"It is difficult for me — considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own — to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to — they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers."
Personally, I find the idea of FGC horrifying, and find it hard to believe that anyone would want to undergo it voluntarily. I also find it hard to understand how mutilating each other can be a way for women to legitimate their authority and "relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society" (the phrase 'cutting of your nose to spite your face' comes to mind – only these aren't noses). But that, of course, is precisely Dr. Ahmadu's point – I don't understand it because I come from an outside culture, and therefore I shouldn't judge.
The question we need to ask, I think, is who gets to decide and define what 'culture' is. If we really believe that the local culture is representative of the desires and aspirations of all its subjects, then the supporters of FGC have a point, no matter how noxious this may seem to us as outsiders. But we know (or at least have strong reason to suspect) that culture is nowhere near so representative. Instead, it is invariably a way of legitimizing existing hierarchies of power and privilege – defined by those in power and designed to serve their interests. Arguments for cultural legitimacy are therefore inseparable, in the feminist context, from arguments for patriarchy, precisely because traditional cultures are almost universally patriarchal. You have only to think of the people who style themselves champions / guardians of culture in India to see the truth of this.
Put another way, the problem is one of selection. If we are concerned about the way society, or a set of social practices, systematically oppresses a section of its members, we cannot rely on society's own representation of these practices, because it is precisely those we don't hear from - those who have no voice in society's self-definition - who we are most concerned about. It's not surprising, in some ways, that women anthropologists who have undergone FGC turn out to be in favor of it and underwent it voluntarily. Women who weren't in favor of it and were forced into it anyway are hardly likely to end up as anthropologists. The AAA quote describes FGC supporters as the 'muted group', but I think there's a constituency here with even less say in the debate – those who are being forced into FGC against their will – and it's their concerns, and only their concerns, that should matter. Ahmadu's own statement hardly inspires much confidence: she offers "that the bulk of Kono women who uphold this ritual do so because they want to" based on no evidence greater than what she's seen at the ceremonies she's personally attended. That's hardly conclusive research.
Does this mean that cultural imperialism is inevitable? Not quite. Notice that it's only 'imperialism' if we attack cultural standards in some parts of the world while not questioning those in others. Those who criticize the Western practices of vaginal rejuvenation and cosmetic surgery have a point, and we should certainly recognize that these practices represent attitudes as backward as those that lead women to consider FGC empowering.
But why, you may ask, should women not have the right to undergo FGC if they want to? After all, it's their body, so it should be their choice. To argue that their desire to have the procedure is false or misguided in some way - that they have been somehow 'brainwashed' into believing that it's what they want - is to fall into the very trap of cultural imperialism that Ahmadu and others are pointing to. So why not leave it up to the women in question?
What it comes down to, I think, is informed consent. To the extent that the person undergoing the procedure is genuinely doing so of her own free will, having understood the implications of that decision, then Ahmadu and others are right – she should have the right to do so. Notice, however, that this rules out all cases of FGC in children – since the inability of children to make responsible and informed decisions is a central tenet of any and all legal systems. So FGC in girls under 18 should clearly be outlawed.
That leaves the issue of FGC in adult women. There the question of whether or not FGC should be outlawed comes down to a judgment on the extent to which women 'choosing' to undergo FGC truly have the economic / social freedom to accept or reject the procedure, as well as the extent to which information about the procedure is available to them (both in terms of the medical consequences, as well as the true legitimacy of the practice – its not being enshrined in the Koran, for instance). If we believe that a significant number of women are subject to misinformation and coercion then we must balance the need to protect them against the possible dilution of traditional 'culture'.
For me, personally, the possibility of such cruel victimization supersedes any and all concerns about preservation of 'culture', but admittedly, that's a value judgment. What's important to recognize however, is that arguments in favor of FGC as a 'cultural phenomena' achieve cultural preservation at the cost of preserving patriarchal power and leaving a potentially large but silent population of women exposed to continued victimization. That's the trade-off supporters of FGC are arguing for.