Sudanese Women in the United States

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This is a qualitative study of the experiences of circumcised Sudanese women in the United States. It looks into how immigration has affected the cultural perceptions of women, in particular their views about female circumcision (FC). Questions and conversations with the women in this study are focused on what has changed in their lives that resulted in a change of attitude or behavior. Three focus groups of women of different age groups participated in the research. One woman of each group was interviewed in depth. Open-ended questions and semi structured interviews were conducted.

The findings included changes in married women’s perception of their culture and a high level of awareness of why the change came about; a profound change in gender relations inside the home; acceptance of these changes, as good and necessary, despite strong ties with the home culture; and most importantly, an activism side to their change of attitude towards FC; it is no longer lip service to change, they have decided to take action and protect their daughters from FC. They do not see themselves as changing the culture by giving up FC, as they believe that the culture is to protect virginity and curb sexual freedom, whereas FC is only a process within the culture to ensure that virginity. They will keep the culture and do away with FC as a harmful process. The study found that this activism edge stemmed from their personal experiences of humiliation and horror during childbirth.

Younger unmarried women saw FC as a practice that deprived them of their bodily integrity and took away their ability to make their own decisions. They are still fettered by the continued control of their families in the Sudan and of the immigrant community that does not look kindly at those who break away from the culture.

Older women did not change their mind about the “benefits” of FC but saw it as detrimental to their granddaughters’ health and status in the United States. Since it is meant to benefit and young girls would face harm rather than good, they expressed willingness to accept uncircumcised granddaughters in America.


“I have had the privilege of engaging in wanasa ['talking' or 'chatting'] for many years with the Sudanese and it is most rare that the conversation should turn to such an open discussion of this ubiquitous Sudan cultural practice of female circumcision or genital cutting. The controversy over what to call this practice is dealt with decisively in this book, characteristic of the courage so often demonstrated by its scholar-activist author, Dr. Asma Abdel Halim. In this book, she is standing at the congested intersection of globalization and global migration, women’s health and empowerment, and a rising consciousness of Muslim identity, particularly among women. The publication of this book contributes in a useful way to understanding the complicated gender dynamics of Sudan, a country which has attracted far more than its share of negative news in recent years. And it vastly increases our knowledge of Muslim immigrant women in the United States and the specificity of their experience. The social change represented by the very fact that these women do leave the particularly close social circumstances of Sudan – and the special relationships with their mothers - is a poignant element of this work ...” – Professor W. Stephen Howard, Ohio University

“At last, here is a book that gives us the authentic voices of women who have had an experience they regarded as a normal part of womanhood until coming to the United States and encountering evidence of its harm to their health. What Dr. Abdel Halim shows brilliantly in the frankly-told stories of the Sudanese women she has recorded is that traditional practices lose their social benefits when separated from the social fabric to which they adhere and from which they gain strength ... Students and teachers of women and gender studies, of immigration, of African studies, of women and Islam, and of research methods will all find new and critical material for their coursework ...” – Professor Meredith Turshen, Rutgers University

“ ... The stories in this book are both uniquely insightful and yet profoundly similar to other infibulated African women here. They feel isolated, distrust Western medicine, fear labor, and feel compelled to explain or even defend FC. Dr. Abdel Halim draws on her experience as a Sudanese, an activist, a social scientist and an immigrant facing similar dilemmas. The clarity of expression and depth of analysis pulls the reader into these Sudanese women’s lives ... This book challenges readers to see Sudanese women for who they are rather than as mere symbols of a ‘barbaric’ tradition ...” – Nawal M. Nour, MD, Director, African Women’s Health Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Harvard Medical School)

Table of Contents

Foreword by W. Stephen Howard
1. Isolation in a Far-Away Land: The Story of Hajja Fatma
2. A Portrait of the Artist as Immigrant
3. Honorable Daughters: Single and Immigrant
4. It is a Matter of Education
Final Notes

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