC , a medical term which appears to be more neutral and sensitive to local beliefs.
Terminology cannot be isolated from the political discourse from which it emanates, or from devising suitable approaches to end the practice.
The term circumcision is used because it translates directly into African languages and because researchers have found that using FGM alienates those who still support the practice and must be persuaded to relinquish it. After all, these practitioners are the most important players in any effort aiming at obliterating the practice from society. Contributors who choose to use female genital mutilation explain how terminology figured in their particular experiences in the field with shifting attitudes within local communities; this matter is especially salient in Mohamud, Radney, and Ringheim's discussion of the Alternative Rites of Passage program in Kenya and Abdel Hadi's analysis of the abandonment of the practice in Deir El Barsha, a village in rural Egypt.
Beyond the diversity of terminology used in this volume, the question remains: Is female circumcision a vicious act of mutilation and injury, or a virtuous act of purity and rectitude?
Two opposing views dominate current debates, one authorizing cultural accommodation and the other advocating the observance of universal standards of human rights. The former view has been widely vilified for sanctioning violence under the guise of culture, and the latter has been reproved for its ethnocentric stance toward cultural rights.
The fundamental ideas embedded in these divergent viewpoints toward the practice deserve consideration. Both practitioners and scholars endorsing accommodation of cultural difference and the "free exercise of culture" proclaim that reducing the ritual to a crime, as missionary, colonial, and feminist discourses have done, reflects the inability to "read and to see and to hear female genital mutilation as a series of complex social practices and signifiers which circulate in many other practices and signifiers to produce mutable and mutating and mutual social texts" Fraser Anthropologists have made significant contributions illuminating the motives for these rituals and the cultural contexts within which female circumcision is carried out e.
Insofar as a culture is a "society's repertory of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns" Harris In the words of Michael Ignatieff, "Increasing the freedom of people to exercise their rights depends on close cultural understandings of the frameworks that often constrain choice" Ignatieff Indeed, awareness of the body of knowledge, capabilities, and habits associated with female circumcision is key to the comprehension of its persistence across time and locales.
Understanding the reasons behind these practices, however, does not imply that we should close our eyes to the effects of the practice on women's bodies. Rather, such knowledge helps us understand why this rite has met with the approval of its adherents for thousands of years.
I remember every detail of that operation, and that the worst part was when the wound became infected and I had to be given five injections of penicillin by the operator, a qualified nurse. From that time, I began to think, to wonder why girls are circumcised and to learn more about it" El Dareer The multiplicity of reasons advanced to explain why female circumcision is practiced all underscore the centrality of these practices in the formation of social identities across practicing communities.
Why, then, do women subject themselves and their daughters to this unmistakably harmful tradition? To chart an episteme or a configurational interpretation of these practices, we must analyze the particular contexts within which such practices come to be accepted and upheld Abusharaf , ; Shweder Many decades ago, Ruth Benedict argued that in all studies of social custom, the crux of the matter is that the behavior under consideration must pass through the needle's eye of social acceptance, and only viewing history in its widest sense can give an account of these acceptances and rejections Benedict Despite the austere nature of this ritual, its practitioners have attached important symbolic qualities to it.
Not only have they come to accept the practice, but they also cling to it with conviction. From the standpoint of adherents, the performance of tahara invites an abundance of exultation, happiness, and joy. Such enthusiasm and devotion are rationalized on several grounds and supported by explanations that help spell out why this contested tradition continues to enjoy such a strong hold on people in many societies today. Supporters attest to its significance in defining and reinforcing ethnicity.
Because the justifications of the practice as a vehicle for making ethnic boundaries are forcefully engraved in the consciousness of the community, few could acknowledge the legitimacy of anti circumcision messages. In a study unraveling the magnitude and characteristics of practitioner in West Africa, Diop et al. The authors stated, "Consideration of numerous characteristics suggests that those that are most significant in Burkina Faso are Islamism and ethnicity specifically the Mossi.
The probability of being circumcised is three times higher among the Mossi and twice as high for Muslim girls. Common rationalizations for the continuation of the practice include its role in shaping and defining feminine sexuality and gender, aesthetics, tradition, and religiosity, through which "cultural meanings are renewed and recreated on a stage as wide as society itself" Diamond In spite of the continued physical suffering that envelopes genital excision, it remains a powerful celebration of, and homage to, what is desirable and considered befitting in specific communities.
As I have argued elsewhere Abusharaf , not only have these supporters discounted the severe nature of the surgery, but they also continue to stress its symbolism and metaphoricity.
Suffering and pain, they confirm, subside in the face of joy and pride, which form emotional attachments among girls who undergo the practice together as initiates, as well as between themselves and their sponsors and spectators.
This process, as several studies on ritual symbolism indicate, represents the alphabet of gender conditioning. According to Audrey Richards, the importance of symbolism in ritual secures a kind of emotional compromise, which satisfies the majority of the individuals who compose a society and support its major institutions Richards Female circumcision, analogous to other rites of initiation, can be seen as a way to metamorphose "the physical body into a sort of social filter able to contain within a social form, biological forces and libidinal energies that lie beneath" Turner It is clear that this practice is entangled in an ideological web of social relations in a given community of practitioners.
This conception not only illuminates the ways in which ideology shapes practices, but also contributes to comprehension of how emotional ties to specific rituals take hold and prosper. In the course of the elaborate festivities and the rites associated with genital alterations, pain and suffering are appropriated and employed as techniques for creating social cohesion and gender solidarity.
Following the ritual girls become adults, while those who are uncircumcised may not be vested with this rank whatever their age. As far as adherents of the practice are concerned, an uncircumcised female is not a woman.
Because of the nature of this belief, its effects on consciousness cannot be underestimated. Not only do these rites initiate new roles and expectations for young women, but they also guarantee the strength of the group. Within this complex ideology, this ritual tahara provides a dramatic illustration of how emotions can play a critical role in cementing a practice that may otherwise seem detrimental and reprehensible. One of the most fruitful approaches to persuading people to abandon this practice is to draw attention to these wide-ranging cultural views.
Passing laws is a necessary but not sufficient measure if these laws do not take into account local views. As Geertz argues, "Like sailing, gardening, politics, and poetry, law and ethnography are crafts of place: Understanding the complexity of local knowledge on the custom from a woman's standpoint is critical.
A former circumciser in the Ivory Coast who became one of the most vocal opponents of the practice expressed concerns about bans or other coercive strategies that ignore the cultural context within which female circumcision is performed.
Gueri Agnes Kone argued that there are major problems regarding the impact of a ban on a community: First, the mystical and spiritual elements associated with circumcision ceremonies, such as masks and masquerades accompanying the practice, represent spirits that are believed to protect both the practitioner and the circumcised girl.
Banning the practice may therefore generate a sense of spiritual vulnerability quoted in Awaken In light of this set of cultural understandings, the practice is hardly thought of as a human rights issue, let alone as discrimination.
Proponents of cultural accommodation have been taken to task for advancing culture at the expense of rights. For example, in his essay "Idols of Our Tribes? Relativism, Truth and Falsity in Ethnographic Fieldwork and Cross-cultural Interaction," Robert Shanafelt argues, "While it may be the diffusion of relativist methodology and ideals of tolerance that is anthropology's greatest contribution to cross cultural understanding, this is only a temporary solution to the problem of evaluation whose weaknesses are revealed as the world increasingly globalizes" Shanafelt From a universalistic standpoint, the reasons proposed by proponents of cultural rights are nothing but excuses for committing acts of violence against women.
The universalist claims are strongly rendered in Ashley Montagu's "Mutilated Humanity": Were we to adopt such a name for our species, it might focus our attention upon what is wrong with us and where we might begin setting ourselves right. From this standpoint, female circumcision is seen as a form of violence against women, indistinguishable from murder, rape, trafficking, forced prostitution, physical and emotional abuse, stalking, and sexual harassment.
Proponents argue that female circumcision infringes upon human rights conventions that protect and defend women and children from violence and aggression. Seven conventions are cited in support of the argument that this constitutes a human rights violation: In light of the issues asserted at conventions, the practice is considered as a human rights violation because it transgresses three primary accepted protections: The effects of circumcision hinge on the type of surgery, the proficiency of the circumciser, and the circumstances under which the operation was performed.
According to Olayinka Koso-Thomas, negative effects occur at six stages: According to Jones et al. This study, which focused on the practice as a reproductive health issue in clinics in Mali and Burkina Faso, concluded that most of the people are not acquainted with the harmful aspect of the practice, and thus both men and women accept the practice.
The literature shows that more often than not, persons with no medical training or knowledge carry out these surgeries. Female circumcision is seen as a ghastly form of child abuse since children have no say whatsoever about the practice. Girls have no ability to speak against undergoing it; whether they wish their genitals to be cut or not is not important from the adults' point of view. In view of the absence of informed consent, female circumcision is seen as a violation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which emphasizes "children must be guaranteed the opportunity to develop physically in a healthy and normal way" Boulware-Miller, Relying on liberal notions of autonomy and individuality, those who invoke the right to bodily integrity embrace a universalized discourse on sexuality, the body, and subjectivity.
Consequently, female circumcision is seen as a form of castration that removes the women's organ of sexual pleasure and in so doing violates their fundamental rights. It has the obligatory role of activation establishment of the epigenetic connection of orgasmic circuit. If this neutral reflex circuit is not active during childhood it will never be functional. In the months or years following first coition, intra vaginal penetration cannot trigger an orgasm unless this circuit is functional.
Ablation of the clitoris during the infancy prevents the establishment of the reflex circuit, and the woman will never be able to experience clitoral or vaginal pleasure" Zwang Karim and Ammar's study of female circumcision and sexual desire seems to bear out Zwang's analysis. The authors found that among Egyptian women, sexual desire, although not markedly decreased, was qualitatively affected, since orgasm relies on greater stimulation of all the sex organs Karim and Ammar Some members from communities practicing female circumcision disagree; they affirm the notion that circumcision does not interfere with sexual desire or with their ability to experience pleasure in any way.
As Adrienne Rich, the American feminist poet, has remarked: Closely related to matters of terminology and universalistic human rights assumptions is the global feminist discourse on female circumcision. Feminists have portrayed the practice as a symptom of female victimization by male authority and an attempt to control women's sexuality e. This position betrays an unsettling propensity to homogenize representations of African women as helpless victims of patriarchal ideologies and norms.
The practice has come to occupy an exceptional position in literary and nonfiction works relying heavily on a genre of horror and horrific imagery to highlight its gruesome, sadistic nature Abusharaf The operation is performed on the outskirts of the village in the presence of the assembled adult female relatives of the candidates for the operations.
In some villages, the operation is done at the site where the women make pottery. Each girl is seated on an earthen jar, which is turned upside down. Three adult female relatives stand behind her and hold her.
With the legs spread apart, the operator takes hold of the clitoris and amputates it with a swift cut of a knife or razor. The amputated clitoris is buried or thrown into a rat hole" Imperato, quoted in Hosken Such representations have undoubtedly shaped the feminist debate on the subject, evoking a discourse that questions the very cultural premises that poetize and legitimize the ritual among its devotees.
Indeed, these representations and lacunae, which are so cogently established in the study of African women, have had devastating consequences. According to Richard Shweder, this global discourse "portrays African mothers as mutilators, murderers, and torturers of their children"; he suggests that "we should be dubious of representations that suggest African mothers are bad mothers, or that First World mothers have a better idea of what it means to be a good mother" Shweder The depiction of Africans as cruel and uncivilized in feminist representational discourses created considerable disapproval and remonstration; these discourses are seen as a continuation of "imperial meaning making" in which Africa and African women are constantly thought of in non African terms.
Viewing African women primarily as victims of patriarchy, Hanny Lightfoot-Klein labeled them "prisoners of ritual" Lightfoot-Klein , This travelogue, which the New York Times Book Review praised as a "superb account of what Lightfoot Klein discovered," has is little to say about African adaptability or responsiveness to change. This notion has overwhelming consequences for sculpting the feminist discourse on female circumcision in the Western world for recent critiques, see James and Robertson , and Chanock Take, for example, the Beijing Decade of Women's Conference Platform of Action, which stated that women's rights are human rights.
This declaration stresses the universality and indivisibility of human rights. It validates the philosophical line of reasoning that since human rights emanate from an essential human nature we all share, these rights are fundamentally universal, interconnected, and indivisible. Women's rights as human rights are founded on the central principle that men and women have equal rights by virtue of their humanity CRLP As Machan acknowledges, the idea of human rights implies that "certain unifying principles of social conduct based on our understanding of what it is to be human, deserves systematic protection by legal enforcement" Machan No doubt, the notion of women's rights not only amplifies the possibilities of international law but also allows women the leeway to make international legal claims, as has been extensively examined by the legal scholar Hillary Charlesworth Indeed the idea of women's rights, human rights, and feminism as a proposition for change as well as a political movement that struggles to put an end to the subjugation of women has received significant support across geopolitical and cultural frontiers.
However, there are critical divergences within feminism both as theory and praxis that need to be explored, especially those dealing with the representational discourses on female circumcision.
A synopsis of critiques of mainstream feminists has special bearing on this matter. In the United States and Western Europe, mainstream feminism has come under considerable disapproval for discounting the existential realities that shape women's lives in less privileged circumstances see Alexander and Mohanty , Basu , Mohanty , Paravisin Gerbert Mainstream feminists' focus on gender and male dominance at the expense of other forms of difference and hierarchy that weigh heavily in defining women's place in society has been the central point of criticism by feminists in developing countries.
To steer clear of the predilection to "fetishize" African women, Sondra Hale urges "white feminists to self interrogate, calling on us always to be suspicious of our ideas and beliefs, and to work on ways of being effective invited allies" Hale Although many African women would recognize the influence of gender in shaping their lives, the common victimization narrative is often privileged at the expense of a thorough consideration of the systemic nature of oppression itself.
Johnetta Cole cogently and correctly argues that "without denying the influence, and indeed the importance of tradition and culture, and without minimizing the pain that women can feel from bigoted attitudes and behavior, we can say with overwhelming evidence that the condition of women in society is fundamentally a reflection of economic structures and dependency" Cole Because of the critical consequence of class in the determination of women's lives, Gayle Rubin posited, "There is no theory which accounts for the oppression of women—in its endless variety and monotonous similarity, cross culturally and throughout history—with anything like the explanatory power of the Marxist theory of class oppression" Rubin While gender and class are particularly decisive elements of women's experiences, no singular explanation can sufficiently explain the degradation of women's status cross culturally see O'Barr To escape reductionism, it is necessary to be aware of the various subject positions, or, to borrow Homi Bhabha's phrase, "strategies of selfhood," which qualifies race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, and sexual orientation Bhabha Disregarding these subject positions has led many women from non-Western societies to "feel foreign in feminism" see Lam The feminist debate over women's rights as human rights poses complex questions surrounding the applicability of human rights laws under specific cultural, political, social, and economic conditions, particularly in the developing world.
According to one Nigerian lawyer quoted in Cook The severity of socioeconomic problems faced by women in countries undergoing structural adjustment may require basic needs strategy rather than rights strategy. However, such reliance presupposes the availability of institutions that may not exist in viable forms across cultures" Obiora The pressure to conform to cultural convictions is undoubtedly immense.
For example, through persuasion and dialogue Amna Mahgoub Osman, a Sudanese feminist, succeeded in convincing tens of relatives to stop the practice; when she encountered tenacious opposition, she persuaded them to choose the mildest form of partial clitoridectomy. One of her relatives recounted the conversation she had had with Amna: She said to me 'Khadjia: You should instill good values in your daughters and help them be strong young women.
Circumcision is not going to inculcate good values, only life-long injuries. My older daughters are infibulated, the middle ones are excised, and the three young ones are uncircumcised. Amna was one of the closest people to me in this world. She helped me change my mind. Similar cases across Africa demonstrate that those opposing female circumcision can act without offending believers' sensibilities. In Guinea-Bissau, Aja Tonnkara Diallo Fatimata, a female gynecologist, performs fake operations; her simulation has spared thousands of girls from the harm of surgery while satisfying the relatives who pressure them to undergo the procedure San Diego Union-Tribune , 1 January , quoted in Awaken.
Such stories show that the "prisoners of ritual" are taking impressive steps towards ending the practice and are emerging as "subjects of their own history" Magubane and Faris It is therefore, imperative to heed Obiora's compelling proposal: All things being equal, they are best equipped to inspire critical attitudes and formulate efficient levels of change with more emphasis on grounding than upon attaining triumphs which are unsupported by the rest of the culture" Obiora Recent years have witnessed a marked proliferation in the literature dealing with female circumcision across disciplinary boundaries.
Anthropological literature on the subject has advanced our knowledge of the symbolic contexts within which female circumcision is performed and sustained.
Although this knowledge is crucially important, little has been done to record how these symbolic systems change over time. In spite of the heavy weight that society places on individuals and communities to conform to its dictates and conventions, numerous examples of resistance demonstrate women's adaptability and receptivity to change—and even, happily, their ability to initiate and achieve social transformation in accordance with their own interests.
As the studies in this volume demonstrate, cultural patterns do not continue in a static mode, as if frozen in time. Cultural traditions might come to be challenged in the name of the very principles and moralities to which they claim commitments and loyalties Abul Fadl This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.
You can help by expanding it with reliably sourced entries. MIT's founder, William Barton Rogers , regarded the practice of giving honorary degrees as 'literary almsgiving …of spurious merit and noisy popularity.
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The New York Times. Retrieved January 10, Archived from the original on January 17, Retrieved January 29, El Universal Mexico City. Legatum Center for Technology and Development. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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